Buxa: Tiger Reserve

Distance from Kolkata: 835 km
Driving time: 20 hours
Road Trip: 5-6 days

On the last day of our drive tour to north Bengal, it was turn to visit Buxa Tiger Reserve. In north Bengal, beside Gorumara and Jaldapara, Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR) is the predominant forest. The forest reserve lacks usual amenities extended to tourists yet one can get a glimpse of nature in its wildest form at BTR. If you want to enjoy forest, its depth, silence, the eeriness of nights without expecting too many wildlife sightings, head towards Buxa. Our team chose to put up at Alipurduar town to explore this huge natural treasure

Route:
For Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR), one has to reach Santrabari Range Office– the main base of BTR. The 27 km road from Alipurduar town connects both Jainti and Buxa forests. It is actually Rajabhatkhawa-32 km from Alipurduar from where the forest of Buxa Tiger Reserve begins. After crossing the forest check post at Rajabhatkhawa, the road continues through the wilderness for another 10 km inside BTR and finally bifurcates into Jayanti and Buxa forest ranges at Buxa Morh. Having covered Jainti forest the previous day, we proceeded forward from the traffic island indicating ‘Buxa-5 km straight/Jainti-5 km on right’. Road condition on this final 5 km stretch to Santrabari was awful– simply shows gross neglect.

Buxa Tiger Reserve:
With an area of 758 sq km, BTR is in fact the biggest forest in north Bengal, encompassing Jainti forests within its periphery. Although tourism has not picked up in BTR due to its remoteness, it is no less rich than other forests in terms of its flora and fauna.

The unoccupied wasteland comprising the forests in Buxa Tiger Reserve was taken over by the Forest Department in the year 1866. The forests came under British rule and the first reservations were made in 1879 under the Indian Forest Act. Much later, in 1983, Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR) was constituted and became the 15th Tiger Reserve of the country. Finally, in 1997, BTR was constituted as a National Park.

Fauna
According to Range Officer Dhirendra Chandra Dutta, in BTR, the wildlife range from Indian tiger, leopard, jungle cat, sloth bear, civet cat, hyena, elephant, gaur, sambar, chital to wild pig. There are 40 cameras installed by the Forest Department inside the Buxa Tiger Range which have sighted many of these animals.

Additionally, the streams of Jainti and Raidak get migratory birds every year mainly during the end of monsoon and these fly away before summer. The migratory birds include the beautiful Ibis bill, pretty minivets, yellow crested sultan tits, wagtails, leaf warblers and sandpipers.

However, due to rare sighting of animals, Buxa Tiger Reserve is not a very popular forest when it comes to tourism.

Tourism
BTR being a tiger reserve, the core area is out of bound for tourists. As a standard strategy followed by the government, tourism has not been much encouraged unlike the forests of Gorumara and Jaldapara in north Bengal.

Difficulty in sighting of wild animals due to dense vegetation, lack of grassland and non-availability of tourist recreations – all these facors  have prevented tourism from picking up in BTR.

In addition, due to absence of standard accommodation facilities other than the local home stays, tourist footfall is negligible in Buxa. Thus, the tourists who visit this forest are mainly day visitors.

The final death knell was struck in September 2010 with the car safaris getting banned under the guidelines of National Tiger Conservation Authority – BTR being a tiger reserve. However, on persuasion by several state governments for removing the prohibitory orders, in October 2012, Supreme Court lifted the ban on tourists’ trips inside the core areas of tiger reserves. Now, according to the fresh guidelines, tourists are allowed to visit 20% of the core reserve area on a regulated, low-impact tourist visitation process.

But for some inexplicable reason, in spite of the fresh Supreme Court guidelines, car safaris were not revived in Buxa. Interestingly, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on her visit to BTR in June 2014 initiated the process of revival of car safaris to boost tourism inside BTR.

Speaking to the media, Bhashkar J.B., the Deputy Field Director of BTR (East), said: “We have already proposed to reintroduce the car safari in BTR. From Jainti, the tourists used to be taken to various spots on a trip that lasted for at least one hour. Another proposed route is from Rajabhatkhawa to 25th Mile and Shikari Road. I think the proposal is in the final stage and will start from next season (15 October 2014) as the forest will be closed from 15th June.”

Buxa Forest Villages
The main villages in Buxa are Santrabari, Lepchakhawa, Lalbungalow, Tashigaon, Daragaon and Sadarbazar. Since the forest villagers here are totally dependent on the forest for firewood and cattle grazing, 62 Joint Forest Management Committees have been formed by the Forest Department to involve local people in forest protection. In turn, the revenue generated is shared with the employed villagers. Additionally, the Forest Department also provides employments to local people for various forestry works such as Plantation Watchers, Fire Watchers, Eco Guides etc. They also constitute the chief labour force in various development works taken up all through the year. With these employments and initiatives on eco-tourism, the relationships between the local villagers and forest officials are cordial.

Buxa Fort
Apart from the wilderness of the forest, a major attraction of Buxa is the ruins of Buxa Fort. The mountain here is known as Sinchula Range which is followed by Bhutan border. Buxa Fort is a historic fort built on this remote mountain range which takes around 2 hours to trek up and an hour to get down.

