Manas National Park: Resurrect lost glory

Published: Thu, 06/07/2012 - 09:04

With great effort by the forest department, state government and locals, Manas National Park in Assam has seen a surge in the wildlife population, including tigers 

Ravi Shankar Ravi Guwahati 

Animal lovers have something to rejoice about. The Manas National Park, situated on the Assam and Bhutan border, is out of danger and has once again become a haven for flora and fauna. In the recent past, Manas has seen a surge in the population of all animals, including tigers. According to a 2009-10 survey, a stable population of 15-20 tigers has been reported from the park. Camera trapping for 2011-12 has been completed, but the findings of the report are yet to be announced. However, preliminary findings reveal that the tiger numbers in the park are expected to increase, even though only adult tigers have been included in
the survey.

A Sargiyari, Field Director, Manas, said that cubs are not being counted in the census and there is concrete evidence of many new tigers in the park. 

There was a time when it was being said that the population of Royal Bengal Tigers had almost died out in Manas. There were no single horn rhinos and many other  species were also vanishing. Over the years, deer, the favourite food of tigers, had been hunted and sightings of them had become rare. 

The might of Bodo terrorism wreaked havoc on Manas and the park became the epicentre of all Bodo activities. All roads leading to the park were damaged, bridges were destroyed and patrolling in these areas became next to impossible. Many forest guards lost their lives in this conflict and their weapons too were seized. This was the only reason that stopped forest guards from patrolling the park. Poachers and other gangs took advantage of the situation, killing large numbers of animals. All the rhinos were hunted and even deer poaching peaked, resulting in very few sightings of the species. 

These poachers operated without fear under the patronage of the Bodos and killed as many wild animals as they could. Though the park was declared a tiger reserve in 1973, sightings of tigers were rare and it was during this time that the government launched Project Tiger. The project had little impact and tourists feared venturing into the park. Many tourists were either kidnapped or murdered by the terrorists and poachers. Due to these incidents, UNESCO, which had declared Manas a World Heritage Site in 1985, labelled it unsafe in 1992. 

The might of Bodo terrorism wreaked havoc on Manas and the park became the epicentre of all Bodo activities. All roads leading to the park were damaged, bridges were destroyed and patrolling in these areas became next to impossible

But, things changed in Manas after peace was brokered between the central government, the Assam government and the Bodo Liberation Tigers. Peace and normalcy returned to the region after the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) agreement between the government and the Bodo insurgents in 2003. A few days later, work started to restore the park to its old glory. The BTC appointed Khampa Basumatari, its deputy chief, as the head of the forest department of Manas.  Khampa pledged to revive Manas and formned a team of former BLT terrorists, surrendered poachers and youth from the villages around Manas to look after this pristine habitat. He explained to them that this would lead to the restoration of the park as well as bring employment to the villagers. Officers of the national park were brought together and under their guidance work was done to promote eco-tourism in the park. Youth from the All Bodo Students Union were also roped in to improve the park habitat and security.  

As a result, locals who were once keen to destroy the park are now working with dedication to restore its lost glory. “Since then the situation has drastically changed. The awareness campaign about Manas and the immense opportunities that the park offered soon started to pay rich dividends. Bodos realised that to improve the quality of living, they have to ensure the well-being of the flora and fauna of the park. Both men and women participated in large numbers in spreading awareness about the national park and the benefits it offers,” says Sirgiyari. 

The Manas Mogigendri Eco-Tourism Society (MMES) was at the forefront of this campaign. A 1992 Manas survey report found that there were around 57 villages located in and around the park with a population of around 30,000. These people depended heavily on the park for their livelihoods. Manas suffered the worst in the two decades of the Bodo struggle when poachers ruled these forests. 

CK Basumatari, secretary, MMES, informed Hardnews that two years back they organised the Manas Shatabdi Samaroh to make people aware of the fact that things at Manas had changed a lot and it is now much safer to visit the park. “Manas was on the verge of being blacklisted from the World Heritage site list,” says MC Malakar, CFS Forest department.

