An overnight thunderstorm has wrapped fog around the stark trees in front of Bansbari Lodge at the entrance to the Manas National Park and Tiger Reserve. In the gray predawn light, they resemble the ruins of an ancient wooded city. An armed ranger takes a seat next to the driver, the jeep starts 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 rides over a carpet of petals; a peacock flies up a branch, silhouetted against the cold white sun breaking through the fog. In the distance, across the street Manas River, looming over the blue hills of neighboring Bhutan. The vegetation, so different from what is seen in the jungles of the plains, gives the forest a strange, exotic feel. Hornbills soar through the air; elephants feed silently at the edge of the trees; insects buzzing in the evening. It is a classic tiger village, with dense undergrowth thick with moss and vines topped with elongated capers, open grasses through which hog deer and cheetal gaze, and a river and streams that provide watering holes in which huge wild water buffaloes with meter-long horns wallow.
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They say there are 80 tigers in this 391 sq km making it the highest tiger population on any Indian reservation. But today that figure is just a guess. Manas is only now emerging from a decade of multiple traumas, such as floods, riots and neglect. The chaos and corruption allowed poachers to decimate the rhino population; the jeep safaris are so dilapidated that only one is still functional. You’d think it might get boring, but each of our six trips on that trail is as different as the weather and light and time of day. Once the sun is a peach ball behind a veil of clouds; an afternoon is golden; one twilight makes monkeys of our eyes. At night, the jeep lights enchant the forest, with trees rising from the road in strange, twisting shapes, branches leaning forward and coming up in starbursts, everything wavy and crooked and curled.
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 cloudy Bhutanese hills. Starting in the dark at 5pm, we give elephant back through mossy thickets, where creepers and stranglers grow like sheets, through thickets of oxitrees with large dark leaves, over grassland, along dry stony riverbeds, up and down steep slopes, with hornbills above and sambar.
For the true jungle lover, Mathanguri is the place to stay in Manas. If you can tolerate the slightest reverence indoors, the outdoors will constantly pamper you. Beyond a bend in the river, tantalizingly out of reach, lies the summer palace of the King of Bhutan, said to be haunted by troops of rare golden langur. The bungalow’s glass-enclosed dining room is a lovely place to devour the packed breakfast our guides have laid out. At dusk cormorants glide over the sunlit water and I watch a few sambar uncertainly out of the forest on delicate hooves to drink by the river.
Manas National Park and its creatures – several of which, including the golden langur, the red panda and the devil hare, are listed on the IUCN Red List – have endured 15 years of Bodo and ULFA insurgents in the jungles, cockily using the Mathanguri bungalows as headquarters; military operations to flush them out; rampant poaching that has more or less wiped out the one-horned rhinoceros population (although 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 full of revelers heading home. It turns out that despite the construction of a restaurant on the edge of the park, local and regional tourists have been pestering officials to let them have picnics in the park – loud and unsightly affairs marked at their end by puddles of trash. Standing amidst paper plates, plastic and cigarette butts, its World Heritage Site status suddenly looks bizarre; while the Forest Department’s elephants are being bathed, their babies are eating those plates on the banks of the river.
The Field Director sadly shakes his head when I ask him why entry isn’t barred from picnickers. “It’s the nature of people,” he says. “They don’t listen. We can’t do anything,” he says. “I commissioned a one-man team.” Be that as it may, the rules that apply to other national parks just don’t work on the ground at Manas.
This has its advantages. We can spend all day in the park, instead of sticking to the timings. And we can also, in the dark, follow animal tracks along the dry bed of the Songrang stream – on foot. Manas is one 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. Looking into the darkness with my heart pounding, I watch him drop his weapon and pull the trigger. Switching on the searchlight, the young follower directs its powerful beam at the glittering eyes of a startled wild water buffalo – an animal far more dangerous than the ensnared lord of the forest, in that it has a very bad temper, aided by a meters long horns that are tapered to signify twinkling points. The buffalo shakes its mass around and paws the ground uncertainly, but after much pausing and staring, edges into the trees. It’s a few hours of pure adrenaline, a more or less unmediated interaction with the forest, on its terms. When we climb back into the jeep, it is with equal excitement and relief. On the way back, we pause to pick up oranges dropped on the road from Tata trucks that take them from Bhutan via an effective international trade route through the park.
