Author: Ravi Kailas (email@example.com)
Dates: 11th to 15th December 2019
What was meant to be a very brief visit to Manas last December, turned out longer, thanks to the intricacies of India’s vibrant democracy and politics. I could have, after 2 nights here, travelled as planned though, to Kakoijana Reserve Forest, then onward to Kaziranga NP and Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary – however, such a move would have probably resulted in me being hit by rock targeting my nut (or something equally unpleasant). There was also a faint possibility of me escaping unscathed, but I decided to play the percentages and brave the alternative of staying back close to a friendly village in a quiet corner of Assam with three square meals of fresh, Assamese grub, unlimited tea and with an alluring, biodiverse national park, largely bereft of other tourists to boot, at my door-step. The fact that Manas hosts some of India’s rarest mammals (including species like Mainland Clouded Leopard, Binturong, Pygmy Hog and Hispid Hare), with at least a vague chance of seeing them, and a reputation for fantastic birdlife (including as one of the best places to see Bengal Florican in its breeding season, and a whole host of birdlife where the Brahmaputra’s floodplains meet the Eastern Himalayas), made the decision to stay put a no-brainer. And there were tantalising prospects like staying the famed, superbly located, Mathanguri FRH, which at other times, would be booked out well in advance and visits to Bhutan, via the contiguous Royal Manas National Park ….
This trip, however, was not just any other wildlife travel experience, with the rather more relaxed pace of it (albeit, forced upon by the circumstances), allowed me to look a little bit under the hood of the park – once a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its wildlife riches, then devastated by insurgency and its side-effects on its wildlife, bouncing back of late, but still a pale shadow of its (reputedly) former self. Samson (my naturalist guide), reminisced about the superb quality of the grasslands in the past, now slowly taken over by woodland and weedy species. He spoke about of the disturbance caused by ever increasing vehicular movement moving into Bhutan through Manas (an 24hr affair), and correlating this to how many species that were relatively easy to see earlier (Leopard Cat! among them), were hardly seen these days. About how the population of Indian Peafowl had increased tremendously (the ecological causes and implications?) and to a lesser extent, of leopards (on the face of it, a desirable situation, but could there be a more sinister ecological cause for this?). On the bright side, Samson spoke about lasting peace in the region after decades of insurgency, villages here, even during the troubled times when I visited, calm and peaceful, insulated from the political strife that had brought the rest of Assam to a standstill……
The Wildlife …..
As it turned out, the birdlife was impressive and engrossing, especially for sheer numbers and diversity, reflective of the variety of habitats that Manas encompasses, with species like Silver-breasted Broadbill, Collared Falconet, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Chestnut-capped Babbler, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Speckled Piculet, Black-backed and Slaty-backed Forktails, Rufous-necked Laughingthrush, Pin-striped Tit Babbler, Small Niltava and Pin-tailed Green Pigeon among the highlights. The richness of this birdlife was especially evident on a full day outing to Mathanguri FRH from the Bansbari entrance gate, with 88 species (including most of the aforementioned highlights, some in noisy, abundant, mixed flocks of Phylloscopus warblers, woodpeckers, nuthatches, drongos, fantails and minivets) making it to the list, as we patiently scoured the various game roads, exploring the lowland forests and grasslands, on a crisply cool, clear day. Another feature of the birdlife on this visit was the sheer abundance of Green Pigeons (especially of Yellow-footed, but also Pin-tailed), most seen feeding on copiously fruiting Bischofia javanica (these fruits also attracted barbets, bulbuls and parakeets in good numbers). The road to Bhutan from Mathanguri, through a distinctly different (to the typical floodplains habitat on the Indian side) hill forest, promised much for birdlife, but turned out surprisingly quiet on that front (admittedly though, the birding effort was somewhat limited by pressures of time). However, efforts on this route did prove productive for the lovely Sultan Tit, Slaty-backed Forktail and Crimson and Black-throated Sunbirds, that I had not seen in the Indian side of Manas. There was decent birdlife as well, on the fringes of the park, walking around the predominantly tea plantation dominated countryside, with patches of woodland and settlements to break the monotony, and also along the fence demarcating the park boundary, producing species like Yellow-vented Warbler, Little Pied Flycatcher and Common Quail, among commoner birds, between frequent stops for black tea and snacks. Nights in the vicinity of my lodge, often in efforts to find a bar of mobile connectivity (the other bars were shut given the political situation) to enquire about happenings in the outside world (necessary to plot my escape back home via this potential death trap – or so the television media had me believe) produced Brown Hawk Owl and Asian Barred Owlet.
