The Manas National Park in northwest Assam in India falls at the meeting point of the Indo Gangetic and the Indo Malay bio-geographic regions. With extensive grasslands, riverine alluvial plains and deciduous forests, where the sunlight scarcely reaches the forest floor, the Unesco declared it a world heritage site in 1985. It is home for rare species such as the hispid hare, pygmy hog, golden langur and the bengal florican that are all endemic to the region. Having visited the park in 1987, we remained far removed mute witnesses to the alarming news of destruction emerging from the area in the subsequent years.

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Soon after my last visit, the separatist movement of the local bodo tribals took a violent turn. Egged on by the poaching mafia, the bodo militants moved into the park area in 1988 killing forest guards, burning down forest department camps and bridges, looting arms and communications equipment, in general spreading terror for the forest department staff. The park was closed down and large scale poaching of timber, involving floating felled trees down the rivers to the waiting timber mafia beyond the park boundaries became common. Poaching of large mammals such as tiger for its bones and skin, rhino for their horns, elephant for the ivory and deer for the meat was rampant. This alarming situation compelled the Unesco to declare the Manas area as a world heritage site in danger in 1992. The massacre continued for more than a decade.

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Fortunately, by early 2000 political resolution of the bodo homeland issue was emerging and the efforts of conservation NGOs paid dividends by weaning the local villagers away from poaching and orienting them to benefit from improvement in the conservation status of the park. To some extent due to human efforts, but largely because of resilience inherent in nature, the park made a dramatic improvement and a field review by the WWF (India) in 2006 testified to the improvement and in the June of 2011 the ignominious tag of a world heritage site ‘in danger’ was finally removed by Unesco. It was a good time to check the status of a park that had managed to pull back from the brink. And in December of 2011 we were back for a first hand experience of the progress made.

Golden Langurs :

A Beautiful Variant of the Capped Langur

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Arriving at Kokrajhar, via Guwahati, we postponed our departure to Manas by half a day to check out on a local population of the rare golden langur. On a dull overcast day, to improve our chances of photographing this unique species we headed to the Nayakgaon rubber plantation, just outside Kokrajhar, where an isolated population of around 60 such langurs inhabits this operational plantation, in relative harmony with the human plantation caretakers. Though usually arboreal and shy, this particular population, being used to humans, gave us hope of approaching, and photographing them, more easily.

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A quick check with the plantation staff and we managed to locate a troop of around 15 individuals. At daybreak they were moving on the ground among the neat rows of the rubber tree trunks. But seeing us approach with our long telephoto lenses and tripods they promptly took to the trees but were not particularly alarmed. With black hairless faces they looked like any other langurs except for their striking coat that was a deep cream to a more golden hue along the flanks. The juveniles, in general, had a lighter coat. For the next two hours, the golden langurs moved along the branches feeding on leaves and flowers with us following their movements along the ground. The overcast conditions were the only dampener, as bright morning light would have done justice to their normally deeper coloured winter coats.

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The planter-naturalist E. P. Gee, only in the 1950s, was the first to have authoritatively identified the golden langur as a separate species and it is found only in a tiny area of around 60 square miles north of the Brahmaputra River, lying between the Manas River to the east and the Sankosh River to the west. Its northern boundary extends into the lower reaches of the Black Mountains of Bhutan. These geographical barriers evidently led to the evolutionary radiation of the golden langur from the closely related, and equally colourful, capped langur.

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The territories of these two related species do not, however, overlap except for a small region in eastern Bhutan, where a degree of hybridisation has also occurred. The hybrid individuals have a predominance of the golden langur phenotype with dark streaks on the sides of the forehead. Limbs and back have also been found to be darker grey reflecting the capped langur’s genetic contribution. To the east of the Manas river the territory of the capped langur starts and stretches over a larger area extending into Arunachal Pradesh and Bangladesh.

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The population of the golden langur in India, just above a thousand individuals at last count, is unfortunately spread over some 16 isolated populations. Their territory was obviously contiguous earlier, but now, because of habitat loss, the remaining populations are broken into discrete groups, which could, in future, lead to genetic stress. However, thankfully the records of the population in the rubber plantation have shown a healthy increase in the local population in recent times. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the neighbouring populations in the reserve forests and parks. The relatively low percentage of juveniles and infants sighted in those groups indicate low birth rates and declining populations.

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The local Bodos do not have a tradition of consuming primate meat, but over the years of insurgency, contact with Naga insurgents has introduced the younger generation of the Bodos to primate meat. That could be fatal to the continued survival of these two colourful langurs. Otherwise these two langurs are not given to crop raiding and the chances of animal-human conflict are limited. The capped langurs we encountered in the Manas Park, east of the Manas River, were arboreal, shy and wary of human presence. They are reported to hardly ever come down to the ground, meeting even their water requirements up in their abode of branches from dew and moisture on the leaves.

