Manas National Park


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March 8th 2014
Published: March 16th 2014
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After Nameri National Park I was headed for Manas National Park. My plan was to take buses from Nameri to Guwahati (the city I had flown into when I arrived in Assam) where I would stay overnight, and then the next day bus to Barpeta Road, which is the closest bus station to Manas (20km away). I had checked this when I got to Kaziranga in case there was a more direct route but was told that there was not. However at Nameri I found out that in fact there was a bus that went straight from Tezpur to Barpeta Road and it would take about seven hours. Even more conveniently I could catch that bus at Balipara before it reached Tezpur. At 8.45am one morning I hopped on that bus, the fare just 230 rupees (about NZ$4.50). At 9.35am the bus reached the main bus station in Tezpur – and that is where it stayed until after noon! I couldn't find anyone with enough English to tell me what was going on so I was getting a bit grumpy. Finally the bus set off, only to be stopped again about an hour later for another half-hour. At 3.30pm the bus stopped for a meal-break at a town called Kharupetia. I had a look in the display cabinet for the food in the restaurant there, and saw a house mouse sitting behind the glass nibbling away at the rolls. House mouse was new for my Indian mammal list, but I didn't think I wanted to eat exactly the same food as them, so I just bought a loaf of bread and some peanuts at a nearby store and ate those instead. On the corner just near that restaurant was a sign for something called the “Romeo and Juliet Gent's Parlour” but I had no free time to check that out (I later saw a lot of Gent's Parlours in Guwahati and they aren't what they sound like – they are where men go to get shaved with cut-throat razors, or to get their hair cut). I knew I wasn't going to get to Barpeta Road by the designated time of 4.30pm and indeed it turned out to be 7.40pm before we arrived (and it appears that Barpeta Road is the actual name of a small village, quite different to the town of Barpeta which is some distance away). Once there I was handed over to the English-speaking manager of the bus station who told me that there were no more buses/shared taxis running that night between Barpeta Road and Bansbari where the park entrance was and where I was booked in to stay at the Florican Cottages, so I would have to stay in town and go there tomorrow. I protested that I was already booked in so I would have to pay for that night whether I arrived or not, so I would just get a regular taxi there (otherwise I would be paying two lots of accommodation for that night). It then transpired that the reason the bus had been held back in Tezpur for so long, and the reason there had been a whole bunch of police road-blocks along the way, was that there had been a bombing in Barpeta Road that day (just around the corner in fact) and so none of the taxis were going to risk travelling out at night. That settled that then. The bus manager walked me to the nearby Tourist Lodge where the only avaliable room was 1000 rupees (too expensive when I was already paying 1300 at Florican Cottages), then to the Tripsi Hotel which was full, and finally to the Assam Lodge where the rooms were just 300 rupees. I then asked him whether he could call Florican for me to let them know what had happened – I should have really asked him to do this right at the start because it turned out that the manager at Florican had been on the phone all evening trying to find out what had happened to me when I never arrived, and he said he would just come into town and pick me up. Then the guy at the desk of the Assam Lodge said I had to pay for the room because I had already signed the book. I said no because I had literally been in the building ten minutes and never even entered the room, and he and the bus manager got into a discussion about it (the hotel guy didn't speak English so he couldn't say anything to me directly). I said to the bus manager that the hotel guy could complain all night long but I wasn't paying for a room I never used. Once that was sorted out (i.e. I didn't pay and the hotel guy stayed angry) I sat outside in the street until the car got there from Florican.

