The death of 40-year-old Koliya left a village of 400 in eastern Assam in mourning, with a day being set aside in tribute. Koliya, a celebrity in Tinsukia district, is not a village elder or distinguished community member, but is an ape.
The forest department in Tinsukia on Sunday announced January 14 as Hoolock Gibbon Day, after the name of the species, to mark Koliya’s death. Considered a member of the Inthong village that is home to mostly the Buddhist Singpho community, Koliya was hacked to death by a few villagers for allegedly attacking a boy on the outskirts.
“She was part of our family, our community. She had been spending her daytime with us since 1990 after some people killed her male partner. The least we could do was organise a death ritual for her on Wednesday,” community elder and former panchayat president Bhupeswar Ningda, 79, told Hindustan Times.
The miscreants attacked Koliya when she was on her way back to the forest after leaving the village, which is located 500 km East of Guwahati.
Villagers observed ‘doha’, the funeral rituals observed 10 days after the death of a person, on Sunday which was when the local forest officials announced Hoolock Gibbon Day in Koliya’s honour.
“A hoolock gibbon (Bunopithecus hoolock) is a gentle, harmless animal unless provoked or teased. There were reports of miscreants having pestered Koliya,” said divisional forest officer of the area RK Das, calling the killing unfortunate.
Das said the police registered a case under section 429 of the IPC and 51 of Wildlife Protection Act against two men some villagers named in the FIR. The accused however are absconding.
Ningda said Koliya gave more than she took, mostly a fruit or two. “She was the reason why no monkeys dared raid the fruit trees in the village. The villagers also benefited from tourists who came to see her,” said Ningda.
Hoolock gibbons are the only ape species found in India, and the entire shrewdness is confined to the northeast, according to forest officials.
There are at most 500 of the species spread across eastern Assam, parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Tripura. The largest troop – 125 apes – is in Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary near central Assam’s Jorhat town.
Some hoolock gibbons reside in Dihing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary that straddles Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts. This sanctuary is close to Inthong, a part of the larger Ketetong village where the idea of tea plantation was first sown in 1823. Scotsman and tea planter Robert Bruce was offered his first cup of Assamese tea by Singpho tribal chief Bisa Gam which led to the first organized tea plantation.