Rhino :

From Local Extinction to Efforts at Re-Introduction

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Shy, wary and skittish wildlife was the recurrent theme all over Manas, which we proceeded to explore from our base at Bansbari on the southern edge of the park. Among the significant encounters was that with an injured rhino , which for a change did not crash away into the undergrowth, but continued its desultory grazing, with its own troop of mynah birds busy at their task of pest control, totally ignoring the presence of our vehicle. Its horn appeared damaged and a puncture wound on its rear, possibly from the horn of another rhino, were the only hints of its evidently unfortunate recent experience.

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The unbridled poaching led to the last of the Manas rhinos being killed in 1996. The silver lining has been that, post insurgency, the local villagers, through the Bodo Territorial Council, got co-opted into the conservation effort of regaining the pristine beauty of Manas. Some of the new recruits were even ex-poachers. This model of wildlife conservation positively affecting livelihood of the local populations needs to be emulated elsewhere. With the consequent dramatic improvement in the protection status of the park, three rescued female calves were released into the park in 2006 followed by relocation of another eight rhinos captured from the neighbouring Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary under the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 that envisages the creation and maintenance of a healthy population of around three thousand Indian rhinos in seven protected areas. Pobitora, from where the rhinos are presently being relocated to Manas, has the highest density of rhinos numbering around 90 in an area of 18 square kilometers. The high density has led to drifting of rhinos into the adjoining cultivated areas causing human-rhino conflict. The relocation exercise from Pobitora is to continue and is to be followed by relocating rhinos from Kaziranga to Manas to ensure a viable population in Manas, which earlier, more than a hundred rhinos called their home.

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Asiatic Buffalo and Rafting on the Manas River

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The Asiatic buffalo, a magnificent creature with sweeping horns up to two meters long, was next on the agenda and we were told that floating down the Manas River at midday was the best chance of sighting them as they wallowed in the water to cool off. The rubber dinghies used had jelly like bottoms, tossed and turned by the frequent rapids we encountered. It was hardly the best platform for photographing. However, we managed to sight a herd of around ten individuals. The dominant bull was certainly imposing – both agitated by our sudden appearance and at the same time swinging its head, as only buffaloes can, making it clear that he did not want us to approach any nearer. The global population of Asiatic buffalo surviving today is barely four thousand individuals, the bulk being in the protected areas of Assam.

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Abundant Bird Life

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On one of the drives in Manas, a red jungle fowl male tried to out run our slowed down vehicle for a while before, in response to our persistence, decided to scurry off into the undergrowth.

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Two yellow-footed green pigeons visible to us, once disturbed by our arrival, transformed into a surprisingly large number present, as they burst out flapping, from the branches of a fig tree.

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Red-vented bulbuls created their own symphony of colours and shapes perched high up in the trees.

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Crested serpent eagles perched on the branches of the tall trees kept vigil for small mammals and birds, while the paddy birds, cormorants and the egrets focused their vigil over the several water bodies in the marshy part of the park.

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Safari on Elephant Back  :

Accompanied by their Calves

While at Manas, we also tried elephant safari from the Bansbari forest gate. It was very uncomfortable, after a while, trying to sit astride the voluminous back of the female elephant. We came across a small group of hog deer and watched our elephant, like her wild cousins, systematically destroy small saplings of trees struggling to find a foothold in the grass. This is a service provided by the elephants to ensure that not too many trees invade the grasslands. The forest department personnel, to get rid of the old grass, also resort to controlled fires to stimulate fresh growth that is much sought after by the herbivores. While the two female elephants carried us, their two juvenile calves followed. A wild boar, surprised by our cavalcade in the tall grass, panicked and ran for its life. The calves were equally startled and trumpeted in fear. Immediately the two mother elephants rushed together, emitting deep resonating threats, while the calves huddled between them for protection. Quite like my wife, sharing my elephant, turning around in apprehension, to check on the safety of our two sons on the other elephant.

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Futile Night Safari

Reports of sighting of two black panthers and a regular leopard some two weeks before our arrival were tantalizing enough to attempt a late night safari with the aid of searchlights. A couple of sambhar deer, two rhinos and a wild boar were sighted but we were not lucky enough to cross paths with any of the felines.

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The Final Verdict

The park, for its uniqueness and diversity, certainly deserves its label of a world heritage site and its protection status is improving, though the resident wildlife may take a few generations to overcome, and mentally leave behind, their traumatic experience of insurgency and poaching. The park cannot survive without the support of the local population. The Forest Department needs to undertake a calibrated intervention to control the stresses on the local environment so as to give nature the opportunity to regenerate.

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