Manas and Manasi are at the centre of a historic project in Chhattisgarh. Saddled with the task of restoring the pride of Chhattisgarh, these wild buffaloes were transported from Assam in April this year.
The project is part of Chhattisgarh government's desperate attempt to revive the dwindling population of wild buffalo, the state animal. The government took the landmark decision to transport wild buffaloes from Assam to Chhattisgarh.
The nodal officer of this mission was young Keralite IFS officer Vishnu Raj Nair. The mission that began on February 4, 2020, was completed on April 18, 2020. The buffaloes are from the Manas National Park and hence have been named after the park.
"This is the longest translocation of wild animals in India," Vishnu Raj said. And the first such translocation of wild buffaloes.
When the wild buffalo was declared as the state animal of Chhattisgarh, the state boasted of them in a large number. However, their number has dwindled alarmingly in recent years.
A few wild buffaloes are remaining now at the Udanti Sitanadi Tiger Reserve and the Indravati National Park at Dantewada in Chhattisgarh.
Also, there is no accurate data available on the number of wild buffaloes in the Indravati forest region. The census of the bovine population could not be conducted as this is a Maoist-affected area. There are only nine wild buffaloes in the Udanti Sitanadi Tiger Reserve. Of which eight are males and one female.
One solution put forth to address the waning population was to transport wild buffaloes from the Indravati Park to other forest regions. However, this was not practical due to the Maoist problem.
Then Chhattisgarh Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) Atul Shukla, and additional principal CCF S K Singh came up with the unique solution of translocating wild buffaloes from the Manas National Park in Assam.
But the suggestion that was made five years ago got the approval from the state government only two years ago. Currently, additional Principal CCF Arun Pandey is leading the mission.
Chhattisgarh got permission to transport five male buffaloes and one female from the Assam government. The project was finalised by December 2019. The Assam government gave permission to set up a small enclosure inside the Manas Park to provide temporary shelter for the captured bovines. A small pond was also dug inside the enclosure.
Special truck for the mission
A team of 12 members first left for Assam on February 4. The team included care takers, forest guards, and veterinary doctors. They had to set up special trucks to bring back the wild buffaloes. One truck for two buffaloes. And each truck had two chambers. There were provisions for drink watering, a sprinkler system and air-conditioner, if needed. Trucks were also fitted with overhead tanks.
The team reached Manas National Park on February 8. Vishnu Raj and other officials followed on a flight to Assam.
Apart from the Assam and Chhattisgarh governments, the Wildlife Trust of India was also part of the project. The doctors of the Trust and experts from the Assam forest department were also actively involved.
The terrain in the Manas National Park is completely different from that of Chhattisgarh. Wild elephants, and hippopotamus roam free on the grasslands of the national park in Assam.
Seated atop tamed elephants, the team members first scoured the area. However, the wild buffaloes are adept in detecting human presence quickly. The wild buffaloes would flee, if these were to spot a human even at a distance of 100 m. The task for the first four days was to allay their fears, and to ensure the wild buffaloes did not flee even as the humans approached.
The team's initial attempts at capturing the wild bovines were rendered futile. The team members hid on top of the trees and jumped on to the unsuspecting buffaloes to capture them.
The first buffalo was thus captured on February 12. Only on the third day after the first buffalo was captured, was the second one caught. One was male and the other female.
"Not just strategy, we also needed a bit of luck to catch at least the two wild buffaloes," Vishnu Raj said. These two were put in the temporary enclosure.
Vishnu Raj returned to Chhattisgarh on February 16. The plan was that he would return on 24th to take back the wild buffaloes.
The lockdown hurdle
By the time, Vishnu Raj returned to Assam on February 22, lockdown was declared in Assam. And this was soon followed by the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown on March 24. The team could make no move in March.
It was soon April. Though the team had planned to capture six wild buffaloes, they managed to catch only two. They even considered leaving the wild buffaloes in the temporary enclosure and returning to the central Indian state.
But then the team resolved to return only with the wild buffaloes.
From Assam, they had to travel through West Bengal, Odisha, and Jharkhand to reach Chhattisgarh. They had to secure special permission from the respective state governments.
Finally, the team commenced their journey with the wild buffaloes in the truck on April 15. They also carried necessary provisions to cook food on the way.
Around midnight on day 1, the team reached Siliguri in West Bengal. The next night they spent at Panagarh in Bengal. The following day, they reached Odisha. But due to the strict restrictions imposed by the state government, the team was not able to rest for the night in Odisha. Therefore, the team had to travel continuously for 38 hours before they reached Chhattisgarh. They only stopped to cook food during those long hours.
The team reached Chhattisgarh on April 18. It was a moment to celebrate for the forest department. The team went to the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary in the Baloda Bazar district of Chhattisgarh.
Ten hectares of land in the wildlife sanctuary were allotted for the two wild buffaloes. The department pins its hopes on their successful breeding, so that the wild buffalo population would be revived in the state.
A male buffalo from the Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve would be later brought to the wildlife sanctuary. The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad has attested that the genetic types of the wild buffaloes in Assam and Chhattisgarh are similar.
Officer from Kerala
Vishnu Raj, the deputy director of Udanti-Sitanadi Tiger Reserve, was given additional responsibility as the nodal officer of the project. He is currently the director of the Achanakmar-Amarkantak Biosphere Reserve at Bilaspur.
A native of Cherayi in Ernakulam, Vishnu Raj is the son of late Narendran Nair and K V Seema. He is a 2015-batch Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer.
Though he was born in Kerala, he was brought up in Nagpur.
After completing BTech from NIT in Surat, Gujarat, Vishnu Raj cleared the IFS exam.
Incidentally, soon after the Manas mission, Vishnu Raj marked another milestone; this time a personal one. His wedding was held in July. His wife is Sithara is of a Palakkad family based in Chennai.
Unlike ones in the Western Ghats
The Indian Bison, seen in the Western Ghats of Kerala, are also called as wild buffaloes. They are mostly spotted in the forest regions of Wayanad, Nagarhole, Mudhumalai and Bandipur.
However, there are some marked differences between the Indian Bison and the wild buffaloes of Chhattisgarh though they have similarities in appearance. The ones in Chhattisgarh are known as wild water buffaloes or Asiatic Buffalo. They are on the list of endangered species. Ninety per cent of the wild buffaloes in India are in Assam.