This column was written based on a recent trip to Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam. The situation in this once glorious reserve, with its unique biodiversity, was depressing. It was impossible to imagine it sinking further, but terrible new has just come in. With the outbreak of violence in Bodoland Territorial Area District, the fallout on Manas has been grave, and may well prove fatal, if urgent measures are no taken to step up security to protect the reserve.

Golden langurs in Manas: Prerna Singh Bindra
Golden langurs in Manas: Prerna Singh Bindra

The blatant neglect and slow of death of Manas is evident even from its spectacular heritage forest rest house at Mathanguri, in the heart of the National Park. Mathanguri has to be one of the most beautiful spots on earth, offering  a stunning view of River Beki and the forests across––Bhutan’s Royal Manas Park, where I had spent time that morning with the golden langur, endemic to the region, a blonde––and may I say lovelier––version of the variety we see across the country. From the rest house itself an array of wildlife can seen—wild buffaloes that wallow in the river, great Indian hornbills flying across the Beki and into Bhutan, the occasional capped langur, and elephants.

Marring this pristine forest and the peaceful environs is the constant drone of JCBs, excavators, dumpers hard at work to change the course of the Beki and divert its water to River Manas which has dried up. Boulder and sand extraction continues from dawn to dusk, disturbing wildlife and in blatant violation of the Wildlife Protection Act. Shockingly, according to reports the work has been ongoing since the past four years. River Manas has dried up since 2004, by some reports this could be because of hydel projects upstream. Reportedly, these are efforts to try and ‘revive’ the Manas so as to provide its waters to the villages downstream, and also an attempt to prevent Beki from changing its course as it pushes towards, and threatens to sweep away the Mathanguri Rest House.

A key concern in Manas Tiger Reserve is poaching. Seven rhinos have been poached in the park (there are currently 31 rhinos here) in the last three years. Five were killed in 2013––the last on 31st December, when a female rhino was slaughtered in the Bansbari range of the park. She had been translocated from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary under the ‘Indian Rhino Vision 2020’ programme in a bid to repopulate the reserve after the species was practically wiped out by poachers during the height of Bodo insurgency in the 1990s.

On 20th September last year, three Indian nationals were arrested at Gelephu (Bhutan) with a tiger skin and bones. The tiger––disdainful of manmade boundaries––traversed both countries. Matching the photographs of the skin with camera trapped images revealed that the tiger that had been frequently observed along the Indo-Bhutanese border in Manas. The tiger was first photo-captured in Bhutan on 18th November 2010 and last at Bansbari range of Manas National Park in India on 27th November 2012.Unfortunately, the offenders penalised under Bhutan’s Forest and Nature Conservation Act, 1995 and Rules, 2006, have been let off lightly.

One key reason for the breakdown of protection is the staff situation in Manas. There is an acute shortage of staff and the existing staff is demotivated and demoralised with the lack of basic facilities and the return of insurgency.

A better working relationship between India and Bhutan in terms of coordinated patrolling exercises, sharing information, etc is crucial. The Indo-Bhutan bilateral pact, which is languishing at the Centre since over a year, needs to be pushed through at the earliest.

Another worrying issue is the unchecked encroachment––especially in the Bhuyanpara range in the core/critical tiger habitat of Manas––which  has doubled to eight square km from four last year. Large grasslands too have been converted to woodland mainly due to faulty management practices and a failure to understand the importance of the grassland ecosystem which is vital for rhinos as well as to support habitat specialist species like hispid hare, pygmy hog, Bengal florican, wild buffalo, etc.

Manas is also plagued by administrative issues, with its buffer out of the purview of the field director.  A large part of Manas is also managed by the Bodololand Territorial Council (BTC), adding to the ambiguity and complexity of managing the park. This gets further complicated as the entire area of Manas Tiger Reserve falls under the BTC, though ‘wildlife’ continues to be the jurisdiction of the Chief Wildlife Warden, who is responsible for implementing the Wildlife Protection Act here. Constant dialogue and mutual support between the state and BTC is therefore critical for Manas to survive, and flourish.

Manas is one of the ‘original’ tiger reserves of 1973 and harbours a number of other endangered species such as wild buffaloes, rhinos, Bengal florican, hispid hare, pygmy hog, golden langur… to name a few. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1985. Its downslide began soon after with the park and its wildlife being ravaged––bearing the brunt of armed insurgency,  poaching,  smuggling and political unrest. Forest chowkis were burnt, foresters were killed and department elephants shot. All the park’s rhinos were wiped out, elephants, tigers and other wildlife slaughtered ruthlessly; by some reports, the illegal wildlife trade and timber smuggling also helped finance the movement.

Given the situation, in 1992 Manas was listed as a ‘World Heritage Site in Danger’.

Manas overcame this terrible ordeal, recovering with tremendous efforts by the state, park management, staff local communities and assisted by the Centre and NGOs. It earned a place off the ‘Danger’ list after 19 years.

Manas, today, again stands at breaking point.  Two days ago, with the outbreak of violence in the region, over 5,000 villagers surrounded and mobbed the Bansbari Range Office causing extensive damage and compelling Forest staff to fire in self-defence. Another camp in the national park, Narayangudi, has been burnt and destroyed and park vehicles have been targeted too. Vehicles of conservation NGOs working the region were also attacked. It is reported that there is a move to withdraw all arms from forest staff in Manas NP. If this is done, how will they defend themselves and the wildlife of Manas in the face of such threats?

It is critical to strengthen the security by putting in paramilitary forces till situations improve and normal patrolling inside Manas can be facilitated. Equally, the forest staff and management of Manas must be supported and strengthened.

Manas unfortunately is the state’s stepchild, failing to garner support, as priority and focus of the governments and the media are centred around Kaziranga. The state has failed to back the reserve and its management or address the lack of governance which has led to the current situation. Similarly, it has dawdled on consolidating Manas by failing to notify the extension of Manas National Park as proposed by UNESCO World Heritage Site. Similarly, the Ripu Chirang Sanctuary––a crucial tiger area, which will provide a buffer to the park has been proposed, but  is also pending with the state, even as the area is being encroached and hammered by anthropogenic pressures.

Manas is one of our finest tiger reserves… and yet, it languishes, lacking the support and focus of a an apathetic state which has failed to give this tiger reserve protection and priority.

 

This article first appeared in The Pioneer on 7th May, 2014

Photograph: Prerna Singh Bindra