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The resilience of Manas

After a long period of plunder and civil unrest, one of India's greatest biospheres makes a remarkable comeback

Manas Tiger Reserve and National Park in Assam.
Manas Tiger Reserve and National Park in Assam.

2016 was a difficult year for wildlife. Continuous habitat loss pushing species to extinction, or to the brink of it, became common-feature news. The hunting and poaching of wild animals for illegal trade went on unabated. Then there was news of rail and road kills (19 elephants were killed in collisions with trains in 2016).

It was a particularly sad year at the Panna Tiger Reserve. Panna, which lost its entire tiger population to poaching in 2008, bounced back after a successful reintroduction and conservation programme. By April, tiger numbers had crossed 50 and the re-wilding work was lauded at a global conservation meet, as a rare conservation success story to be replicated at other sites. But much of this good work will be undone, for the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has cleared the Ken-Betwa river-linking project, which will cause a loss of approximately 200 sq. km (core and buffer areas combined) in the tiger reserve. Ironically, the decision came a few days before India celebrated Wildlife Week in October.

Amid all the gloom, however, there is still a glimmer of hope. Last month, I revisited the Manas Tiger Reserve and National Park in north-west Assam (it extends to Bhutan in the north, where it is known as the Royal Manas National Park) to witness a remarkable comeback, although much work still remains to be done to restore it to its former glory.

Soon after it received the status of Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985, Manas was plunged into violence as an armed struggle for a Bodoland state carved out of Assam took centre stage. From the late 1980s to early 2000s, the forest was a hotbed of militancy that nearly wiped out the park’s mega fauna—tiger, rhino, elephant, wild buffalo and deer. Large-scale timber felling was reported but no official dared to venture even close to the park.

The mindless plunder continued till the early 2000s. Things began to change slowly from 2003, after the Bodo Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) surrendered, a peace agreement was reached and the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) formed. A couple of years later, another militant group, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), also signed a ceasefire agreement.

For wildlife conservationists, Manas was the crown jewel in India’s national parks, home to “22 of India’s most threatened species of mammals and 26 globally threatened birds", such as the Assam roofed turtle, Hispid hare, golden langur, capped langur, Pygmy hog and Bengal florican. Its range of habitats harboured a rich diversity of plant life—the Unesco report mentions 89 tree species, 49 shrubs, 37 undershrubs, 172 herbs, 36 climbers, 15 orchids, 18 ferns and 43 species of grasses.

Manas is also an elephant reserve and biosphere reserve.

It was only after the peace accord that forest officials and conservationists could return to work and survey the park. “The Manas National Park was almost completely stripped of its faunal and floral heritage during the period of civil unrest in the region. The park lost almost all its 100 or so rhinos, most of its swamp deer and wild buffaloes and a large number of elephants and tigers along with a myriad other creatures during the peak of the poaching period. I was one of the few biologists who visited the park just after the dark years and I was stuck by its resilience and stark beauty despite the years of damage done to it," says Vivek Menon, executive director and chief executive officer, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). This writer’s maiden visit too was soon after the truce, but sporadic instances of violence and kidnapping kept nature enthusiasts away from the park.

In 2005, Menon and his team did a survey to take stock and produced a report on how to restore the lost glory of Manas—it was titled Bringing Back Manas. In January 2006, the WTI reintroduced the great one-horned rhinoceros to the park. This was the first rescued and rehabilitated rhino in South Asia. Since then, the WTI has successfully rehabilitated Asian elephants, clouded leopards and Asiatic black bears. A large part of the restoration of habitat and species relocation was made possible with support and funding from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw). “When no one wanted to invest in this troubled landscape, Ifaw’s steadfast support to Manas for a decade is commendable," says Menon.

There were other conservationists too who helped in the restoration and infrastructure process. While Goutam Narayan from the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme in Guwahati released the rare suids (pig family), wildlife biologist Bibhuti Lahkar worked tirelessly for the restoration and better management of grasslands, a necessity for species like Pygmy hogs and Hispid hares. Lahkar also played a role in the rehabilitation of poachers who surrendered, and in training local youth as park protectors.

In September, Lahkar was recognized as a Heritage Hero for his work in Manas by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at the World Conservation Congress. A message from IUCN states, “The most tangible result to have emerged from Lahkar’s work has been its removal from the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2011.

BTC’s deputy chief Kampa Borgoyary has played an important role in “Bringing Back Manas", says Menon. He has been keen to conserve Manas and the region’s wildlife of the region so that the indigenous Bodo people can enjoy the benefits of ecosystem services.

In August, Borgoyary announced the first addition of 350 sq. km area to the existing 500 sq. km of Manas National Park. This is a step towards project Greater Manas—a larger landscape of 1,400 sq. km of Manas Tiger Reserve. In Borgoyary’s words: “Bringing back Manas is very close to my heart. This is a cherished treasure of this region and I, on behalf of the Bodoland Territorial Council, invite people to help in its restoration."

Out In The Wild is a column on the good, bad and ugly of nature conservation. Ananda tweets at @protectwildlife.

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