Get lost in the greens of Mizoram’s Murlen National Park | Popgen Tech
Biodiversity abounds in the enigmatic mid-altitude forests of the Murlen National Park in Mizoram
Various greens—khaki, olive, lime, jade—beckon as I look down into the canopy of Murlen National Park from a watchtower. Sudden showers peppered the trip to the Watchtower. Trees tower over me, woody lianas reaching up like gangly arms from the forest floor to the canopy. As we walk further into the forest, orchids and ferns greet us at every turn—elegant whites, fiery oranges, cheerful yellows, delicate lilacs, dramatic emeralds. In some places, the foliage swallows the daylight before it can reach the forest floor.
We had already seen a lot of bird movement in the buffer zone, including a pair of mountain bamboo storks moving a few meters ahead of us on a muddy road. Spot-breasted parrotbills, with beaks that make them seem to wear genital smiles all the time, grace the bamboo and grass stands on the way.
A day and a half journey from Mizoram’s capital, Aizawl, and a mere 30 km from the Myanmar border, this protected area falls within the Indo-Burma biodiversity zone. With its mixture of rocky outcrops and wooded patches, the winding road to the small town of Vapar, on the outskirts of the national park, is good for roadside birds during the day and herping at night.
Altitude varies from 400-1,897m in 100 square kilometers of the Murlen protected area, and it is a rich mixture of tropical moist deciduous, semi-evergreen and evergreen forests. The mid-elevation habitat is completely different from other parks in Mizoram, such as the high-elevation vegetation of Phawngpui National Park (319km from Murlen) and the low-elevation forest of Dampa Tiger Reserve (307km from Murlen). Several parts of this lush ecosystem are notoriously impenetrable. Ecosystems high in the canopy easily capture attention in these forests, rising above us and full of activity. Closer inspection of the understory and forest floor reveals equally busy webs of life in fallen leaves, seeds and fruits of the forest floor, particularly further inside the core zone.
As we approach the national park, the vegetation is a feast for the eyes. Thorn bushes overflowing with juicy yellow Himalayan raspberries (Rubus ellipticus) dot Murlen’s road. In the buffer zones, secondary mixed deciduous or evergreen forests add to the diversity but face growing pressure due to human habitation. I talk to wildlife biologist Amit Kumar Bal, who has been based in the village of Murlen for three years, researching small carnivores. He made significant sightings and camera-trap records of birds, small and large mammals in the buffer zones. While the mustached laughing thrush and blue-naked pitta were seen in the buffer zone, camera traps also recorded the clouded leopard, leopard cat, Asian golden cat, slow loris and civet.
A tree frog at night. Despite the onslaught of human-caused environmental change, Murlen National Park is a treasure trove of diversity.
Despite the onslaught of human-caused environmental change, Murlen National Park is a treasure trove of diversity. Observing wildlife is a challenge in this thick forest that covers everything with its dappled light and shadows. And that’s why any view fills me with excitement, this feeling of having just won a jackpot. I feel privileged to catch squirrels hurrying and the quieter signature of tree shrews running up tall trees, almost always one step ahead of us, melting into the canopy easily. The green-tailed sunbird perched at arm’s length feeding on bright fuchsia flowers is a perfect tableau against the verdant green. Blue-winged Minla decided to come down near us after a light drizzle, wearing a necklace of pearly drops of water around her neck. The special treats are the red-faced liocichla, which surprises us on more than one occasion, and the fire-breasted flowerpeckers flying busy from the bottom of the floor, the male flashing his bright red chest patch. And then there’s my personal favorite—the rarely seen, canopy-loving green cochoa. A striking bird, often overlooked thanks to its tendency to sit absolutely still and blend into the foliage. Once you spot it, however, you wonder how you missed such a flamboyant bundle of feathers, with a gorgeous green body, black and silver-striped wings, and sky-blue head.
Although the famous small carnivores Murlen proved elusive, fresh civet excrement could be seen on the trails, a sign of the park’s wild enigma. “While there is diversity (of carnivores) in Murlen, the density is low despite the health of the habitat,” pointed out Bal. There are several theories as to why this might be so but there is no single reason for it. Cats such as the clouded leopard and marble cat can usually be found in low densities in most habitats.
Bal says that he walks around 15 km a day and goes deep into the base area to set his camera traps, and that he could record rarely seen cats like the clouded leopard once every two months. On the other hand, in a routine walk to check camera traps only 5 kilometers from the village of Murlen, he once encountered an Asian golden cat just 6m from where he was standing. This perhaps best describes the enigmatic quality of the Murlen forests.
The national park is a cornucopia of plant life. In 2018, researchers discovered two new species of Ceropegia (Ceropegia mizoramensis, Ceropegia murlensis) in the wild Murlen. Ceropegia are climbers often referred to as lantern or parachute flowers because of their distinctive flowers. Then there are the mosses, growing in bushes or spreading carpets and contributing to the abundant greens of the Murlen’s landscape. Plants are vital ecological niches, sometimes evolving and adapting to flourish in specific environmental conditions where other plants cannot survive. Murlen is also fascinating in its diversity of orchids. A 2012 study by researchers from the Botanical Survey of India revealed 32 species, including several rare species.
The mysterious wilds of Murlen seem to hold many revelations. In 2020, photographic evidence confirmed for the first time the presence of the marble cat (Pardofelis marmorata), one of Southeast Asia’s rarest felids. In 2022, a new species of non-venomous snake, the Murlen keelback (Herpetoreas murlen), was described with the name of the national park. What we saw was a glimpse, a glimpse that told us there was much more to its depths than meets the eye.
– The best time to visit Murlen National Park is from October to March.
– The nearest large settlement is the border town of Champhai. Accommodation options are Champhai Tourist Lodge or basic rooms at the interpretive center in Vapar.
– There are frequent power cuts and no connection when it rains. It is recommended to bring power bank if traveling with equipment.
– Take any waste you generate out of the forest with you.
Divya Candade is a writer with RoundGlass Sustain, a social impact initiative that tells the story of India’s natural world. Read a longer version of this article about Murlen National Park.