Manas National Park is expensive. More expensive than Kaziranga National Park. As with Kaziranga you aren't allowed in on foot, only by jeep, and here the jeeps cost 2600 rupees per half day plus the standard 500 rupee park entry fee and 50 rupee camera fee. Two jeeps a day would set a solo traveller back 5750 rupees (about NZ$111) if he had to pay it all himself. You can also get a full-day jeep for 4200 rupees but bizarrely the park entry fee is then a whopping 2000 rupees!! If you are visiting for one day then you can pay those prices – and I have met many people just staying one day at each park – but if you're staying for a proper amount of time then you would need to have deep pockets. Probably needless to say, I wasn't going to (or able to) pay full price for all the jeeps on every day of my stay. As at Kaziranga I hoped to join up with others. The trouble is that this is a poor tourist season and relatively few tourists even come to Manas so I was at the wrong end of things right off the bat. The cottages at Florican cost 1500 rupees per night (although I got mine for 1300 a night – about NZ$25) and food is 400 per day for vegetarian or 595 for non-vegetarian. Then, just to get that bit more money out of you, they add on a 5%!“(MISSING)service charge” to the accommodation and food (which neither Wild Grass nor Jia Borhelli did). So 1300 per night for six nights equals 7800 rupees (about NZ$150) but then they add on 390 rupees (NZ$8) as a “service charge” – not much but when you're paying so much for everything else those seemingly small amounts do add up. I didn't think much of Florican Cottages overall, and I can't say I would particularly recommend it. It was alright but no more than that. On the other hand I think it suffered in comparison with Wild Grass and Jia Borhelli which were both excellent. Maybe if I had visited Manas first on the trip I would have thought more of Florican than I did. I sort of felt a bit uncomfortable there as well, but I'm not sure why. The creepy waiter didn't help, with the way at each meal he just stood there the entire time watching me eating – very unnerving!. There was also the common thing I had found in Assam where you think you have organised something, the person (in this case the manager) would repeat back to you what you wanted so you know he has understood perfectly well, and then nothing gets organised, or what is organised is not right. It was like they were playing some sort of game to see how far they could push me. Most of my time at Manas was spent in a mixture of annoyance and frustration at both Florican and the rules of the park itself. A better idea for budget travellers might be to stay in Barpeta Road (for example, at the Assam Lodge for 300 rupees per night) and take the shared taxis to and from the park each day for 20 rupees per trip. You wouldn't be able to get into the park as early as if staying right at the gates – I think the taxis start running at about 7 or 7.30am, and they would take about an hour to reach the park – but it would save you a lot of money (at least 1000 rupees a day) which could then be used for the jeeps. I would have quickly changed to doing this myself but I had burned my bridges with the Assam Lodge when I refused to pay for that room, and I knew the Tourist Lodge rooms cost 1000 rupees which wasn't much of a saving, so I just stayed where I was.

Manas is fantastic for wildlife – it has large areas of grassland and forest and shares a border with the forests of Bhutan (the park is actually in both countries) – but as everywhere else in Assam you are restricted from seeing a lot of that wildlife because you aren't allowed into the park at night (unless you stay at the government guesthouse inside the park at Mathanguri but they don't have vehicles to get around, which makes things tricky, and the price was too high for me anyway). I asked the manager at Florican if there was any problem walking at night along the road which forms the park boundary – it is outside the park behind a haphazard wire fence and I reckon I might have been able to find porcupines and so on – but I was told that was forbidden by the park management. I said “so the people who live in the village here, they aren't allowed on that road either at night?” and the response was that the villagers were but foreigners were not. The guards can ban people from entering the park, and they are such sticklers for rules in India that if I got caught at night – even though the road is not in the park itself – they would probably ban me and I didn't want that, so once again no spot-lighting! The rules are even more aggravating when, as here, the fence is full of holes made so that the village cows and goats can get through into the park to graze and there are little kids running back and forth – but it is “too dangerous” for stupid foreigners to walk in there, even with an armed guard.

My main “targets” at Manas were, in order of expected ease-of-finding: golden langur, Bengal florican, pigmy hog and hispid hare. Golden langurs were only scientifically described in the 1950s. They are a monkey I have wanted to see for a long time but didn't think I would ever have the chance. Apparently they are 100%!r(MISSING)eliable at a village called Kakoijana near the park. The Bengal florican is a bird, a type of bustard, and they were supposed to be commonly seen at Manas (if you don't know either floricans or bustards then imagine a sort of turkey with white wings and black head and neck). The other two animals, the pigmy hog and hispid hare, are slightly trickier. The hispid hare is as good as impossible – the manager at Florican said that when night safaris were allowed inside the park (up until a few years ago) the hispid hares were seen frequently but they are never seen in the day-time. Night safaris would have been great at Manas – apart for the hispid hare there is black-naped hare, Indian crested porcupine, several civets and mongooses, three species of wild dog (dhole, jackal and fox), and seven species of cats (tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, golden cat, jungle cat, leopard cat and fishing cat). Apparently the night safaris in all the parks were stopped by the tiger preservation people who have been trying to ban all tourism in the tiger reserves. Although hispid hare was out, the pigmy hog could apparently be seen if the conditions were right (after the grass had been burned off). I was told that, on average, doing the jeep safaris for a week when the grass was still short (as it is now) might result in two pigmy hog sightings. I also added on gaur to the list, because I was told on arrival that it was another “guaranteed” animal. I really don't like it when people tell me certain animals are guaranteed (god-damn Baikal seals!!).

