Keibul Lamjao National Park

Cervus eldii. Eld’s deer. Thamin deer. Brow-antlered deer. Sangai. Dancing deer. A whole lot of names for a single species, but that’s how it is for this unusual deer, a graceful animal which is found only in one state of India- Manipur. A highly endangered species, the brow-antlered deer is found exclusively in a small area which stretches across the extreme north-eastern corner of India; Myanmar and part of Thailand. In India, the place to see this beautiful creature is the Keibul Lamjao National Park.

Keibul Lamjao is famous not just because of the brow-antlered deer; its other claim to fame is the fact that this is one of the very few `floating’ protected areas in the world. Approximately 50 km from the state capital, Imphal, Keibul Lamjao lies on an island on the fringes of the Loktak Lake.

Gazetted a sanctuary in 1969, Keibul Lamjao officially became a national park in 1977. It today stretches over an area of about 40 sq km, surrounded by marshes, hillocks, and the lake itself. A number of streams too crisscross Keibul Lamjao, which, combined with extensive marshes, make the park a typical wetland. The Loktak Lake, which is really what the park is all about, is covered almost completely by floating mats of the dense aquatic grass known locally as `phum'. Other wild grasses, including a variety of wild rice, form the bulk of the vegetation, which supports an astoundingly large and diverse fauna.

The most prominent- if not the most easily spotted- of Keibul Lamjao's many denizens is the brow-antlered `sangai' deer. A much-loved creature in Manipuri folklore and dance tradition (so much so that it's even known as the `dancing deer'), the sangai had been reported extinct in 1951, but after being re-discovered, has finally become Keibul Lamjao's prime attraction. Other animals in the park include otter, civet, wild boar and hog deer, besides a number of small reed-dwelling birds. The Loktak Lake is home to a large piscine population.

Entry Requirements

All foreigners visiting Manipur are required to obtain special Restricted Area Permits (RAPs), which are valid for entry to Keibul Lamjao National Park as well. Permits valid for a period of ten days are issued to groups of four or more people traveling together on a tour arranged by a recognized travel agent. Entry permits are issued by Indian missions abroad; by the Ministry of Home Affairs; FRROs; and the State Government of Manipur.

Indians visiting Manipur are required to obtain an Inner Line Permit, also available from the offices listed above. Like the RAPs, these too are valid for visits to Keibul Lamjao.

Access

The closest major town is Manipur's capital Imphal, about 50 km from Keibul Lamjao. Imphal has good air connections to major cities in India, through its airport, which is served by Indian Airlines. The nearest railhead is at Dimapur, about 230 km away in Assam and linked to Imphal by road. A motorable road connects Imphal to Keibul Lamjao, and although public transport between the two places is infrequent and undependable, vehicles can be hired in Imphal to do the trip to Keibul Lamjao. Alternatively, opt for one of the day tours conducted by Manipur Tourism to Loktak and Keibul Lamjao.

The best way to see Keibul Lamjao is by boat- and that too in the early morning or in the evening, when the lake's at its loveliest. The sangai, which live in small herds, lie low through most of the day and come out to feed either around dawn or at dusk, which makes a circuit at this time even more satisfying for wildlife-watchers. Local boatmen acting as guides can be engaged to take you around the lake.

Within the park are observation towers which offer a good view of sangai habitat, and for the more adventurous, a guided walk through the park is possible. Look out for the somewhat shaky floating phum, though- a wrong step and you could end up in rather a lot of water!

Best time to visit

The winter and spring- approximately October to February- is the best time to visit Keibul Lamjao. Visits are possible up to May too, although it may be a trifle too hot for some people, and the lake shrinks by almost a third because of evaporation in the summer heat. Beyond May, heavy monsoon showers hit Loktak, making visits here extremely difficult.

Accommodation

Two resthouses- one at Phubala and the other at Sendra (the main island of Loktak Lake) -are about the only accommodation options available in Keibul Lamjao. However, Keibul Lamjao's proximity to Imphal means that it's possible to visit the park on a day trip. Imphal itself has a number of good hotels where rooms are available; rates for a single room start at about Rs 100 per night and can go up to Rs 1,000 or so.

Further information on Keibul Lamjao is available from the Assistant Conservator of Forests, Keibul Lamjao National Park, BPO Kha-Thimungei, Manipur, or from the Director of Tourism (Hotel Imphal Complex), Near Raj Bhavan, Imphal (Tel: 0385-224603 / 220802 / 222705).