Located in Manipur, Keibul Lamjao is probably the world's only 'floating' sanctuary that comprises 40 sq. km. of wetland overgrown with 1.5 m. deep floating vegetation (called phumdi). The park has several distinguishing features. Apart from the vegetation and terrain, an important highlight of the park is the Loktak lake (6, 475 ha.), the largest freshwater lake in India; a large portion of which falls within the park. The fauna in the park is also rare and unique. The area is home to the endangered brow-antlered deer or sangai. But even this rare and inaccessible preserve, which is one of the only notified protected areas in Manipur, is threatened today by activities like the construction of a barrage by the National Hydro Electricity Power Corporation.
The entire Loktak Lake was protected and declared a sanctuary in October 1953, mainly to save the sangai deer, which was threatened by extinction. Following the re-discovery of the deer, in July 1954, hunting was once again permitted in Loktak, except for a small portion at the southern tip, the main habitat of the deer, which continued to be protected. This area was officially notified as a sanctuary in 1966 and a decade later, on March 28, 1977, the Keibul Lamjao National Park was created. Obviously, by then no hunting was allowed at all.
The Imphal Valley in Manipur is a highland plateau that includes an area of about 124,250 ha. The open plateau is pockmarked by innumerable small hillocks. The area is watered by six major streams and their numerous tributaries that flow down from the hills into the central plain. The waterways merge in the plains from where they proceed southwards past a narrow gorge to pour into the Chindwin River in Burma, which is a tributary of the Irrawaddy. The southern portion of the valley is characterised by a large number of lakes and marshes, the most prominent being the Loktak Lake.
Keibul Lamjao consists of the unique 'phumdi' or floating marshes. Eighty per cent of the flora is submerged and the vegetation forms a 90-120 cm. thick cover on the water surface. About half a century ago, the predominant plants used to be tou (45 per cent), singut (25 per cent) and khoimom (15 per cent). But the composition of the vegetation has undergone rapid changes and the plant cover, at present, is estimated to comprise of equal proportions of hoop Leersia hexandra and sing kambong Zizania latifolia, a protein-rich plant, often used as food (about 24 per cent). Tou Phragmites karka now comprises only about 14 per cent and wana manbi Cepithipedium spp. constitutes another 13.3 per cent. Khoimom Saccharum munja and singut Narenga porphyrochroms are found in even lower proportions of 5.6 per cent and 3.6 per cent respectively. A particular variety of wild rice grows in the area and some other endemic plants are present. Scanty growth of some species like hunding Carex spp., yawachaning Coix lecryma-jobi and lilhar Polygonum perfoliatum are also observed.
Some very rare animals may be encountered in and around this wilderness. The star attraction, of course, is the brow-antlered deer Cervus eldi eldi, called sangai in the local Meitei dialect. This particular subspecies of the Thamin deer is also fondly called Manipur's dancing deer because of its delicate gait as it negotiates its way along the floating wetlands. The other two subspecies are found in Mynmar and China. It was believed to be extinct in 1951 but was 're-discovered' a year later. It is still an endangered animal, and Keibul Lamjao is its last refuge.
Other species of deer seen here include the hog deer, sambar and muntjac. The hog deer has also vanished from the rest of the Manipur valley and isolated populations occur only in the park. Sambar and muntjac are found in the hills, surrounding the entire area. A few musk deer may still exist higher up in the hills.
One of the most primitive primates, the slow loris occurs in scattered pockets on the hills. Assamese and stump-tailed macaques and the Hoolock gibbon are restricted mainly to the western hills. The Rhesus monkey is found ubiquitously around the park. The large Indian civet Viverra zibetha and small Indian civet Viverricula indica, common otter Lutra lutra and wild boar Sus scrofa are some of the large mammals noted in the area.
Tigers, leopards, panthers, which once roamed these forests are now so scarce as to be considered absent. Similarly, the fox and jackal populations have reduced drastically and the wild dog is not seen in these parts anymore. Extremely rare lesser wild cats like the marbled cat and Temminck's golden cat may be sighted occasionally. The Himalayan black bear and the Malayan bear may also be seen foraging for food.
