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Rebirth of a forest


GREEN STRETCH: The Manas landscape straddles two countries, India and Bhutan

More than a year after it was taken off the danger list of Unesco's World Heritage Sites, Assam's Manas National Park is turning out to be one of the emerging success stories in global conservation. The forest and its ecosystem, which was deemed threatened by Unesco following Bodo militancy in the 1980s and 1990s, is gradually regaining some of its old glory. And plans are afoot to bring the forest, which straddles two countries, India and Bhutan, under a system of trans-boundary management.
It was in 1992 that the park was tagged as a World Heritage Site in Danger by Unesco. Political movements led by Bodo groups were at their height. Armed rebel groups made the pristine and biodiversity-rich Manas a hub of their insurgency activities. There was rampant poaching of wildlife and tree-felling, while park infrastructure was damaged severely. The 100-odd one-horned rhinos that populated the national park were all wiped out during this period.

"Each day brought bad news. Gunfire was heard every now and then. Rhinos and tuskers were slaughtered with impunity. Staff quarters were burnt. We were utterly helpless then, " says a forest official, summing up his experience while serving at the park during the height of insurgency in the early-1990 s.

The phase continued until the signing of Bodo Accord in 2003. The tripartite agreement between Centre, the Assam government and the now-disbanded Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) paved the way for formation of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an administrative organ set up under the sixth schedule of the Constitution.

The signing of the accord came as a breather for Manas. The political will for its conservation and protection displayed by the BTC administration encouraged national and international NGOs to work in the park. Even as conservation efforts were stepped up since 2003 with the active involvement of the Assam forest department, the BTC administration, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), WWF-India, the International Rhino Foundation, Aaranyak and a host of local conservation groups, Manas had to wait till 2011 before it was officially taken off the danger list.

"Manas is a conservation success story for us. Our efforts have shown results leading to the recovery of many of the wildlife species, for which Unesco decided to give the World Heritage Site status back to Manas. Efforts for upgrading the infrastructure, skill development of the field staff and logistical support are on. There is also the need for more participatory engagement of local communities in the conservation of the national park, " says Assam's principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife), Suresh Chand.

The successful reintroduction of rhinos in Manas under the Indian Rhino Vision, 2020, a project of the Assam forest department, has gone a long way in helping the forest get back its heritage status. Since 2008, 22 rhinos have been translocated to Manas from Pobitora wildlife sanctuary and Kaziranga national park. Chand says now the plan is to introduce a swamp deer population as recommended by the World Heritage Centre. To start with, about 20 deer will be translocated from Kaziranga to Manas by the end of this year.

When Manas was declared a World Heritage Site in 1985, it was still a wildlife sanctuary. Since then, its status has been elevated to that of a national park, but the World Heritage Centre still retains the old nomenclature. "Manas is now a national park with an area of over 500 sq km. So we are going to submit a proposal to the World Heritage Centre in June, 2014 to change the name from wildlife sanctuary to national park. We are also working with the BTC to push the boundaries of the park by including the adjoining reserved forests under Manas, " Chand says.

Since Manas forms a contiguous landscape with Bhutan, conservation agencies are now focusing on trans-boundary management of the park which straddles the international boundary between the two countries. In Bhutan, the forest is known as the Royal Manas National Park. A trans-boundary management is one of World Heritage Centre's key recommendations.

"Our conservation efforts and enhancement of protection measures are focused on transboundary management of Manas. At the NGO level, we are working with our counterparts in Bhutan on this issue. At the moment, field-director level cooperation and joint tiger monitoring between Indian and Bhutan sides of Manas are already in place, " WWF-India's Assam landscape head, Anupam Sarmah, says. Chand says that the National Tiger Conservation Authority is working on formalising the arrangement for trans-boundary management of the park with Bhutan. "We have also been working to help extend the landscape conservation concept to the next level by facilitating cross-border cooperation and coordination with Bhutan. This entire landscape can one day provide a base model strategy for trans-boundary conservation, " adds Vivek Menon, South Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

But the success story has also brought in new challenges. Conservationists, park authorities and local communities have to work harder than before to ensure that the park does not lapse back to its bad days. The spectre of poaching still haunts the forest. Another important task that needs to be worked out is direct transfer of funds from the ministry of environment and forest to the Manas Tiger Conservation Foundation (MTCF). The NTCA has made it mandatory for all the tiger reserves to set up a foundation for direct fund allocation. However, due to technical difficulties with the ministry of finance, the direct transfer of funds to MTCF has not happened yet.

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