While Manas’s rarer mammals were always going to be, well, rare, I was treated to good sightings of One-horned Rhinoceros (reintroduced here about 15 years back, after the local population was decimated by poaching), Asian Elephant, Assamese Macaque, Capped Langur and a host of other smaller mammals. Among them were numerous sightings of three diurnal squirrels, namely, Black Giant, Hoary-Bellied and the diminutive Himalayan Striped. The only sighting of Assamese Macaque was on the forest road leading from Mathanguri to Bhutan (pic below). The presence of Assamese Macaque surprised Samson (my guide), who had, until now, identified them as the similar looking Rhesus Macaque. For large mammals, the clearing overlooked by the Bura Buri (?) watch-tower was a productive site, where elephant, rhino and gaur are attracted to the salt put out by the forest staff (a less than desirable practise for attracting wildlife, discontinued in more evolved parks). Among the (realistic) target species of mine was to see Crab-eating Mongoose, which are known from this landscape, but dedicated efforts looking around jungle streams and ponds, was productive only for single sighting of the more widespread Small Indian Mongoose. Another creature that my guide was keen to show me was a Black Panther, which are reputedly seen, somewhat regularly, in Manas. As it turned out, no luck on that front, nor for the more common variant of the Leopard (except pug marks on the road leading to Bhutan from Mathanguri). There was no sign of Gee’s Golden Langur either, which were once regular just across the river (in Bhutan) from Mathanguri, but now, reputedly, very irregular in these parts. As per my guide, night forays along the park boundary adjacent to the Bansbari Gate, can sometimes be productive for Hispid Hare, but given the troubled times, I was advised not to venture out in the dark, so I cannot confirm either way. Mainland Clouded Leopard are seen once or twice a year in Manas, so perhaps not a realistic target species here, especially given the restrictions for tourists to move around in the dark. However, on my evening visit to Bhutan, on the 13km drive (one way) from Mathanguri to Panbang and back, on a road which is open for traffic through the night (technically though, I understood, only for Bhutanese nationals going back and forth), extended into the dark – giving me an opportunity to look for mammals (and what mouth-watering possibilities in these parts!, but I had no luck whatsoever on this effort) in the dark in a very promising stretch of hill forest. There was nobody on either the Bhutanese or Indian sides to monitor the road either, but this could just be an aberration (given the exceptional circumstances) and you might get an untimely tap on your shoulder, just as you focus on a cat like animal skulking in the undergrowth, when you try. One does need to stay at the Mathanguri FRH though, for this potential activity, and the probability of confirmed bookings here, on the dates of your choice, may just be about be as likely as coming across the mammals you are keenly seeking out in these parts!
The arrangements for the accommodation in Manas and the taxi that ferried me from Guwahati was through the excellent Ankur Burman, who operates a regionally focussed travel outfit, freelances as a guide, owns a restaurant serving Assamese cuisine (Green Chilly Restaurant near Abhyapuri, an hour or so from Manas) and works for a wildlife conservation organisation called Aranyak. Do get in touch with him for your local travel needs (including for safaris in Manas NP and the rest of Assam), taxi bookings, cycling expeditions, camping experiences and other locally oriented experiential travel – +91 97063 42001/+91 60013 04125. I was especially impressed with the extra care and concern from his end, to keep me safe, updated on local conditions as they evolved and his assistance to get me back home, in those times of strife and uncertainty in Assam.
The affable Gopen Indigo (+91 97069 61022), the driver (and owner) of the Swift Dzire (my taxi), had some inside scoop on the best samosas and jaal mudi at the village near Bansbari Gate and was generally patient and obliging with my (potentially) inexplicable fascination with monkeys, birds and mammal poo.