A variety of rare birds occur in Keibul Lamjao and the Loktak Lake. The avifauna consists primarily of the smaller reed-dwelling species. Waterfowl, which were unfailing winter migrants to the lake, are becoming more rare because of the lack of open water surfaces. The Hooded Crane may be seen in the Manipur valley. The Black Eagle and the Shaheen Falcon are some of the raptors seen here. The Eastern Shite Stork, Bamboo Partridge and Green Peafowl are also found here.
Some of the species of hornbills found here include the Brownbacked Hornbill, Rufusnecked Hornbill, Wreathed Hornbill, the Pied Hornbill and the Great Pied Hornbill.
Places to see
Clouded leopards, though very difficult to spot, are seen in the Keilam Hills of Churachandpur district and the Yangoupokpi-Lakchao area of the Indo-Burma border, both to the south of the park. The serow, locally called sabeng, also occurs in these areas.
The Keilam Hills also house the rare Marbled cats.
The only sangai in Manipur, or indeed in the world, are seen in the phumdis at the southern end of the Loktak Lake in the Keibul Lamjao Park.
Hog deer are also seen all over the park.
Elephants occur in a few, scattered herds all over Manipur. They migrate to the Taret river banks in summer, when water is scarce.
Temperatures range from a maximum of 34.40C to a minimum of 1.70C. The annual rainfall is 1220 mm. The area is most humid in August, with daily humidity measuring as much as 81 per cent. March is the least humid at 49 per cent. December and January see a fair share of frost developing in the area.
November and March afford interesting sightings of migratory birds, and are also climatically suitable.
A halt at Imphal is convenient as there is a variety of accommodation available to suit all tastes and pockets. Manipur Tourism runs day tours from Imphal to the Keibul Lamjao National Park and the Loktak Lake.
Hotel Imphal, run by the Tourism Department of the Govt. of Manipur provides convenient tourist coaches that ply to-and-fro between the airport and the hotel. Air-conditioned rooms are also available here. Tel.: 0385-220459.
There is also a tourist bungalow on Sendra Island in the middle of the Loktak Lake, from where visitors can get a glimpse of the other small islands on the lake that are actually formed from floating weed. The Sendra Tourist Home has an attached cafeteria and there are also facilities for boating and water sports. The island provides a birds' eye view of Keibul Lamjao Park with its diverse fauna.
There is also a rest house at Phubala, and an observation tower atop Chingjao Hill.
By Air: Manipur's capital, Imphal (48 km. from the park) is connected by flight to major cities like Delhi (2,503 km.), Guwahati (469 km.), Calcutta (1,620 km.).
By Rail: Dimapur (215 km. from Imphal) is the nearest railhead. Jiribam, a small town on Manipur's border, 225 km. from Imphal is an alternative, from where one can proceed to Keibul Lamjao by road.
By Road: Imphal is connected by road with Guwahati (469 km.) through National Highway No.39 and Silchar through National Highway No. 53. The park is about 48 km. from Manipur's capital, Imphal and can be approached by bus or on private vehicles.
No alcohol may be carried into or purchased in Manipur.
Owing to guerrilla wars, tourist entry to certain portions of the valley is restricted. Foreigners must obtain a special permit to visit Manipur.
The Director of Tourism, Hotel Imphal Complex, Near Raj Bhavan, Imphal. Tel.: 0385-224603/ 220802/ 222705/ 222451.
Manipur Tourism Department Reception Counter, Imphal airport, Mahatma Gandhi Avenue, Imphal. Tel.: 0385-220999.
Govt. of India Tourist Office, Old Lambulane, Jail Road, Imphal. Tel.:0385-221131.
Manipur Information Centre, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi. Tel.: 011-3344026.
Manipur Bhavan, 2, Sardar Patel Marg, Chankayapuri, New Delhi. Tel.: 011-3013311 / 3013150 / 3013009.
Manipur Bhavan, 26, Rowland Road, Calcutta. Tel.: 033-747087/ 747975/ 747937.
Manipur Bhavan, Rajgarh Road, Guwahati. Tel.: 540707