We see the park for the last time in measly clarity. The closest you’ll get to a tiger is scratching a uriam (Bischifia javanica) tree, but that’s okay; we’ve seen green pigeons, wild elephants, vistas of beautiful bombax and much more in a corner of the land that I thank my stars still exist. A herd of wild water buffalo melts into the elephant grass; a crested serpent eagle perched on a tree. Pig deer bounce off the jeep. Everything seems right in the world.
And then we come to a hole, a wild dog, on the side of the road. A rough steel trap bit deep into his right rear foot, probably a few days ago, judging by the gangrene that has spread to the animal’s shoulder. The hole has tried to bite off its own leg. It is moments away from death, breathing with the last shreds of its vitality, but its eyes open wide as we take the fall of its paw. We take the animal and trap to the park ranger’s office, where officials nod in approval because, they say, the game is eating all the deer. The fact that the trap could have ensnared a creature, or that it is there at all, is not in dispute. In that regard, we have to leave Manas and ask ourselves if anyone has the political will to spare what must be one of India’s most beautiful national parks.
Over Manas National Park
The National Park was once a hunting ground for royals. Formerly known as North Kamrup, the reserve forest was declared a Tiger Reserve in 1928 under Project Tiger in 1973, and made a National Park in 1990. The core area of the reserve is Manas National Park. It is home to tiger, wild buffalo and gaur apart from sambar and swamp deer. The park consists mainly of 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 located in the basin 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. Taking advantage of the situation, poachers went to kill in Manas. There were many cases of arson, looting and killing, as well as the poaching of elephants and rhinoceroses for horns. There are many villages on the edge of the park; and according to a project by Project Tiger, “illegal tree felling for firewood and lumber often happens along the riverbanks.”
The core area of the Tiger Reserve spreads over 321 square kilometers of the Manas NP. The park spreads over 2,837 square kilometers in total. In 2002, the Manas Park was designated as the core zone of the Buxa-Manas Elephant Reserve under Project Elephant. However, the forest extends much further into neighboring Bhutan, where it is known as the Royal Manas Park. South of the park, NH31 borders Barpeta Road, where the Field Director’s office (tel: 03666-260289) is located. From here you will be issued a permit to enter the park in case you plan to stay in 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 located in the north of the park, next to the border with Bhutan. Tourists pay their entry fee at the Bansbari Range Office, located 1 km away from the entrance gate of Baripada, where a ranger joins them. There are no jeeps in the forest or guides available for tourists, but private jeeps can be hired from the Bansbari Range Office or from Barpeta Road. Only one route is open for safaris, but there are plans to open more within the year.
Park Entry Fee: Indians Rs 50, Foreigners Rs 500 Jeep Entry Fee Rs 300 Still Cameras Indians Rs 50, Foreigners Rs 500 Video Cameras Indians Rs 500, Foreigners Rs 1,000 Park Hours 5:30am-6:30pm.
Visitors to Manas can opt for a jeep safari; an elephant safari is also a must. This can be linked to plantation visits and jungle walks. For travel to Manas, please contact Jungle Travels India.
Location: On the border between India and Bhutan, on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River, in the northwest
from the state capital Guwahati
Distances: 176 km NW of Guwahati, 32 km N of Barpeta Road
Route from Guwahati: NH31 to Shimlaguri via Rangia, Nalbari and Howli; connecting road to
When to Go: November to April
Wildlife/Forest Dept office:
Field Director, Barpeta Road
Tel: + 91-3666-260288-89, 261413
STD-code + 91-3666