|Travel Column Vol. 2 Issue No. 12||October 1 - 15, 2005|
Pride of North East
Somebody had once said of Manas that planet Earth must have looked like it (Manas) before man set his foot on the planet. Nothing can be a better description of or a more fitting tribute to the magnificent Manas, which is a manifestation of nature in her unblemished self. Combining in itself pristine forests, breathtaking scenery, and a bewildering variety of wildlife and flora - a rare occurrence anywhere on Earth — Manas is indeed a paradise.
A night’s stay at the quaint forest bungalow at Mathanguri, the most preferred tourist spot in Manas, could be as exhilarating an experience as one can hope to get in any jungle. With the roar of the gushing Manas that bifurcates into two channels just below the bungalow atop the hillock, and the vast expanses of the Bhutan hills providing the backdrop, it is a true Eden where you can feel your senses opening up to the loveliness and the wonders of the world of nature. Nestled in the Himalayan foothills of Bhutan, the Manas National Park spreads over an area of 519.77 sq km. The national park is the core area of the sprawling Manas Tiger Reserve, which encompasses an area of 2,837 sq km running into five districts — Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Nalbari, and Darrang. The 19 Reserve Forests within the Tiger Reserve also forms the Park’s buffer zone.
The significance of Manas lies on many counts. Considered among the best national parks in the world, Manas is also a Tiger Reserve, a Biosphere Reserve, an Elephant Reserve and a World Heritage Site. A prime tiger habitat that harboured the country’s second highest concentration of the great cat till the late 1980s with a count of 125, it is one of the earliest Tiger Reserves of the country, formed in 1973. In view of its pristine natural eco-system representing the overall biota of the region, it was elevated to a Biosphere Reserve in 1989 under the UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme. It was recognized as a World Heritage Site in 1985 as a site of outstanding universal value.
Among the oldest protected areas in the State, Manas has a long conservation history. It used to constitute, and still constitutes, a part of the largest conservation area in the region with contiguous forests in Bhutan (Royal Bhutan National Park), in the north and the Buxa Tiger Reserve of West Bengal in the west. The Sonkosh river in Kokrajhar district marks its official boundary in the west. Towards the east, the Manas Tiger Reserve extends up to the Dhansiri river in the district of Darrang. The total east-west length of the Tiger Reserve is 230 km.
The conservation process of Manas began during the days of British rule in India. The British were quick to realize the importance of protecting these virgin forests, and soon Manas was accorded the position of a Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF). That was in 1905, the same year that Kaziranga also got the PRF label. After it became a Reserve Forest (RT) in 1908, it was upgraded to a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1928, covering an area of 360 sq km (Manas and North Kamrup RFs). It was further extended to 391.02 sq km in 1955. In spite of it being a mega biodiversity hotspot, Manas had to wait for over six decades to attain the status of a National Park, in 1990. Its area was enhanced to 519.77 sq km with the addition of Panbari, Kahitama and Kokilabari Reserve Forests.
Manas is one place where one can see the big five of the Indian jungles — the tiger (the lion is found only at Gir in Gujarat), the elephant, the rhino, the buffalo, and the gaur. The other major predator of the Indian jungles, the leopard, is also quite common at Manas. Few protected areas can match Manas in its diversity of wildlife, which boasts of the highest number of protected species in India with over 40. Home to as many as 21 of the 41 Schedule I (Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972) species of mammals, the Manas National Park is the haven of 60 mammals, 42 reptiles (11 families), over 370 birds, seven amphibians (five families), 54 fishes (19 families and nine orders), and over 100 insects. Of the 21 endangered mammal species found in Manas, some, such as the pigmy hog, the hispid hare and the golden langur are endemic to it. In fact, Manas boasts of the only viable population of the pigmy hog, the smallest and rarest wild boar, anywhere in tile world.
The avian population in Manas is as impressive as other life forms found in abundance in the Park. Of the 370-odd species of birds, ten are listed in the Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. These flying seraphs, with their lustrous plumage and animated chirping, lend a unique touch of colour and vibrancy to the forest. Since time immemorial the abundance and diversity of wildlife in Manas has been the stuff of folklores and legends. It has few parallels in wildlife diversity as well as scenic beauty. Celebrated as the abode of tigers, leopards, bears, elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, paufi-. and as many as five species of deer, Manas has come to symbolize the most vibrant -wilderness in the State.
The life-giving Manas river, to which the National Park owes its name, is the largest Himalayan tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra. Emerging out of the rugged mountainous terrain of Bhutan, the Manas splits into two major channels - the Beki and the Hakua — besides a number of smaller streams as it enters the plains of the reserve at Mathanguri. These channels, together with other smaller rivers running through the reserve, carry enormous amounts of silt and rock from the foothills. In the process, they csi’eatc alluvial terraces, comprising deep layers of deposited rock and detritus overlain with sandy loam and a thin layer of humus, so essential for the forest. Floods though occur regularly, have not been much of a problem in Manas. This is because of its topography that gently slopes towards the south from the north. The area of die Beki basin towards the west of the Park is inundated during the monsoon, but rarely for long due to the sloping relief. Mortality of wildlife due to flood has been negligible, as animals are able to take refuge on the islands of high ground.
While the famed Kaziranga National Park celebrated its centenary this year in a grand and befitting manner, few are aware of the fact that the Manas National Park too has a history as old as that of Kaziranga, and its hundredth anniversary coincided with Kaziranga. By no means less endowed and less exciting than Kaziranga in terms of biodiversity (in fact, Manas’ biodiversity is regarded as richer), Manas has been relegated to the background ever since it was affected by the decade-long social unrest from the late 1980s that did substantial harm to its flora and fauna. The faunal life of Manas was the worst hit, as hundreds of animals — elephant, deer, rhino and tiger—fell prey to poachers, insurgents, and all sorts of wrongdoers. The tiger population plummeted to 64 (1997 count) from a peak of 125 in the late 1980s; almost the entire rhino population (around 100) was wiped out; the over 1,000-strong elephant population dwindled to half that figure.
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