Beauty In Danger
By Mitali Saran
A nocturnal thundershower has wrapped mist around the stark trees in front of the Bansbari Lodge at the entrance to the Manas National Park and Tiger Reserve. In the grey predawn light, they look like the ruins of an ancient woody city. An armed forest guard takes his seat beside the driver, the jeep starts up with a tubercular rattle and we enter the gate into what must be one of the most beautiful jungles in India, also a World Heritage Site.
Silk cotton trees have dropped their bloody blossoms on the forest floor, so that the jeep is driving over a carpet of petals; a peacock flies up into a branch, silhouetted against the cold white sun rising through the mist. In the distance, across the Manas River, loom the blue-purple hills of neighbouring Bhutan. The vegetation, so different from what is seen in the jungles of the plains, gives the forest a strange, exotic feel. Hornbills float across the skies; elephants forage silently at the edge of the trees; insects whirr in the evening. It’s classic tiger country, with dense undergrowth thick with moss and vines on which capped langurs caper, open grasses through which hog deer and cheetal stare, and a river and streams that provide watering holes in which enormous wild water buffaloes with metre-long horns wallow.
They say there are 80-odd tigers in these 391 sq km, which makes it the highest tiger population in any Indian reserve. But today that figure is just a guess. Manas is only now emerging from a decade of multiple traumas such as flooding, insurgency, and neglect. The chaos and corruption allowed poachers to decimate the rhino population; the jeep safari paths fell into such disrepair that only one is still functional. You’d think that it might get boring, but each one of our six journeys down that path is as different as the weather and light and time of day. Once the sun is a peach-pink ball behind a veil of cloud; one afternoon is golden; one twilight makes monkeys of our eyes. At night, the jeep lights bewitch the forest, with trees rising in odd, twisty shapes from the road, branches leaning out and over and blooming upwards in starbursts, everything wavy and crooked and curly.
Whatever you do, don’t pass up an elephant safari around Mathanguri, deep inside the park, where the government maintains its Inspection Bungalow at a spectacular point overlooking the rushing river and the cloudy Bhutanese hills. Starting in the dark at 5 am, we pass on elephant-back through mossy undergrowth where creepers and stranglers grow like sheets, through groves of oxi trees with great dark leaves, across grassland, along dry stony river beds, up and down steep inclines, with hornbills overhead and sambar all about.
For the true jungle lover, Mathanguri is the place to stay at Manas. If you can put up with decrepitude inside, the great outdoors will pamper you constantly. Beyond a bend in the river, tantalisingly out of reach, lies the summer palace of the King of Bhutan, reputedly haunted by troops of rare golden langur. The bungalow’s glassed-in dining room makes a spiffing place to devour the packed breakfast our guides have laid out. At dusk, cormorants glide along the sun-pinked water and I watch a pair of sambar walk hesitantly out of the forest on delicate hooves to drink at the river.
Manas NP and its creatures — of which several, including the golden langur, the red panda and the hispid hare, feature in the IUCN Red List — have endured 15 years of Bodo and ULFA insurgents in the jungles, cockily using the Mathanguri bungalows as headquarters; army operations to flush them out; rampant poaching that has more or less wiped out the one-horned rhino population (though two were spotted in November 2004). Today the security situation is better, but after the trauma of violent politics, Manas now suffers from insensitive tourism and poor management.
Driving here on our first day, we pass a steady stream of vehicles filled with revellers heading home. It turns out that despite the erection of a restaurant area on the very edge of the park, local and regional tourists have bullied officials into letting them picnic inside the park — loud and unsightly affairs flagged at their conclusion by pools of litter. Standing amid paper plates, plastic and cigarette butts, the World Heritage Site status suddenly looks bizarre; while the Forest Department elephants are being bathed, their babies eat those plates on the river banks.
The Field Director shakes his head sadly when I ask him why entry isn’t barred to picnickers. “It’s the nature of the people,” he says. “They don’t listen. There’s nothing we can do,” he says. “I’ve commissioned a one-man clean-up team.” Whatever the case, the rules that govern other National Parks simply do not work on the ground at Manas.
