Asiatic Golden Cat! Eaglenest WLS & Assam, March 2022: Trip Report

Author: Ravi Kailas

Dates

March 5th to 13th 2022

Itinerary Outline
  • Day 1, Tenga (Evening to Lama Camp, Eaglenest WLS, and back)
  • Day 2, 3, 4, Bompu Camp (Eaglenest WLS, explored the forest via roads leading up towards Eaglenest Pass and down to Kellong. Various timings)
  • Day 5, Mandala Top (Evening exploration along the roads leading to Phudung and Dirang)
  • Day 6, Kaziranga NP (Explored Central Zone on Day 7 AM)
  • Day 7 & 8, Hollongappar Gibbon Sanctuary (Day 8 AM and PM)

A mammal-watching oriented guided trip, hosting Stuart Chapman, an elite wild cat lister and career conservationist, kicked off with a frenetic effort to find a duo of among the Earth’s most elusive wild cat species (namely Marbled and Asiatic Golden Cats, that hold this dubious distinction), at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, before easing into a brief megafauna and primate fest in the Kaziranga landscape of Assam. The highlight of the trip, without a doubt, was a fulfilling eyeful of the rarely seen Asiatic Golden Cat. There were also a handful of Bhutan Giant Flying Squirrel, Himalayan Brown Goral, Himalayan Palm Civet and range restricted Arunachal Macaque at Eaglenest, and, though, we were in the landscape just a week or so after some very lucky researchers had seen a pair of Marbled Cat on the road, in broad daylight (around noon), feeding on a (rather less fortunate?) Orange-bellied Squirrel, to top it off (!), we did not have luck with this species. To put things in context, this is a sanctuary, where, anecdotal evidence suggests, that both Golden and Marbled Cats are seen relatively regularly (more so the Golden). It also helps, of interest to those especially looking for these elusive felids, that there is a 50km or so, virtually undisturbed road that winds through the sanctuary, covering an elevational range from 800m at Kellong to 2800m at Eaglenest Pass. Although a promisingly long and lonely route, the density of mammal life that we saw, barring sudden spurts in sightings of Bhutan Giant Flying Squirrel in a narrow elevational belt (1800m to 2300m), was quite low.

We visited the mountains at the cusp of Spring, but only a fortnight or so after unusually heavy snow blanketed the Eaglenest region, which kept the bird activity, in this among the premier birding destinations of the world, more subdued than normal, as per our knowledgeable local guide, Dombe. We did, however, see species like Himalayan Cutia, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Hill Partridge and Mountain Scops Owl, incidentally, in passive ‘efforts’ at birding. Flowering plants, including Rhododendron, especially in the 1800m to 2300m elevation, added a dash of colour to these scenic, biodiverse hill forests.

In stark contrast to the low density of mammals in the Eaglenest region, the abundance of wildlife in the Kaziranga landscape, was, as always, quite astonishing. In one morning at the park’s Central Zone, we saw innumerable Indian One-horned Rhinoceros, Asian Water Buffalo, Swamp Deer, Hog Deer, fewer Asian Elephant, and local specialities like the rare Assam Roofed Turtle and the endangered Bengal Florican. A morning at the Hollongappar Gibbon Sanctuary was equally productive, with five species of primates, including Western Hoolock Gibbon and a satisfactorily relaxed sighting of the normally well-hidden in leech infested forest, Stump-tailed Macaque, feeding and grooming on a copiously fruiting Ficus tree, among the highlights.

Highlights from a morning at Hollongappar Gibbon Sanctuary
That Golden (Cat) moment and a bit
This shaky hand/ dim light induced apology of an image, does little justice to either our sighting or the cat’s rather more attractive backside

It was late evening, as we were returning back to Bompu from Sunderview, when Dombe’s keen eyes noticed something hiding at the base of bamboo thickets in a sloped, landslide induced clearing. After much effort at piecing together the identity of the creature, and based on some photographic evidence that Stuart managed to gather in the dim light, it appeared that the animal had to be a golden cat. The thirty minutes or so looking, though, did not produce any further, conclusive evidence of it’s id (except what appeared to be a cat like face, fixed on a golden brown coat, supported by the evidence from an unclear photograph). As we were contemplating the above, the ‘cat’ vanished and we moved on, with a subdued sense of excitement that we had ‘seen’ a Asiatic Golden Cat (with a nagging doubt that it could have been a Munjtac and that were just imagining things). A kilometre or so down the road, Dombe called out “Barking Deer”, just as the culprit emerged, amidst the rustle of undergrowth, down a 10 foot drop to find itself about a metre to the left of our car. It took of couple of unreal seconds to fathom that what were seeing was actually a Golden Cat, as it walked onto the road, in front of the car looked back momentarily, showing itself off in all its glory, cat face and all, before walking about 100m down the road and disappearing up an animal path! It was almost as though the cat wanted to be seen, to banish any doubts that we might have had from our earlier sighting, or perhaps there is a “cat god” (catwatcher’s?) after all!? This sighting occurred approximately halfway between the watchtower at Chaku and the Bompu camp, a section of road with a reputation (among local guides and researchers) for most Golden Cat sightings in the landscape.

Logistics Etc

Can’t go far without acknowledging the role of Dombe, our local guide, in making the Eaglenest leg our of trip memorable. Despite his self-proclaimed inexperience guiding mammalwatching trips, he turned out to have rather excellent field skills for the pursuit. He was also a personable and reassuring presence in this remote region. Our driver, Dhan Nath, while not a local, was also invaluable for his excellent field driving skills and his willingness to drive us around at, inevitably, odd times. Thanks to Mr Gaurav Kataria of Eaglenest Birding for help with the logistics at Eaglenest, and especially for arranging the hard to get entry permit to Arunachal Pradesh for Stuart.

We stayed at simple, but clean and comfortable accommodations at Eaglenest Residency in Tenga, the camp site at Bompu (the local Shertupken tribe are stake holders in this set up), Mandala Birding Lodge at Mandala and The Gibbon Homestay near the Hollongappar Gibbon Sanctuary.

List of Mammals Seen

Eaglenest Landscape (Including Mandala Top)

  • Assamese Macaque
  • Arunachal Macaque
  • Capped Langur
  • Himalayan Palm Civet
  • Asiatic Golden Cat
  • Gaur
  • Himalayan Brown Goral
  • Indian Munjtac
  • Bhutan Giant Flying Squirrel
  • Himalayan Striped Squirrel
  • Orange-bellied Himalayan Squirrel
  • Pallas’s Squirrel
  • Hoary-bellied Himalayan Squirrel

Kaziranga and Surroundings

  • Hoary-bellied Himalayan Squirrel
  • Rhesus Macaque
  • Indian One-horned Rhinoceros
  • Asian Wild Buffalo
  • Asian Elephant
  • Eastern Swamp Deer
  • Hog Deer
  • Wild Pig

Hollongappar Gibbon Sanctuary

  • Black Giant Squirrel
  • Western Hoolock Gibbon
  • Capped Langur
  • Northern Pig-tailed Macaque
  • Rhesus Macaque
  • Stump-tailed Macaque

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