I stayed at the Birina Lodge, about a km from the Bansbari Gate. The budget accommodation is pleasantly located amidst tea plantations, in a rural landscape, with simple and rustic rooms, comfortably furnished (they offer both independent cottages and spacious rooms in the main building, with en-suite facilities). The food was simple, delicious, local style cuisine with rotis, rice, dal and freshly sourced veggies (the brinjal was insanely soft!) as the mainstay. A special thanks to Mr Kishak Pathak, the manager at the lodge, and all his staff for the friendly hospitality and making me feel very safe, when I was almost the only tourist in general vicinity. Mr. Kishak was also suitably well connected with the forest department and helped arrange my accommodation at Mathanguri FRH, all the safari logistics, including my naturalist guide, Samson (who turned out to be a very good birder and suitably well informed about the nuances of Manas as will be useful to nature enthusiasts. Do get in touch with him for your guiding needs here +91 7986942708).
Mathanguri and across to Bhutan
Readers who have braved the piece thus far, would have likely guessed, a. that I managed a brief stay at the Mathanguri FRH, and, b. that I entered Bhutan from there.
Mathanguri Forest Resthouse is a forest department managed set-up about 20km from the Bansbari Gate, on the Bhutan border. The unfenced building is spectacularly located on the high banks of the Manas River, overlooking the river and the forested hills of the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan (a contiguous protected area with India’s Manas NP). My overnight stay here was one of those totally unplanned, serendipitous events, facilitated, ironically, by my being ‘forced’ to stay back in Manas, while other visitors, some of whom had managed to book rooms here at this time, had to cancel their plans for the same reasons.
Panbang, the closest town in Bhutan, is about 13Km from Mathanguri, on a dirt road through a lovely, fern-adorned hill forest, crisscrossing numerous, crystal clear streams with the shingle-filled Manas River a constant companion on one side of the road. However, one enters Bhutan (and the Royal Manas NP), within a km from Mathanguri and the road is bereft of any other settlement until reaching a check-post at Panbang.
Indian Nationals are allowed into this charming little town, for a small fee (and upon producing a Passport or Voter ID … I managed with an Aadhar though), during the day – so close to India, yet quite distinct in appearance, language and religion – but can only access a small portion of it. While the town is connected to the rest of Bhutan by road, visitors are not allowed to enter further into the country through this border (and my feeble attempts to make good a grandiose plan to get back home via Bhutan, to avoid the strife torn route via Assam, was effectively thwarted by a friendly, but firm lady, in-charge of the entrance tickets at the check-post). The town has a smattering of restaurants (better stocked with Druk beer and green tea than vegetarian food), lodging (where visitors entering through this border cannot stay overnight in any-case) and shops. While visiting there in the morning, I tried an interesting breakfast fare of rice with a creamy potato dish, rich in turmeric, and Dal, distinctly seasoned with star anise, served with a side of green chilly, onion and Kaaza Nimbu (a very aromatic, elongated lemon from Assam). The food was definitely familiar but there was something charmingly foreign about it as well. It might help to know that Indian Rupees is accepted in Panbang (and I understand in the rest of Bhutan), but you will likely get your change in the local currency.
List of Mammals Seen
Asiatic Elephant Elephas maximus
Asiatic Water Buffalo Bubalus arnee
Greater One-horned Rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis
Gaur Bos gaurus
Indian Munjtac Muntiacus muntjak
Sambar Cervus unicolor
Wild Pig Sus scrofa
Himalayan Striped Squirrel Tamiops mcclellandii
Black Giant Squirrel Ratufa bicolor
Hoary-bellied Squirrel Callosciurus pygerythrus
Capped Langur Trachypithecus pileatus
Assamese Macaque Macaca assamensis
Rhesus Macaque Macaca mulatta
Small Indian Mongoose Herpestes auropunctatus
List of Birds Seen
Asian Barred Owlet
Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Blyth’s Leaf Warbler
Asian Brown Flycatcher
Pale Blue Flycatcher
Little Pied Flycatcher
Asian Pied Starling