This has its benefits. We can spend all day in the park, for one, rather than stick to timings. And we can also end up, after dark, following animal spoors along the dry bed of the Songrang Stream — on foot. Manas is a Tiger Reserve, home to 64 predators at last count; with my body on high alert, I follow footprints of sambar and wild elephant and jungle cat in the sand in pitch blackness, stiff with excitement and fear. Ahead of me, at a fallen tree lying across the streambed, the armed guard suddenly stops and points. Peering into the darkness with my heart thumping, I see him unshoulder his weapon and finger the trigger. The young tracker switches on the searchlight and focuses its powerful beam upon the glittering eyes of a startled wild water buffalo — an animal far more dangerous than the stripy gentleman of the forest, in that it has a very bad temper backed up by metre-long horns that taper to mean twinkly points. The buffalo shuffles its bulk around and paws the ground uncertainly, but after a lot of pausing and staring, edges into the trees. It’s a couple of hours of pure adrenaline, a more or less unmediated interaction with the forest, on its terms. When we climb back into the jeep, it’s with equal amounts of exhilaration and relief. Along the way back, we pause to pick up oranges that have fallen onto the road from Tata trucks that carry them from Bhutan through what is effectively an international trade route through the park.
We see the park for the last time in a drizzle-washed clarity. The closest we’ve come to seeing a tiger is scratch marks on an uriam (Bischifia javanica) tree, but that’s okay; we’ve seen green pigeons, wild elephants, vistas of splendid bombax, and plenty else in a corner of the country that I thank my stars still exists. A herd of wild water buffalo melts into the elephant grass; a crested-serpent eagle perches high on a tree. Hog deer bounce away from the jeep. All seems well in the world.
And then we come upon a dhole, a wild dog, lying by the side of the road. A crude steel trap has bitten deep into its right hind foot, probably a few days ago, judging by the gangrene that has spread up to the animal’s shoulder. The dhole has tried to bite its own leg off. It is moments away from death, breathing with the last shreds of its life force, but its eyes open wide when we take the trap off its paw. We take the animal and the trap to the park ranger’s office, where officials nod approvingly because, they say, dhole eats up all the deer. The fact that the trap could have snared any creature, or that it’s there at all, doesn’t come up for discussion. It’s on that note that we have to leave Manas, wondering if anyone has the political will to save what must be one of India’s most beautiful National Parks.
ABOUT MANAS NP
The National Park was once a hunting ground for royals. Formerly known as North Kamrup, it was made a reserve forest in 1928, declared a Tiger Reserve under Project Tiger in 1973, and made a National Park in 1990. The reserve’s core area is the Manas NP. It is home to tiger, wild buffalo and gaur, apart from sambar and swamp deer. The park mostly comprises eastern Himalayan moist mixed deciduous forest, sometimes dense enough to cut out all sunlight. There is also an alluvial grassland in the eastern part. The park is in the watershed area of the Manas, Hakua and Beki rivers.
Manas is classified as a World Heritage Site in danger; this is because the insurgency in the area has taken a heavy toll on the park. Making use of the situation, poachers went in for the kill in Manas. There were many cases of arson, looting and killings as well as poaching of elephants and rhinos for horns. There are many villages on the periphery of the park; and according to a Project Tiger report, “illegal felling of trees for firewood and timber often occurs by the riversides”.
The core area of the Tiger Reserve spreads over 321 sq km of the Manas NP. The park altogether spreads over 2,837 sq km. In 2002, the Manas Park was designated as the core zone of the Buxa-Manas Elephant Reserve under Project Elephant. The forest, however, extends much further, into neighbouring Bhutan, where it is known as the Royal Manas Park. To the south of the park, NH31 adjoins Barpeta Road, where the Field Director’s office (Tel: 03666-260289) is located. It is from here that you get permits to enter the park in case you plan to stay at Mathanguri, where the Inspection Bungalow is located. Mathanguri is also the point through which the River Manas enters India from its source in Bhutan. It is to the north of the park, next to the border with Bhutan.
Tourists pay their entry fee at the Bansbari Range Office, located 1 km short of the entry gate at Baripada, where a forest guard joins them. There are no Forest Department jeeps or guides available for tourists, but private jeeps can be hired from near the Bansbari Range Office or at Barpeta Road. Only one route is open to safaris but there are plans to open more within the year.
Park entry fee Indians Rs 20, foreigners Rs 250 Jeep entry fee Rs 300 Still cameras Indians Rs 50, foreigners Rs 500 Video cameras Indians Rs 100, foreigners Rs 500 Park timings 5.30 am-6.30 pm