The actual history is shrouded in mystery though many believe that the first Koch King of Kamtapur (present day Cooch Bihar) Sangaldwip constructed the fort with bamboo and wood in 7th century. The fort was a subject of dispute between the Kings of Bhutan and the Koch Kings, as the military importance of the fort was very high since it used to guard the famous Silk Route that connected Tibet with India through Bhutan.

The fort was later occupied by the Bhutanese army. There after, the Koch King requested the British to reoccupy the fort by defeating the Bhutanese which the British did and captured the fort which was formally handed over to the British by the Koch King on November 1865 as part of the Treaty of Sinchula.

The British rebuilt the fort with stone and converted it into a high security prison to detain the freedom fighters who fought against the British. The fort, almost inaccessible at that time, was only second to the Cellular Jail in the Andaman Island in notoriety. The small cells devoid of basic facilities, cruelty of guards, dense forest surrounding the fort with wild carnivorous animals roaming freely and the inhospitable terrain of the area as a whole made the fort-cum-prison a living hell on earth.

After India’s freedom, the prison-fort was abandoned. In 1959, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, a number of Tibetan monks fled to India and started living in the abandoned fort. They set up a monastic study centre and a refugee camp here. In 1966, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs was alerted about conditions of the Buxa refugee camp. Later, in 1971, the Tibetan refugees were relocated to Karnataka on a request from the Dalai Lama.

After that, the fort was again left vacant and abandoned. Gradually the forces of nature took over once again. Trees began to grow on the roof and walls and the whole structure crumbled into ruins.

Though there were several proposals to renovate the fort as a heritage structure, sadly the fort is in ruins till date. Except for two stone blocks at the entrance, one etched with the words of a scroll of honour which the inmates presented to the Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore on his birthday in 1931 and the other with a heart-touching poem by the poet dedicated to the freedom fighters who were imprisoned there and a newly constructed monument dedicated to the martyrs.

As one enters the ruined fort through a gate with the inscription “BUXA FORT”, only the roofless rooms and cells greet one with sights of neglect. Vacant rooms, small windowless cells, thick walls, broken gates, all seem to echo the sighs of the imprisoned freedom fighters – “O lonely visitor, remember that for your tomorrow we gave our today”.

There is nothing to see in particular but reminisce history which haunts the visitors. As one looks up, there is the beautiful Himalaya all around. The small village of Sadar Bazaar is just opposite the fort with a vast open field in between. Beyond the village, the Sinchula mountain range looks down with an inscrutable muteness with the highest point called Rover’s Point perched like an ancient monk in meditation.

The Buxa Fort stands alone amidst the nature, the hills, the flora and fauna, waiting for the occasional visitors who care for history.

Route to Buxa Fort
Ahead of Santrabari Range Office, a road cuts through the forest proceeds to Buxa Fort. From Santrabari one can start trekking for the Fort – about 3.5 km away. Expert hill drivers can take their vehicles further up for about 1.5 km along a dirt track which is quite dangerous and unsuitable for drivers from the plains. The last 2 km is to be covered by trekking which is not very tough. Normally, a local guide is essential as per the Forest Department rules. The trek route passes through dense forest-covered mountain and is extremely beautiful with majestic trees lined up on both sides of the pathway. One can have a glimpse of wild animals or birds en route, if luck permits.

Other tourist attractions in BTR:
Lepchakhawa – It is 3 km from Buxa Fort. It takes around 1 hour 30 minutes to trek to this picturesque village from the fort.  Located on the faraway mountains, the beautiful village of Lepchakhawa can be seen from a distance with villagers moving about, doing  their daily chores.

Poro North and South Eco Parks – The places are very popular centre for picnicking, boating and enjoying the natural beauty of forests. The spot is located on the bank of Poro River.

Sikiajhora – The place is on the bank of a perennial stream originating from Buxa Forests. There is a watch tower for bird watching. The place is a popular spot for picnic.

Narathali Beel – This is a natural wetland. Every year thousands of birds visit the area in winter.

Garam – Dima Nature Observation Tower – The watch tower is on the bank of Dima River and the vast grassland along with a good view of Buxa Forest, Sinchula and Bhutan hills makes this spot picturesque

Accommodation
There is no proper hotel or accommodation facility for night stay at Buxa. There are, however, several private home stay facilities which are unreliable.
With the non-availability of decent accommodation facilities in Buxa, Team WHEELS chose Elite Hotel in Alipurduar town. The property is reasonably good with comfortable rooms and wide range of food from their in-house restaurant.

Best time to visit: October to February
Forest Guide: Rs 200-400 available from the Santrabari Forest Office.
Range Officer: Dhirendra Chandra Dutta Telephone: 03564-216070
Mobile network: Not available
Drinking water: Carry your own drinking water since the local drinking water may not suite you.

Contact Info
Field Director – Buxa Tiger Reserve
Alipurduar Court, Alipurduar – Jalpaiguri District, Pin – 736122
Telephone: 03564-256333
Fax: 03564-255577
Email: fdbtr2012@gmail.com; fdbtrwb@gmail.com
Forest Guide: Dipu, Cell: 9609734058

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