Standing on the bank of the Manas river at the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, in Assam. Pankaj Boro, the range officer, pointed to the other side. “That’s Bhutan," he announced. “We need the cooperation of their officers to cross over and I sought their permission last night, especially for you."

Wide angle: The sun sets across the vast expanse of Manas close to the Bansbari Lodge; and a Pallas’ fish eagle surveys the ground for prey. D.K. Bhaskar

His words, barely audible over the river, the birdsong and the sudden alarm call of hog deer in the forests behind us, sent the three of us into a camera-checking frenzy: metering, F-stop, shutter speed, ISO, lens, battery. For two years, we had planned this visit to the Manas National Park, completely off-limits between 1988 and 1996. Some parts are still out of bounds due to insurgency. Now, so close to our goal, our nerves were getting the better of us.

Not a good sign, since we still had to navigate the mile-wide river in a row boat. “Currents strong hain aur humko upstream jaana hai, kaafi dikkat hoga (the currents are strong and we have to go upstream, it will be difficult)," said one of the two oarsmen, not helping our case much. There were no life jackets either. But as the boatmen eased the vessel into the river, navigating the course with oars and a long pole, some of their confidence rubbed off on us.

“Woh Royal Manas hain (That is the Royal Manas)," Pankaj Adhikari, one of our two guides said, unwrapping his scarf from around his neck and waving it at the officers on the opposite bank. I’d read that the 2,800 sq. miles (7,200 sq. km) of the forest sanctuary was split between India and Bhutan, with the Manas river acting as the dividing line, but seeing it first-hand suddenly emphasized the transience of such things as man-made borders.

Fitting, therefore, that our visit to the Panbari range — as Royal Manas is also known — called for no passports, no visas, no immigration checks. We were answering the call of the golden langur, and it’s the creature’s status in these jungles that allows paperwork to be disregarded.

“Though it’s a continuous forest on our side too, it’s almost impossible to sight the golden langur there," said Boro. Extensive loss of habitat on the Indian side of the border is responsible for the shrinking numbers of the golden langur. The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that there are less than 10,000 of these primates in the world, making it one of the most critically endangered species on the planet.

In Panbari, however, we had barely got over the river lapwings, ruddy shelducks, swifts, a lone wild buffalo and the vanishing black tail of a Malayan giant squirrel when we spotted our first golden langur — swinging nonchalantly from the branches of a tree. Then another emerged, and then another…plucking leaves, looking inquiringly at us, chattering among themselves, uncaring of either their endangered status or the sudden invasion of their privacy. In the 45 minutes we spent in Bhutan, we saw 15-odd golden langurs, not to mention a host of colourful birds rarely spotted across the border.

Taking flight: An upside-down moth, by far the best-studied invertebrate organisms in the North-East. D.K. Bhaskar

How does Bhutan do it? First, the low population density is definitely a factor, lowering the pressure on land. Second, they have had no comparable issues with insurgents, who pretty much had the run of the Indian Manas in the peak years of trouble in Assam. Third, the Bhutan royalty has a serious commitment towards maintaining the rich biodiversity of the country. In fact, we learnt, King Jigme Wangchuck was on one of his regular visits to Panbari on the very day we were there.

Back on Indian territory, wildlife was markedly more difficult to spot. Though touted to be home to tigers, water buffaloes, leopards, rhinos and elephants — not to mention 22 species of endangered animals — all we saw were traces of elephant movement. That said, the sanctuary has been known to throw up the occasional surprise. “I saw a pygmy hog and a hispid hare right here the other day," Boro said valiantly, determined not to let the side down, as a peacock perched on a tree took flight at our sudden approach.

However, as the day wore on, the transfer from Boro’s jeep to the howdah on 40-year-old pachyderm Lakshmi’s back appeared to be the only excitement. With guard elephant Rani behind us, Lakshmi majestically climbed to more than 350ft — admittedly inconsequential compared to the Himalayas stretching across the horizon, but still thrilling — before descending again to the Manas.

Sundown was about 30 minutes away when the elephants waded out into a shallow part of the river. Something about the setting sun seemed to make the mahouts loquacious. “Bodo problem to hai, lekin woh tourismko affectnahin karna chahiye (there is a Bodo problem, but it shouldn’t affect tourism)," one disclosed. A bit of wishful thinking maybe, we thought, still all too aware that 15-odd years of unhindered poaching was probably responsible for our barren day.

Then, just as we turned away from our strange no-man’s-land sunset, we saw a leopard make its stealthy way into the forest on our side, the Indian side. It wasn’t much, but we preferred to look on it as a symbol. It allowed us to think that there’s hope yet for Manas.


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