The BTC’s deputy chief says that it was a challenge for the BTC to bring back normalcy at Manas. “From the illegal timber trade to animal poaching, it was a tough task to put things under control. Several programmes were conducted by the forest officials to create awareness amongst the locals and MMES’ contribution was a brave act in the proceedings,” he says. 

Budheswar Dogra, who himself killed more than 80 elephants, two leopards and a countless number of deer, is now a member of the MMES association. Today, his main aim is to help people understand the importance of the park and its viability 

Interestingly, the MMES was conceived by the people of the Bodo community who were once hell bent on destroying the park’s flora and fauna. Today, these individuals work day and night to ensure that no animal is poached under their watchful eyes. Budheswar Dogra, who has killed more than 80 elephants, two leopards and countless number of deer is now a member of the MMES association. Today, his main aim is to help people understand the importance of the park and its viability. 

“Workshops are being organised to share knowledge and information on various plants, animals and birds. It was necessary to stop these killings in order to save the heritage of the park. Camps were organised in villages to dissuade people from killing and consuming the meat of these wild animals. Women were made to understand the importance of these animals and were also encouraged not to cook the meat of birds and wild animals that were brought home by the men in the family. The women played a crucial role and their support was appreciated,” says Parth Das, Convenor, MMES. 

A visit to this natural paradise is a testimony to how things are moving in a positive direction. There are ample signs of how locals, NGOs and forest authorities are determined to protect this wildlife hotbed. It was also important that the state government provided jobs and other livelihood options to the people living in and around the reserve.

BLT cadres, who had surrendered after the formation of the BTC, were given the responsibility of maintenance of the park. Young boys were recruited as forest guards on a monthly salary of Rs 1500. These youngsters are full of energy and have taken it upon themselves to save the wildlife of the entire BLT area. Khampa Basumatari informed Hardnews that the efforts of the forest department and the people’s participation have yielded great results. “Not only did the poaching stop, even the illegal timber trade has come to a standstill. This has eventually led to frequent sightings of the animals.” 

Soon after the conflict was resolved, wildlife authorities and locals wanted to get rid of the danger tag that the park had been given by UNESCO. With great effort, the concerned authorities, with the locals’ support, were able to remove the park from UNESCO’s list of dangerous sites. Also, these overtures led to a massive increase in the population of herbivorous animals. This was a boon in disguise for the carnivorous animals who also witnessed a surge in their population in the park. An increasing herbivore population is being cited as one of the reasons for this surge. 

Later, rhinos were also reintroduced in the park from the Pobitora Sanctuary and their number has gone up to 22. Two more rhinos are to be shifted to the park in the near future. Since the park was once a rhino hotbed, it wasn’t difficult for the animal to adapt in Manas. Another advantage that Manas has is an abundance of rhinos’ favourite grass.

Things changed in Manas after peace was brokered between the central government, the Assam government and the Bodo Liberation Tigers. Peace and normalcy returned to the region after the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) agreement between the government and the Bodo insurgents in 2003

This project is being implemented with the help of the World Wildlife Fund and the World Forest Trust. The authorities claim that all provisions of Project Tiger are being implemented in the park and various measures have been adopted to ensure the security of the tigers. 

Authorities told Hardnews they want to make Manas the best national park of India since it also has a geographical advantage. Situated in the foothills of the Himalaya, Manas has forests that spread deep across the Assam-Bhutan border. These dense and uninhabited forests enable animals to move from one corner to another without much disturbance. The park is part of a tiger reserve, an elephant reserve and a biosphere reserve, and in 2000 its total area was increased to 950 sq km. Famous for many rare species of flora and fauna, Manas stands out among India’s national parks.  Tortoises, golden langurs, pygmy hogs, vultures, barasingha, black clouded leopards, leopards, wild water buffaloes, several species of deer and more than 450 species of birds are the major attractions of the park, named after the River Manas that flows through it. 

The proudest moment for Manas was in 2011 when it was reintroduced as a World Heritage Site. “It was possible only due to the combined efforts of the locals, forest department and the state and central governments. I am confident that one day Manas will be known for the maximum number of tigers in India,” concludes Basumatari.

With great effort by the forest department, state government and locals, Manas National Park in Assam has seen a surge in the wildlife population, including tigers
Ravi Shankar Ravi Guwahati 

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