The tremendous diversity in flora and fauna has given rise to numerous National Park’s in Assam. Among them is a lesser known area of incredible bio-diversity, which because of its conservation efforts in the 70’s and 80’s had been given the prestige of being named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. But came the 90’s and this rich region had suffered at the hands of under development and rampant poaching. The situation was so severe that UNESCO had to name it under the ” in Danger ” category in 1992.
Eighteen years later, me and my nature loving friend Neil were on our way to the Manas National Park and Tiger Reserve. I had no idea on what to expect. But from what I had heard, the wilderness was slowly rejuvenating, and the population count of various species was on the rise. But I had no intentions of indulging in false hopes unless I saw with my own eyes the change. I began my journey from Guwahati and the ride to Manas took us two hour. On the way, I had the privilege of visiting two important towns of Assam, namely Saulkuchi and Hajo. Saulkuchi is supposedly one of the biggest weaving villages of the world, often referred to as “The Manchester of the East”. Hajo is a holy town for three religions, namely Hinduism, Buddhism & Islam; dotted with many ancient places of worship and there is indeed a very holy & spiritual vibe around the town, and one always feels closer to God there. The journey also took me across the beautiful rural landscape of Assam, where numerous paddy fields marked the horizon.
Soon I could feel a change in the air. From my experience with jungles I have realized that a good forest has a certain air of mystery and a very intriguing darkness. I knew I was very near to one. I asked the driver, how far we were from Manas, and he said that we were nearby. Now I was excited, I was beginning to feel the forest, the sound of the mystery lying ahead was increasing with every mileIi crossed. A few tea gardens later, and the crooked bumpy road had led to a check post, above it a sign board welcoming visitors to the ‘ Manas National Park ‘. I was already a bit impressed. Beyond the check post lay the forest, and i couldn’t wait to step inside. But it was already evening and I had no option but to find shelter for the night. A few cottages exist in Manas, and after a little search, I ended up staying at a cottage called Florican. Lying just at the perimeter of the forest, Florican was being run by an NGO called Manas Ever Welfare Society (MEWS), and it was a delight to know that the NGO was being managed by the locals. Their main objective was to make the local population aware of their rich natural habitat & also provide jobs to them through means of sustainable Eco-tourism.
It was dusk and I realized the need for a rejuvenating bath. A bit of rest and i was as good as new. I went off to strike a conversation with the manager. He seemed happy to have visitors, but also was a bit annoyed at the tantrums of an old German couple. I found out later they had come to Manas to document birds. I bet the 400 odd species of birds found in Manas would not leave them disappointed. The manager told me that the wilderness was once again returning to Manas, many Tigers had been spotted in recent times, and the population of many other species was also on the rise. He mentioned the decrease in poaching activity, thanks to the government’s new Pro-environment policies. Manas was indeed taking steps to regain its once lost glory. I went back to the room and Neil offered me a cup of heavenly Assam tea. We sat down in the balcony, all quite and at peace with ourselves, discussing about the forest and sharing each other’s excitement. As we drifted into the night, the sound of the forest became louder with every passing hour. It was the voice of the spirit of the forest, of birds and insects chirping in a melodious tune, of animals connecting with each other. I was at ease, nature has always been my second home. We had an early dinner and went to sleep, excited like little children, looking forward to next days jungle safari.
It was early morning, the sky was all orange, as if happy to have the sun back from the darkness of the night. The best part about Manas is that visitors are allowed to take their personal vehicles inside the forest premises, provided they take a forest guard along with them. We eagerly waited for our guard cum guide to arrive, and as soon as he did, we were off the beaten path. I was now entering the jungle, and it did seem very dense & hard to penetrate. A few miles inside, and we were greeted by the presence of a few wild elephants. The forest has an amazing landscape. I felt free from the bounds of the human world and only a great wilderness can provide such a feeling. As we penetrated deeper into the forest, the wilderness became more dense. I noticed many different bird species, and managed to capture a Crested Serpent Eagle on film. But it is the ever elusive Tiger that triggers my curiosity most, and I was waiting and hoping to see one. The guide told me that he had seen one a few days back. A little later I spotted a Deer and from a distance, saw the magnificent Asiatic Wild Buffalo. The Wild Buffalo is a monster, and even the Tiger has no jurisdiction over it. The guide cautioned me, warning me to stay away from these monsters. But i did manage to capture one in my camera, and he was very very huge. Also, there were some Langurs and Hoolock Gibbons ( only ape found in India ). The track that we were off, came to an end; for further on across the Manas river lay the mighty Himalaya’s of the kingdom of Bhutan. A beautiful lodge called “Mothanguri” exists right inside the forest premises near the river at the foothills of Bhutan, providing a magnificent view of the surroundings. We stopped for some tea at the lodge. I did not feel like leaving, I was at a mesmerizing location and wanted to stay on. It was almost afternoon, and it was about time to return back to Florican. After a conflict inside my mind, I convinced and encouraged myself to leave. I still had the return journey and with a hope that i might see a Tiger, I left Mothanguri. I was very conscious and attentive this time around. I didn’t want to miss the sight of something spectacular, but ended up only seeing some Deers. I reached Florican, and had no luck with the Tigers. In India there is a belief that only the luckiest of persons see the Tiger, I guess it was not my lucky day. It was time to leave, and I was more happy than sad. Happy because Manas was indeed reviving and growing, and sad because I was gonna miss the forest.