Manas is one of the richest and most beautiful of protected forests in India, and home to the maximum number of endangered animal species anywhere in the country. It is a designated reserve for the Tiger, the Rhinoceros and the Elephant – but spotting any is no less than a treasure hunt.
And that adds to the charm of Manas. The landscape is covered with thick forests, tall elephant grass and swamps. It is one of the few parks where you can take your car in (with a Government appointed gun-toting guard only to scare away any unfriendly animals) – the safari itself is exhilarating as you drive over mud tracks, crossing streams and being alert for any sight of animals and birds in the growth. Don’t get out of the car though – a tiger could well be camouflaged a few feet away from you. Manas is home to about 80 cats including Tigers, Clouded Leopards and Golden Cats.
About Manas National Park
The Manas National Park lies in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas along the Manas river in the state of Assam in the north-east of India. Its lush landscape comprises forested hills, alluvial grasslands and tropical evergreen forests. It takes its name from the Goddess Manasa. The northern boundary of the park is contiguous to the international border of Bhutan manifested by the imposing Bhutan hills. The tumultuous river swirling down the rugged mountains in the backdrop of forested hills coupled with the serenity of the alluvial grasslands and tropical evergreen forests offers a unique wilderness experience. Manas-Beki is the major river system flowing through the region and joining the Brahmaputra river further downstream.
Manas occupies a crucial position in India’s wildlife, providing habitat to 22 of the country’s most threatened species of mammals. It is home to a total of about 60 mammal species, 42 reptile species, seven amphibians and 500 species of birds. The high plant diversity includes 89 tree species, 49 shrubs, 37 undershrubs, 172 herbs and 36 climbers. Fifteen species of orchids, 18 species of fern and 43 species of grasses that provide vital forage to a range of ungulates (hoofed animal species) also occur here.
* Area covered: 2,800 sq. kms (1,081 sq. miles)
* Earlier name: North Kamrup
* Important dates: Declared a sanctuary on October 1, 1928; designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1985.
* Some animals found here: Elephant, Tiger, Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, Leopard, Sloth Bear, Pygmy Hog, Wild Buffalo, Hispid Hare, Golden Langur, Golden Cat, Wild Dog, Swamp Deer.
* Important birds at Manas: Bengal Florican, Great Pied Hornbill and other species of Hornbills, Spot-billed Pelican, Lesser Adjutant, Greater Adjutant.
When elephants play like children
Certain phenomena occur only once in a lifetime – like witnessing a herd of elephants of all ages playing with one another like children at Manas National Park in Assam. It may well remain the most impressionable moment of all my travels.
Setting out early to spot wildlife and birds in the reserve, I came upon what looked like a group of 2-3 elephants on a dirt track about 50 metres away from me. I braked and, as I watched, the group size increased to a full herd.
Camouflaged in the trees and foliage around the track, they kept coming in and out of the greenery, from babies to giant male members. And all seemed in a jovial mood. They were playing some kind of elephant games, pushing each other into the bushes, climbing on top of the other and engaging in friendly duels. Some of them were even grinning and laughing – their expressions certainly seemed like they were. I could have watched them for hours – I know of many a reputed wildlife conservationist who have spent lifetimes in forests with elephants but not seen them the way I did.
Did I tell you elephants are my favourite animals?
The elephants now want a bath
Elephants love water. And they need regular baths. It can seem quite a job for those designated to keep these animals clean and cool.
The forest department in Manas maintains a stable of elephants, and they are taken for a scrub to the Manas river in the evenings. If you have not seen an elephant being given a wash, add it to your to-dos; it is an education in itself.
A pair of elephants was brought in to the river, and the routine started with the animals spraying themselves (and their mahouts or minders) from their trunks. The mahouts then let out a special call; the big mammals knew it to be a command to lie on their side and did so. A scrub on the top side is followed by another call – and the elephants then turned over to the other side. They actually manage so quite effortlessly! It is usually safe for you to step into the bathtub of tame elephants under supervision of their minders; don’t try it in the wild though!
Hornbills must count as amongst the royalty when it comes to birds. My guide told me they can be spotted every evening as they cross from India into Bhutan. Incidentally, the park extends into Bhutan where it is called the ‘Royal Manas National Park.’ We reached the border close to sunset, waited over an hour but no hornbills came; my guess was they stay home on Sundays. Just when we were about to start back, we heard the flapping sounds from a distance. And, sure enough, there they were. Nearly a dozen in pairs. Sunday was not off, they were doing overtime. The fading light meant I could only see their silhouettes, but the grace of these birds was still visible. Manas is home to the Giant Hornbill, Pied Hornbill and the Grey Hornbill.
On the way back, in near darkness, I had a rare sighting of a Crab-eating Mongoose and a Nightjar; the latter is a nocturnal bird usually out for food at dawn and dusk. It seemed to have red tail-lights like fireflies. Also saw a wild dog – in all likelihood it was out to hunt for musk deer. As a pack, they can be vicious enough to even scare a leopard away commented my guide. He also said we could have seen many more night wildlife – including porcupines – had we come in the park’s vehicle which is equipped with spotlights.
Manas National Park: Travel Tips
* Getting there: It is 176 kms (110 miles) from state capital Guwahati that is well served by trains and flights. Nearest railhead is Barpeta Road, 40 kms (25 miles) away.
* Accommodation: Government-run Tourist Lodge at Barpeta Road (03666-260749). A better option is the Bansbari Lodge (+91.361.2602223 / 2186) run by the Assam Bengal Navigation Company at the entrance to the park. A few other lodges and homestays are coming up around the park. Numbers may have changed though.
* Best time to visit: November to April
* Safaris: You can book an elephant or a SUV safari, or take a boat ride on the Manas river. You are allowed to take your own car with a guide and an armed guard.