On my first day at Manas there was nobody to join up with in jeeps. I would probably be paying full price for some jeep rides I knew, but I wanted to stretch my time to allow as many joined rides as possible. Basically, with the money I had, I could only afford to do a maximum of four full-priced jeep rides or eight shared half-cost ones. As it turned out I was the only person staying at Florican for my entire six nights (or at least until the very last night, but that didn't do me much good). Not the only foreign person, the only person full stop. So I ended up paying for all my jeeps anyway, which meant just one per day for four days. I didn't know that in advance of course, so for the first day I just did some random birding on foot along the road by the park. In one direction, about half a kilometre from Florican, is a river, and in the other direction lies a tea and pepper-tree plantation. Between the two is scrubby grassland full of goats and cows. I think I need to start paying more attention to white wagtails when birding – this first morning I saw some by the river which turned out to be white-browed wagtails, a new species for me which I have probably been overlooking continuously. Other good birds in the morning were a flock of Finn's weavers (another lifer for me), a black-shouldered kite, striated grassbird and red junglefowl. In the plantation there was a greater goldenback woodpecker, a pair of nesting large woodshrikes, a flock of jungle babblers with rufous treepies, and a grey bushchat. In the afternoon a pair of blue-bearded bee-eaters provided good viewing in the plantation, there was a scaly thrush there as well, a few lineated barbets glowing bright green in the sun, and a thick-billed warbler in some scrub. Only a couple of the birds so far had been additions to the life/year/trip lists though. The only mammal species seen so far at Manas had been a group of hog deer.

The manager of Florican had said he would keep checking with the other lodges and let me know if there were any other tourists with which I could team up with for jeeps, but I didn't fancy my chances. For starters I suspect that none of the lodges would want one of their guests going on another lodge's jeep because then they lose out on the money (and same for my lodge if I join with another lodge's guest). I'm not exactly confident he even did ask any of the other lodges. There was nobody except me staying at Florican, so for my second morning I just booked a jeep for myself. I had heard some rain on the roof early morning but when I came out at 6am for the jeep the ground was dry. It was very dull and rainy-looking but I hoped it would hold off (the jeeps are open). All the jeeps follow the same routes I think, but it covers the main pigmy hog area and the main Bengal florican site so that was fine. Not a lot of birds were seen over the course of the morning (or, rather, a lot were seen but not stopped for). First bird species for the morning though was Indian blue peafowl. I had heard these calling in the mornings and evenings from where my room was, and I'd been looking forward to seeing them. I've seen thousands of blue peafowl before of course, but only domestic/captive ones, never real wild ones. For some reason there are none at Kaziranga but here they are everywhere, adorning the trees like giant exotic fruits and stalking imperiously through the elephant grass. The very first one I saw was just a huge elongated silhouette in a tree (so big I didn't even realise it was a bird at first) and I saw a pair of kalij pheasants before I got my first good look at a wild blue peafowl. They really are preposterous birds. Most animals which look unusual or outrageous in zoos look quite perfect when seen in the wild. Peacocks are the opposite – they look right when they are on the lawns of stately manors and palaces, but in the wild they are other-wordly. They look like a human-bred mutant – like Persian cats and dachshunds do – not like something natural. They are too big, too brightly-coloured, and when you see the males doing their courtship display in the middle of the grassland you wonder how they possibly survive out there. It is a pity they are so common in captivity because if they weren't then they would probably be one of the most amazing animals of this whole trip; as it is they are nice to see in the wild, it is good to see how they behave naturally, but in the end I am just too used to seeing them. The only other “new” bird for the day was a Bengal florican, which as it was one of the species on my “really want list” was very welcome. It was a very easy bird to find as well. We went to one of the watch-towers, the guide took about a one minute look at the surrounding grass-fields and said “there's one”. It was a male, but pretty much hidden inside a patch of long grass, only visible in parts as he moved about. Then he suddenly shot straight up into the air in a display flight, white wings fluttering, all the black neck feathers puffed out like a pelican's pouch, and came back down to ground right out in the open. He stood there for a bit looking around, as if to say “right, where are the ladies at then?” and then slowly walked back over to the long grass. He was too far back for good photos – I got some “record shots” – but with the binoculars I could see him just fine. Every time I visited that watch-tower he was there.

