Manas National Park had one of the most interesting backgrounds amongst the sites we have visited. It was one of the Nine reserves selected to launch Project Tiger in India in 1973. It achieved more recognition when it was selected as a World Heritage Site in the year 1985. However the scene changed drastically from the 1990s. Rampant poaching, militant activities, kidnapping of forest officials almost signaled the demise of this wonderful reserve. UNESCO even went on to place Manas in the ‘world heritage site in danger’ List, making it the only site in India to ever feature in the list.
But the story of the revival of Manas is one that highlights the resolve of the local people to get back the glory of this wonderful forest. The locals formed a council to end the militant conflict. Wildlife Fund of India and the Assam Government, decided to improve the forest infrastructure by setting up more outposts in the forest. This kept poachers in check. Some of the poachers were even convinced to work towards the preservation of wildlife rather than its destruction. Better connectivity to cities like Guwahati was established to improve the tourist inflow and Rhinos were trans-located from Pobitora and Kaziranga to Manas, to revive the Rhino population here. Due to all these efforts, Manas was removed from the UNESCO ‘world heritage site in danger’ List. A great achievement completely dedicated to the resolve of the local population, the conservationists who toiled day in-day out and the officials who made sure that Manas deserved the respect it once enjoyed. We were able to procure all this information, from the Field Director, of Manas himself, who was kind enough to spend some time with us share this story, though we met him on an official holiday.
Sorry, for the rather long introduction, but this amazing revival story had to be told. Our journey to Manas started out with a train ride to Barpeta Road which 60 kilometers from the entrance to the Park (at Bansbari). On the Auto ride, we saw frequent signs of ‘STOP KIDNAPPING AND EXTORTION’, being displayed, a chilling reminder of the bloody past of the locality we were in. We struggled to find accommodation in the four lodges near to the Bansbari entrance as there was sudden influx of tourists due to Kaziranga being shut for their Rhino census. We finally had to settle down in a storage room, sharing our space with unused tables and chairs, which we felt was better than spending the night out in the forest vicinity! It was strange that the place only had four lodges, which were clearly inadequate to absorb a larger influx of tourists.
The next day we went for our safari ride to the forest in a Gypsy. Upon entering the forests itself we immediately realized that we were in a special place. Unlike Kaziranga which is mostly covered in Elephant Grass, Manas was pure forests. Huge tress lined up our roads on both sides, and our Gypsy trudged along the muddy path with us frequently ducking to avoid bumping into low hanging branches. We crossed numerous rivulets seeming to appear out of nowhere and disappearing into dense vegetation. Manas also had the grasslands, but they were far less compared to Kaziranga. We managed to spot the Pied Hornbill, a majestic bird with a large wingspan and an interesting beak. The Hornbill appeared quite a few times later as well, clearly indicating that it prefers this wonderful habitat. Buffaloes stared at us as we passed them through the grassland and the capped Langurs were spotted lazily resting on large tree branches, without being really perturbed by our visit. After almost two hours, we reached a quiet lodge in the middle of the jungle called Mathungari. It’s the only one in the middle of the forest and is situated next to the River Manas. We spent some time on the banks of this serene river across which the forest extended into Bhutan. Darkness had already descended on our way back, but we still managed to spot a Gaur and Sambhars due to the brilliant observations of our security guard (yes, it is compulsory to hire the services of one and he does come with a gun!) and his skills with the flashlight. The gypsy after us claimed of spotting a Black Panther. Though we missed out, the safari was really a unique experience lasting close to four hours, through forests that were a few years back the hideouts of militants and now has returned to its rightful owners, the wildlife.
The next day we tried out the elephant safari, which proved quite painful due to the insufficient cushioning at appropriate places! We still managed to bear through it for an hour and spotted a herd of wild elephants and a large number of Hog deers comfortable resting in the shade to escape the summer heat. The elephant ride did take us to the forest for a while, but it mainly concentrated on covering the grasslands, which were easier to navigate.
Manas, is still in the rebuilding phase. The forest seems to be back to its glory, but the wildlife is still to return in large numbers. The authorities should also ensure that there is adequate infrastructure to support the increasing tourist’s inflow. Every visit here is a way to salute the resolve and dedication of the hundreds who worked selflessly to return this majestic National Park to its past glory. Without their efforts, Manas would have been a just a fable about wonderful creatures that roamed these dense forests, spread on the banks of a beautiful river.