Ecotourism had never been explored as an alternative community-based livelihood option in Royal Manas National Park (RMNP) except since 2010.
With a population of about 10,646 people representing 1,026 households and enriched with diverse natural settings, rich culture and traditions plus biodiversity, RMNP has always been a potential ecotourism destination.
Realizing this, in 2010, the park initiated its first set of community-based ecotourism projects with financial support from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Bhutan following which a pilot ecotourism project was strategically developed along the existing Gomphu-Manas-Norbugang eco-trail.
Besides uplifting the communities through alternative income generation opportunities, the project also aims to promote local stewardship and community participation in the park’s conservation efforts.
WWF support even went towards enhancing the skills of the nearby communities compatible with contemporary hospitality methods to better cater to visitors. Once self reliant, it is hoped that dependence on forest resources and illegal activities will reduce significantly.
“The park has a huge potential to attract tourists nationally and internationally owing to its rich wildlife presence & natural ecosystem,” said RMNP’s park manager, Tenzin Wangchuk adding that at the same time, the priority of the park will be to properly manage and regulate the ecology so that balance between development and conservation is maintained.
The eco-trail goes through the core of Zhemgang and descends down to the foothills adjoining the plains of the Indian Manas. The exit can be made either from the Indian Manas or from Samdrup Jongkhar in eastern Bhutan.
The walk through warm broadleaf forests has a rich diversity of birds, plants, butterflies and wildlife. Five eco-camps at Gomphu, Pangtang, Shillingtoe, Pangbang and Norbugang have been set up along the trail for visitors.
The eco-camps and the trails are both being managed by community committees with a benefit-sharing mechanism of 75% to 20% which goes to individuals providing services and community fund respectively. Five percent goes to the park.
RMNP in collaboration with Nature Recreation & Ecotourism Division under the Ministry of Agriculture & Forests (MoAF) and Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) has also drawn up strategy plans for the project’s marketing, service delivery, monitoring, upkeep and others.
The first eco-trail Gomphu-Pangtang at Gomphu can be reached from either Zhemgang or Sarpang districts. Located just above the Gomphu Park Range office, two eco-lodges with bathroom, toilets, dining and kitchen facilities have been built. Hikers can rest overnight and catch glimpses of numerous birds such as barbets, hornbill, bulbuls, doves, woodpecker and cuckoos. Taking a descent through mixed broadleaf forest and thick undergrowths, the trail takes the visitor to the next eco-camp in Pangtang. Located on the right bank of Mangdechhu, the halt enables visitors to not only view the picturesque view of the river but also have a glimpse of Pangtang settlements which is typical of lower Kheng region of Zhemgang.
There can be possible sightings of thrushes, drongos, hornbills, partridges, pheasants, bulbuls, tree pies, barbets and eagles.
Next comes the Shillingtoe campsite from where a great view of the area can be captured owing to its slightly higher elevation. The last half of the trail at Pangbang campsite is located at the junction of Mangdechhu and Dangmechhu.
The visitors have the option to take part in outdoor activities like boating, river rafting, elephant rides and wildlife safaris. If fortunate, one can also sight goral, capped langur, cormorants and many other bird species.
“Community tourism will empower communities to make supplementary income, enhance their knowledge and understanding of local natural resources and cultural assets and in the process support the park in its conservation efforts,” said WWF Bhutan’s Senior Program officer, Mincha Wangdi who is also the project coordinator