Manas National Park on the Indo-Bhutan border is one of the most picturesque bio-reserves in the country. Steps towards conservation, however, need to be expedited, says well-known wildlife filmmaker MIKE PANDEY

A tigers domain, situated at the foothills of the Himalayas touching the borders of Bhutan, Manas is wilderness beyond compare. A world heritage site and bio-reserve, it is perhaps one of the most pristine, virgin and primordial wilderness reserves in India. The Paradise of the North East, the park extends over the border into Bhutan where it is called the Royal Manas Park . Situated at a distance of a three hour journey from Assam Capital Guwahati, it is completely accessible with motorable roads.

The Manas National Park is a tiger and elephant reserve. Jeep rides and boat rides inside the park are available but it is best explored on elephant back. My morning elephant ride was one of the best I ever had. I was up early and on the move at the first sign of dawn, thick morning mist engulfed everything, swirling ,dissipating and condensing into droplets of fine dew the moment it touched anything, and I witnessed nature’s dynamic hydrological cycle at work .

There was no rain but I was soaked to the skin, thick water-laden mist bathed the forest. Millions of tiny little dew drops hung from each leaf and blade of grass. The droplets broke into a million and every time the sparkling sun caught them, they shimmered like diamonds. The condensation in the thick jungle dripped to the ground, forming minute rivulets which crisscrossed the park draining the area, and gathered into little streams and finally formed a body of water.

In many places, the elephant sunk to its knees in soft mud, its belly almost touching the ground as it traversed across the soft swampy stretches. But the ease with which it negotiated the swamp was a classic example of the elephants adaptation to a wetland ecosystem.

The bio diversity there was remarkable…large areas of tall and thick elephant grass covered the dense mixed forest areas, suddenly giving way to open patches of sunlit meadows.

It was a pleasure to see huge trees that stood firmly on wet swamps. Ferns and shrubs thickly carpet the floor of this unique wetland.

Inspite of the elephant grass and the undergrowth, I saw plenty of pug marks, that were unmistakeably of tigers. Then I saw a rare sight, almost a dream, a leopard with her two cubs! Unhurried, she walked a little distance in an open area, turned around and gave us a long look before melting away into the protection of the thick undergrowth.

The wild elephants were shy and the tall thick grass made a super shield for them. I still managed to see a small herd of five wild elephants. According to estimates, there are nearly a thousand elephants in this area. They keep moving across the border between Bhutan and the Manas Nationsl Park.

Even as I was soaking in the natural beauty of the place, my young elephant suddenly halted in its tracks and backed away, trumpeting and rumbling. It had picked the odour of some animal, said the mahout. The older, mature female elephant accompanying us took the lead. She moved towards the edge of the pool, trunk extended to sniff the ground. A large patch of flattened grass near a water pool betrayed the presence of some animal, some of the flattened grass was bouncing back, the animal had just left the place…maybe a tiger or a leopard, said the mahout. A large herd of wild buffaloes, many with young calves, grazed on the other side of the pool. The mahout excitedly pointed, whispering, “Tiger tiger”. At the edge of the pool, in the soft mud, I saw large pugmarks along with dozens of tiny ones, the pugmarks confirmed the presence of a tigress and her cubs. The freshly crushed grass gave away her location and I looked around for a glimpse of the big cat, the undergrowth was thickly carpeted with ferns grass. After sometime, I realised that we had had just missed an encounter with the master of stealth and camouflage, the protector of the jungles…the Tiger of Manas, but I had an eerie feeling that we were being watched .

Manas is also a bird watchers’ paradise. Bird songs and calls are a constant accompaniment throughout the ride. There were many I couldn’t recognise…all within 18 hours of arrival. Wild boar crossed our path several times and herds of sambhar and deer grazed peacefully in small groups.

I emerged out of the now wet and dripping forest and headed for the river Beki. The Beki river bank was covered with fine white sand…in several places, the pug marks of the leopard and twice of a lone tiger, were visible. A huge tree — at least six feet in radius and easily a hundred foot long — lay toppled on to the riverbed along with two smaller ones…its large roots spangled out reaching for the sky, a giant of the forest brought down by the might of the turbulent Beki river which is fast eating away into the soft soil of the fragile forest .

The erosion has been devastating, I saw huge chunks of the bank crumble away and crash into the river only to be whisked away by the strong current of Beki. The Mathanguri forest rest house, a heritage building built by the British close to the Bhutan border, is in great danger from the largescale erosion of the riverbanks. Over the years, the turbulent river has edged closer to the Forest Department’s rest house, it may be just a matter of another bad season of flood or heavy rain to bring it down.

Sad, parts of Manas is being washed away by the river every day. A protective deflector bank needs to be built immediately to create a barrier against the strong currents if we are to save the heritage building and stop the river from eroding its banks further. This has to be done on war footing if we are to retain the forest rest house.

Apart from the river erosion, Manas needs infrastructural support and more manpower, jeeps and motorcycles for patrolling. I saw commitment and dedication on the part of the patrolling officers and loyal, experienced guards but sadly they were ill equipped with almost no support or a back-up which is essential and basic to park management. A few walkie talkies, with the elephant guards, was a source of comfort, but not enough. Most workers and guards are casual labourers, their living conditions in the mosquito infested area could see improvement. Many workers have not been paid for over a year or 14 months, I was told.

Manas has a herd of about 40 trained elephants. But their ration supply is barely enough for them. I wondered why was there such neglect when our wildlife heritages and environment needs to be top priority?

At the same time I was happy to see the field director in the forest area till late at night, talking to the guards and checking equipment and sharing information with tourists. I was also fortunate to meet one of the high profile leaders of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), who, I was told, was on his regular inspection tour of the forest area. His one-to-one interaction with the forest guards reflected concern for the forest, such commitment, dedication and concerns at personal levels are needed from people in public life all over the country if we are to make a difference. On expressing my concern at the dangers posed by the river Beki, he said that action had been initiated from the ground level many months ago and they were awaiting response from the Government.

This wonderful park is one of the best in the country and has tremendous potential. Manas is slowly beginning to regain its original glory, but more needs to be done. If we are really serious about protecting the tiger, we must protect our forests. The need for a collaborative effort at the policy levels, that of environmental scientists along with the local communities is crucial. We all need to come together if want to make a difference and protect our heritage and our only home…the Earth.

The current challenges are many, the threat of climate change and melting glaciers are a reality…add to this water shortage and food security. When the glaciers melt and dry out, these forests and wetlands will be the major source of water. There is an urgent need to protect our wilderness. But if we continue to decimate the trees, reclaim wetlands to build colonies and industry and encroach on the grasslands, there will be no water or wilderness left. This is the last frontier and there is an urgent need to protect these last oases of life.