Because of years of poaching during the troubled times when this area was closed to tourism (the park only opened again in 2004), Manas is really disappointing for mammal-watching in comparison with Kaziranga. There a single jeep safari can net you literally dozens of rhinos and elephants, buffalo by the crate, and large herds of deer. Here, despite the great habitat, on the first morning I only saw a few hog deer (about five or six), a muntjac, a sambar, a wild pig, some capped langurs, two small groups of wild water buffalo, and admittedly quite a lot of elephants (it seemed like four or five herds but it may have been just two or three repeating themselves). But I was here for some very specific mammals. The rain did not hold off as I had hoped it would, instead it started just after the jeep did and for the first hour hammered down. Pigs like it muddy, generally speaking, but I suspect the pigmy hog does not. I saw some captive ones at Nameri and they reminded me more of agoutis or mouse deer than the larger pig species. They were very shy, even though they must have been used to people, and were easily startled back into cover. I expected the wild ones to be just the same: to come out of the grass in pairs or small family groups to forage but dash away as soon as disturbed. If I was that small I would be nervous too! I was hoping but not expecting to see a pigmy hog and the rain did not increase my expectations. No pigmy hogs were seen but at least the rain stopped. Later in the forested areas we saw a rather small wild pig on the road, so while I didn't see a pigmy hog I did see a small hog. Also in the forest was a troop of capped langurs which I hadn't known were in this park (being too focused on golden langurs!). At the north of the park is a site called Mathanguri where the forest department lodge is, and there was a male capped langur here also, taking shelter from an almost gale force wind which had sprung up after the rain left off. Finally I managed to get some good photos of a capped langur!! Mathanguri is beside a river, and that river forms part of Assam's border with Bhutan. The guide pointed out what he said was a golden langur in a very distant tree on the other side of the river. Looking into the wind is never easy with binoculars and the supposed langur was just too far away. I don't think it was a golden langur at all, I think it was a bunch of dead leaves, but I really couldn't tell one way or the other. All I can say is that it never moved the whole time I was trying to see what it was.

In the afternoon I took a walk around the tea plantation again. My birding in Assam has started to stall because now I'm mostly seeing the same birds I've already seen with only the odd new bird here and there. A pair of purple sunbirds was good though (I'd only seen the species for the first time in Burma the other month). The main path through the plantation had been dug over since yesterday. As I walked along it I saw an earthworm lying on the surface of the soil. I don't know what made me stop to look closer. It wasn't just the simple naturalist's curiosity of “oh an earthworm, I want to look at that”, more like some subconscious recognition that something wasn't quite right. Even in my hand it looked exactly like an earthworm, maybe ten centimeters long, but there was this little nagging voice in my head. As I turned it over I realised that it had a slightly paler ventral surface and darker dorsal surface. It wasn't an obvious difference but it was there, and hence it wasn't just a uniform tube like a worm should be. And looking at the dorsal surface I also realised that there was a barely noticeable distinction between the head and the body. It was a blind-snake, a member of the family Typhlopidae, also commonly called worm-snakes. This one might have been Ramphotyphlops braminus but I'm not sure. They live entirely underground and are rarely seen. This one was freshly-dead unfortunately but very exciting nevertheless. Once I knew it was a blind-snake I could then tell that the body was in fact covered in microscopic scales. It had no eyes (hence the name blind-snake) but I could just make out the tiny mouth. A magnifying glass would have definitely helped! I knew from my book-learning that typhlopids resembled earthworms, and I had even seen photos of them, but it was mind-blowing how in real life it was so amazingly like an earthworm in appearance that I almost thought it was one! Although it was dead it was still the highlight of the day, beating out even the Bengal florican. I'm not sure what that says about me as a birder.....

