June 21, 2011, was a red-letter day for Manas Wildlife Sanctuary nested in the Eastern Himalayan foothills
of India. The cause for jubilation was its removal from the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger an
event where conservation efforts of local people in collaboration with Government had triumphed. The
World Heritage Committee, finally decided to remove the ‘In Danger’ tag and reinstate Manas National
Park in Assam to its original World Heritage Site (WHS) status based on five UNESCO-IUCN monitoring
mission reports over 19 years. The 2011 final report noted the progress made so far to increase the
population of key species, including Tigers, Indian elephants and Great One-horned Rhino. The threats such as illegal logging
and wildlife have declined significantly and the park infrastructure has improved, according to
the mission report.
Manas was declared as a WHS way back in 1985 due to its phenomenally rich and unique biodiversity that is the result
of an overlap of two different biogeographic zones; the Indo Gangetic and the Indo Malayan. Three different types of
forest vegetation gives rise to spectacular natural landscape. The East Himalayan deciduous vegetation is an outstanding
example of forests in early succession. Manas is also a treasure trove of medicinal plants, exotic bird species and has
the highest number of endangered species; some of which are found only here. However, these attributes were severely
compromised due to ethnic insurgency through the 1990s, resulting in damages to park infrastructure, depletion of forest
habitat and wildlife populations. Consequently, Manas came to be listed as a ‘World Heritage Site in Danger’ in 1992.
Political resolution of the ethnic uprising in 2003 has resulted in gradual improvement of the situation. This success
is the result of combined efforts of the government, Assam Forest Department, scientific fraternity, conservation NGOs
and local communities. Mr.AnindyaSwargoari, Field Director and his staff made this turnaround possible.
Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme states, “The great efforts by the Indian authorities to support recovery
of wildlife populations and improve the overall park management have brought about a positive change for one of India’s most
valued natural treasures. The Sanctuary is on a good track, but the work and funding to secure its future need to be sustained.”
THE DARK DAYS OF MANAS
The dawn of 2nd march 1987, marked the beginning of an era of ethnic clashes and lawlessness that pronounced impending doom for Manas.
Parts of Eastern India including Assam are populated with indigenous Bodo tribes who
consider access to the Reserve forests their
birth right. The Manas National Park was constituted in 1990 by merger of smaller reserved forests and was soon assigned 5 different
conservation tags, making its forests inaccessible to the local tribes. With no means of alternative livelihood and compounded by
the government’s indifference to their deteriorating socio-economic condition, these tribes, who had been on a perpetual war with
the government over the right to use the forests, were pushed towards militancy, in what later came to be known as the ‘Bodo uprising’.
Fifteen years of insurgency and violence cast a shadow of gloom over Manas.
The geographic location of Manas puts it in a high conflict zone. Bounded on the north by the Bhutan’s Royal Manas National Reserve,
it suffered the abuse of militants who operated from the neighboring Bhutan forests. On the southern fringe, it is surrounded by
Bodo dominated villages that depended heavily on the forest resources for their livelihood and for whom conservation of this
uniquely diversified treasure was hardly a priority. It was no surprise then that these tribes sympathized with various militant
groups like Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland
(NDFB), who demanded a separate Assam.