National Geographic : 1955 Feb
Roaming India's Naga Hills Friendly Tribesmen, Strange Birds and Animals, and Occasional Head hunters Inhabit the Rugged Assam-Burma Borderland BY S. DILLON RIPLEY N the heart of Assam, the mighty Brahma putra River flows through a broad, green valley on its long journey from Tibet to the sea. Southeast of the valley a, low range of mountains stretches for 200 miles along the Assam-Burma border. These are the Naga Hills, one of the few parts of the world where there are still large, primeval forests never yet explored or studied by naturalists. I had seen something of the Naga Hills dur ing World War II, as did many an American fighting man. For these are part of the Hump over which United States airmen flew supplies, equipment, and personnel into Nationalist China. My visit then was in haste, but I had resolved to come back if possible to explore them as a zoologist. Mountains Hold Zoological Riddles This is the story of that return visit. It be gins as my wife, Mary, and I cross a road bar rier at the little Assam village of Nichuguard. The policeman on duty hands us back our per mits with a flourish, and our truck starts up a long, winding slope toward the hills. Ten minutes earlier we had been stifling on a hot October day in the subtropical lowland. But as we pressed up the road, the temperature quickly dropped from the 90's to the 50's; clouds we had seen in the distance as white puff balls were now all about us, gray, lower ing. Finally it began to rain in cold, wet sheets. We would get used to rain before our trip ended, for Assam lies in one of the wettest areas in the world. To a zoologist, Assam is by far the richest of India's States. The great complex of hills which form its natural borders contains one of the most varied floras and faunas in the world. It is a borderland where alpine, Chinese, Indo Malayan, and Indochinese species all meet. It is a naturalist's paradise, an area where much yet remains to be discovered, where riddles are still unsolved. The road barrier we had just crossed repre sented the so-called Inner Line, a border main tained by the Government between the low lands and the less civilized hill country. Origi nally set up to protect travelers from straying among the warlike hill tribes, the line is now kept to guard the tribes and their unique cul ture from the damaging effect of too many civilized visitors. We had obtained a permit to cross the line from the governor of Assam in Shillong, the State capital. Though the Naga villages are now at peace with the Government, officials there did warn us of another danger: armed Communist agitators were reported to have set up bases in the hills. At the moment, however, our biggest danger seemed to be the road we were driving over. Our big hired truck puffed and panted up the steep hillside. To one side a chasm bordered our trail, steaming with vapor boiling up as the rain lashed the river below. The other side was a sheer rock wall from which crumbling falls of shale frequently slid onto the roadbed. The truck lurched over these loose mounds in a fearsome way. The vegetation was luxuriant. Huge clumps of bamboo grew everywhere; some, trampled and twisted, showed where wild elephants had been feeding. Tree ferns and shiny-leaved wild gingers clung to the rocky cliffs. There were bracken ferns and clumps of tall wild grasses with red-pink fruiting heads. Tribesmen Smile a Welcome Around a bend we came on our first family of Nagas, a man and wife and two small chil dren. Heedless of the cold, they sloshed with sturdy bare legs through the mud and rushing water of the gutter. Each carried a big basket on his back, piled high with a heavy load and secured by a tumpline around his forehead. As we passed, they turned in unison and smiled broadly at us, and the man waved. We smiled back and waved in turn, astonished and warmed by the friendly sight. We liked the The Author Dr. Ripley, Associate Curator of Zoology, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, has led several scientific expeditions into the remote mountain forests of southern Asia and New Guinea. Two of his earlier trips were described in the NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Peerless Nepal-a Naturalist's Paradise," January, 1950; and "Strange Courtship of Birds of Paradise," February, 1950.