The next day was a bit of a repeat of the day before: a jeep by myself in the morning and a walk in the tea plantation in the afternoon. I restricted the jeep activity to the lower part of the park which is mostly grassland (the main pigmy hog area), and we basically just drove all round the roads keeping a look-out in the surrounding grass. Not a very exciting technique but the only one there is, although I did also get to have a ten minute walk through some grassland by one of the watch-towers. If proper walking was allowed I think that might be more productive than driving, because you could search in the grassland itself. You could also do the search from elephant-back which would give the advantage of greater height to look down into the grass and you'd be in the grassland itself rather than restricted to the road, but I had seen how the mahouts treat their elephants as if they were no more animate than jeeps, and seen some of the training techniques to force the elephants into submission, and I didn't want to be party to that. Even at the expense of seeing pigmy hogs I have my moral code to hold to. What I really needed was a hoverboard. No pigmy hogs were seen today, but there were some regular wild pigs, hog deer, muntjac, elephants and even a rhino and calf. All the rhinos had been poached out from Manas and the ones here now are translocations from Kaziranga; there aren't many and they are all radio-collared.

The morning jeep rides at Manas last for four hours. I had met a chap at Nameri who had just come from Manas and he told me that the jeep staff from the Bansbari Lodge where he stayed (but sadly too expensive a hotel for me) were really good and didn't mind staying out longer for an extra half-hour or more, but the ones from Florican were dead-set on not going over: once the four hours was up, that was it. This turned out to be absolutely correct. On the first day, the ride from Mathanguri back to the gate was done at a very rapid pace with no stops allowed because they wanted to finish (which means you don't actually get a full four hours of animal-watching). I also got stuck with a guide who while perfectly friendly was also perfectly useless. He appeared to know the places where pigmy hogs would be found (er, grassland – not difficult), so that was alright because that was what I was concentrating on, but he knew nothing about birds and he even ID'd some hog deer as “swamp deer” (i.e. barasingha, which I'm pretty sure don't even occur in the park). On the second day I got really annoyed with the jeep situation because we started at 7am and should have been in there until 11am. Between the grassland patches are forest patches, so I never knew exactly where we were, but at 10am they started roaring through one large forest area, and at 10.20 I realised we were very near the gate. I said it was too early to leave yet and the guide said there was a place we could walk from here. This sounded a bit like an excuse but I asked if it was through grassland and he said yes. It turned out to be a short-cut across the corner of the park, where the villagers graze their cattle, and the only higher vegetation there is cane thickets. There was no chance for pigmy hogs in there and I had just had the last forty minutes of the morning wasted when we should have been still looking in the proper habitat.

The next morning there was a break from pigmy hogs to take care of another animal on the “really want list”, the golden langur. This monkey has a very restricted range here in northern Assam and neighbouring Bhutan. It was described scientifically in the 1950s although there had been various vague published comments on the monkeys prior to that. I can't remember where I first read about it, but I have wanted to see one for about the last thirty years! I knew it was “easy” to see in Bhutan – but for foreigners that makes it not easy at all because of Bhutan's tricky visa regulations. I had met two people at Kaziranga who had stayed at Mathanguri while at Manas, and they had been allowed to enter Bhutan “illegally” to see golden langurs on the tennis court of the King of Bhutan's summer place. On the Assamese side of the border in Manas the golden langur is very difficult to find, but there are a couple of villages in the vicinity (outside the park) which harbour populations. The one which Florican takes their guests to is called Kakoijana and it is about 75km from Bansbari. I had asked Florican's manager if there was a best time of day – morning, noon, afternoon? – and been told that it didn't matter what time of day to go, it was all the same. When I got to the village though it was immediately apparent that it was one of those situations where the langurs are easy to see very early in the morning in the trees and bamboo groves just in and near the village, but then they move up into the forest in the hills behind where it would be a lot more work to find them. Fortunately I was there by 9.30am, early enough that although the monkeys had left the village a few were still quite close, in the gardens up the hill. I only saw four individuals, nowhere near as many as I had been expecting, but I saw them really well so that was alright. Unexpectedly they were quite wary – not fleeing in terror from us but not allowing any close approaches either – so the photos weren't the best; I will hopefully find at least a few lookatable ones amongst them. The langurs are not bright orange-gold but rather a pale blonde-gold, with a dark grey wash over the forelimbs. They look best in the sun when they really glow, but the colour gets washed out in photos so they look more whitish. Around Kakoijana and some other nearby villages the langurs are protected from harassment. I was told there are about 600 in the area. As a bonus the villagers are all really friendly and smiley, unlike the people at Bansbari! The golden langur is the fourteenth species of primate I have seen on this trip, and 50%!o(MISSING)f those (seven species) have been lifers.

