Manas: Aconservation road less travelled

ROOPAK GOSWAMI T he road to Manas National Park — one of the country's richest wildlife areas in Assam — does not seem to be on the itinerary for Assam's politicians.

No forest minister of the state has gone to Manas — a World Heritage Site in almost a decade — to get a first- hand account of the problems it faces.

There is a lurking danger that if the situation does not improve, it may well lose its hard fought heritage site tag, which it got back in 2011.

The national park that is noted for its spectacular scenery, with a variety of habitat that support a diverse fauna, falls under Kokrajhar parliamentary constituency, which goes to polls on April 24.

Well- known wildlife conservationist Bittu Sahgal says, " Manas is a tragedy foretold.

One of the world's most exquisite forests, it lies neglected and victim to both politics and social unrest. The forest minister of Assam should visit the park and speak to locals about protecting it." " The Bodo people themselves should recognise this heritage site as vital to their identity. It is a tragedy that they have allowed outside influences to destabilise the ecology of this forest, which actually belongs to their own children and should have been protected forever," Sahgal told The Telegraph . After the elections were announced, a rally was addressed by party president and BTC chief Hagrama Mohilary on April 18, along with party MP ( Rajya Sabha) Biswajit Daimary, to campaign for its candidate, Chandan Brahma, at Rupahi, 4km south of Manas, but there was no mention of Manas.

Six candidates — Chandan Brahma ( BPF), Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary ( Trinamul), Urkhao Gwra Brahma ( Independent), Sansuma Khunggur Bwiswmuthiary ( Independent), Sabda Ram Rabha ( Independent), Hira Sarania ( Independent) are fighting for the Kokrajhar parliamentary seat ( ST).

" There has been no mention of Manas till now by political leaders in the rally today," Ajay Kherkatary, the president of the Manas Bhuyanpara Conservation and Ecotourism Society, told The Telegraph . " We have been telling the political leaders of the need to provide importance to Manas through action. For us, Manas is important and we have to save it," he said.

Rhino conservationist Bibhab Talukdar, who is the chair of the Asian Rhino Specialist Group, says that Manas has been ignored by politicians. " I feel that Manas, being a World Heritage Site and also a tiger reserve, has been ignored by all politicians. Manas has been witnessing many challenges like Kaziranga, but for conservation and protection purposes, Kaziranga always gets more priority and publicity and support. After the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council, Manas seems to be hanging between the two power centres — the state and the council. Both lack the strong willingness to assist each other to promote Manas," he told The Telegraph . The national park takes its name from the Manas river, a trans- boundary river in the Himalayan foothills between southern Bhutan and India.

It is named after Manasa, the serpent god in Hindu mythology.

Forest officials concede the fact that Kaziranga has always got more from the state than Manas despite the latter being more rich in wildlife diversity.

The park has six national and international designations — World Heritage Site, national park, tiger reserve, biosphere reserve, elephant reserve and important bird area — which probably no other protected park in the country has. A total of 55 mammals, 36 reptiles and three amphibians have been recorded in Manas which harbours by far the greatest number of Schedule I mammals of any protected area in the country.

Eighteen rhinos were translocated to Manas, of which poachers killed seven after it got back its heritage tag in 2011. " This is indeed a great setback towards restrengthening Manas to gain its lost glory back. BTC should take it as a challenge to manage Manas as best as possible and compete positively with Kaziranga," Talukdar said.

Though the BTC runs the park on a day- to- day basis, it is governed by the Wildlife ( Protection) Act, 1972 ( as amended in 2006). " Permission for doing research in Manas has to be taken from the chief wildlife warden," a wildlife researcher said.

" Manas should be on the political agenda of Assam if we are to save it," Rathin Barman, another wildlife conservationist who has been involved in the rhino rehabilitation in Manas, said.

According to a IUCN report on Terrestrial Biodiversity and the World Heritage Site List, the importance of Manas is much more than Kaziranga by the criteria of " irreplaceability". Manas is 417th in rank in terms of irreplaceability whereas Kaziranga is 2,236.

This apart, there is a potential source of conflict between Assam forest department and the BTC on the power.

Under the Memorandum of Settlement on Bodoland Territorial Council 2003, forests has been transferred to BTC but not wildlife.

The problems Manas faces are enormous — from militants, rising encroachment, poaching, delay in getting funds, vacant posts which have dealt a blow to it.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority says the incidents of rhino poaching in Manas have definitely been a cause for concern and evidence collected from the scene of the crime confirms the use of sophisticated weapons, bullets for which have been recovered.

Both sides have been accusing each other for not doing enough for conservation of Manas with the result that the park is losing out.

 Kokrajhar votes on April 24