Assam Expedition 2015



On the Indian border, overlooked by the towering mountains of Bhutan, lies the Manas National Park.  Some thousand square miles of Jungle and uninhabited stretches of grassland form a pristine wildlife habitat.  As yet relatively few visitors make the three hour drive out from Guwahati, Assam’s capital, lying on the great Brahmaputra river.

Encouraged by the Bodoland Territorial Council, the expedition was carried out in the period 28 March to 9 April 2015.  It completed a successful reconnaissance and community aid programme in this remote area.  The 21 strong multi-discipline team’s tasks was to study the wild elephant and catalogue other creatures whilst encouraging the local people to preserve the fauna and flora. 

Movement through the park was largely on domestic elephant and sometimes in Jeeps or on  foot.  Twelve tame elephants, often accompanied by their one year old babies, were fitted with a newly designed howdah carrying two  passengers. 

Directed by Dr Tessa Donovan-Beermann , a veteran of many Scientific Exploration Society elephant study projects, the team observed over a hundred wild elephant, six rhino and two tiger.  They also encountered Gaur (Bison), Water Buffalo, Deer, Wild Boar, smaller mammals and a couple of large Python, one of whom had eaten a camp chicken!

The area is known as a haunt of the world’s most venomous snake, the enormous King Cobra.  During preparation for the project a 15 foot specimen of the much feared reptile was filmed.  Several members had to leap aside as an angry 10 foot python struck out as it was being released from a cage in which it had been trapped by villagers. 

Amongst the numerous birds seen was the rare Bengal Florican, a type of bustard that is now an endangered species. 

At the end of a long hot day with temperatures rising over 30 ̊C, expedition members were delighted to bath their elephants in the cool clear waters of the Manas river.

Inflatable rafts were used to sail down the river so that wildlife coming to drink could be counted.  Wild Water Buffalo were spotted and fresh tracks of tiger leading to a kill site were found on the beaches. 

The medical officer treated 130 patients in local villages.  The Bodo people rarely receive dental treatment and thus the team’s dentist was especially welcome.   She extracted over 60 teeth.   Children who had a tooth removed were given a teddy bear or puppet made by groups of ladies in Dorset.   Reading glasses were also given to those in need.

Thanks to the generosity of the Newport Uskmouth Rotary Club and expedition members, two local schools were given much needed books, satchels and their very first computer.   Letters were brought out from Wiltshire schools and the Bodo children have replied to these.  It is trusted that regular communication will continue.    This aid to these communities was much appreciated and it is hoped will encourage them to protect the trees and wildlife.  The villagers certainly seemed grateful and gave lively displays of local dancing and music to the team. 

The visitors saw the production of beautiful silk made from the silk worms bred for this purpose and the distillation of the rice wine.  Ms Parbati Barua, the legendary ‘Queen of The Elephants’,   briefed the team at an elephant training camp where many cute baby elephants,  some only a few days old, were living.

The expedition met an extraordinary group consisting of former insurgents, ex-poachers and young people known as the Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society.  This unique body is the first to be established in India and aims to boost local economy by promoting conservation and ecotourism.  This is truly poachers becoming game keepers.

The teams engineers examined a proposal to sink an 80 metre borehole to provide clean drinking water for one community.

Assam has suffered from political conflicts for many years and as there was an outbreak of violence in 2014, the team had an armed escort of police and soldiers.  However no hostility was experienced.  Indeed the people made them very welcome.  The only time a guard had to fire his rifle was when an angry matriarch began to charge a Jeep.  However the shot into the air turned her away.  Wild elephants often damage the people’s crops and sometimes attack houses in search of salt or grain.  Thus a  study was made of ways to deter elephant and an electric PIR device that emits high pitched sound was tested.  It was felt this might work for a while, until the highly intelligent beasts got used to it, as they do to most forms of defence used up to now. 

No large scale maps of the area were available so Splash Maps Ltd  produced a special edition printed on cloth.  It proved invaluable.  Radio communication between the elephant mounted teams was vital.  This was achieved using Motorola VHF Walky Talky sets that proved invaluable.

Surprisingly few insects were present and the weather was usually dry and hot, but several dramatic pre-monsoon electrical storms hit the area.  One evening almost constant thunder and lightning rolled over the Bhutanese foothills for several hours before the sky opened to deliver a deluge.

The expedition ended with a Burns Supper using tasty haggis, kindly donated by Stahly Quality Foods.  This was an interesting change from the Indian dishes. 

Thanks to the help of the Great Indian Elephant Safari Co, Scientific Exploration Society member Sarah Lawton and Mr Partha Pratim Das of the Bodoland Territorial Council, the expedition was most enjoyable and successful.  “I do hope more people will now visit this distant but fascinating wilderness” said the team leader Colonel John Blashford-Snell.



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© Colonel John Blashford-Snell CBE DSc(Hon) DEng(hc) FRSGS