When I first arrived at Manas I had been told that gaur are common in the park and that I was guaranteed to see them. This was good news. There are no gaur at Kaziranga and there wasn't really any great hope of seeing them when I was at Nameri. Gaur are a type of wild cattle, the males being massive black hulks, six foot at the shoulder and solid muscle. I have always pronouced gaur to rhyme with sour, probably due to Willard Price's Tiger Adventure in which he wrote something along the lines of “the name rhymes with sour and with power, two words which describe the animal perfectly”. In India everyone pronounces it like “gore”, which I guess is an equally appropriate word. In Assam it is also called by the Burmese name mythun (pronounced “mee-tun”, with the u like the oo in book), and by the British colonialists' name “Indian bison”. That last one is the most common name, and if I wanted to be understood when talking about them I had to grit my teeth and call them bison! On the first two jeep safaris, both in the morning, there were no gaur to be seen anywhere. I suspected that they were only coming out in the evening and this proved to be the case when I went out in the afternoon for my third jeep ride (after the morning golden langur trip). For the first two hours we drove slowly around the grassland areas looking for pigmy hogs. My birding has been nothing to be proud of at Manas, but this morning from one of the watch-towers I saw my 1400th species of bird, a female black-throated thrush. Later in the afternoon we went to the northern area of the park where the gaur were said to be found. Sure enough we found a male gaur, although he wasn't close and was mostly hidden by the grass. I could see his back with the characteristic shoulder hump, and the top of his head with the thick curvy horns, and then he disappeared into thicker scrub. I hoped that wasn't going to be my only sighting but fortunately we later came across an entire herd, next to a small group of wild water buffalo and a small herd of elephants. The light was no good for photos but it was good enough to watch them by. I'm not sure exactly how many there were because the calves were low enough to be mostly below the grass-line, but it was around twenty or so.

After seeing the gaur we continued on towards the exit gate. It was right on dusk by this point and by the time we reached the gate the headlights were on, but no special nocturnal animals were seen apart for a couple of nightjars. There were quite a lot of wild pigs on the way though. There are a lot of very small wild pigs at the park, and three in particular made us screech to a halt because they looked just about the right size for pigmy hogs (and the guide said that they were pigmy hogs!). Fortunately wild pigs and pigmy hogs look quite different, the two best give-aways at either end being the large ears and long tail of the wild pigs (versus the small ears and miniscule tail of the pigmy hogs) so no confusion if you get a proper look – but I was definitely glad I had seen the pigmy hogs in person at Nameri (and got photos of them to look at) otherwise I might have now been patting myself on the back saying “wooh yeah, pigmy hog!”

The afternoon jeep safaris seemed a better idea than the morning ones, so for my fourth and last ride I repeated what I had done the day before. These last two rides went quite well because I had managed to train the driver and guide to drive slowly. They have a habit of driving pretty fast around the tracks, I don't know why, and it was a bit of a struggle getting them to slow down. But for the last two rides we went slowly around the grassland sections, although as soon as we got into any forest sections immediately the speed would shoot up. Nothing different was seen, and the total of pigmy hogs seen remained at zero. I knew going in it was a bit of a long-shot but at least I gave it a good try. I still don't really know how good anybody's chances are. Jon Hall when he was in Assam (see his Mammalwatching website) was told that when the grass was short they might be seen on 50%!o(MISSING)f jeep safaris. When I arrived I was told that if doing safaris for a week you might expect two sightings, and apparently two pigmy hogs had been seen the week before from a jeep. On the other hand, given the way my guide didn't seem to know the difference between a pigmy hog and a small wild pig, I don't know how reliable any of this information is! I was also told they are sometimes seen from the elephant rides (which later became that one was seen “a long time ago”).

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