Sadiq Naqvi, The Hindu Business Line | July 3, 2020
At Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, home to the big five, monsoon floods are an essential part of the ecosystem.
* About 80 per cent of the camps in the Kaziranga National Park and tiger reserve are already under water.
* Annual flooding is a part of life for the wild.
Dimbeshwar Das has vivid memories — some of them four decades old — of floods in the Kaziranga National Park (KNP). The 1988 flood was particularly devastating, he recalls. “Animal carcasses were strewn everywhere,” the 54-year-old forest guard says, as he gets ready to ferry rations in a motorboat to the flooded camps inside the park where guards on the lookout for poachers are stationed.
This protected area in Central Assam — a mix of swampy wetlands, tall elephant grass and deciduous, semi-evergreen forest — is flanked by the mighty Brahmaputra River and Karbi Hills on either side. Come June, and the rivers swell with the monsoon rain, and water enters the lowlands of the KNP. About 80 per cent of the camps in the national park and tiger reserve are already under water.
Flooding is almost a part of KNP life now. “This is nothing dangerous; it is normal,” says KNP director P Sivakumar, examining the floodwaters from a wooden bridge on the Diphloo River. Diphloo, which originates in the Karbi Hills, is in spate. “If there is a cloudburst in Karbi Anglong, the water levels may rise rapidly,” he remarks. Forest security officials, rifles cocked, stand around him. Last year, a rhinoceros — the KNP is known for its one-horned rhinos — had attacked officials.
The park-cum-tiger reserve, spanning an area of over 1,000 sq km, spread over five districts of Nagaon, Golaghat, Biswanath, Karbi Anglong and Sonitpur, is one of India’s most precious protected areas. It is home to several endangered species including the big five — the royal Bengal tiger, the Indian elephant, Eastern swamp deer, wild water buffalo and the great one-horned rhinos. It has the highest concentration of rhinos in the country. An estimated 2,400 of the armour-plated herbivores inhabit the park.
On the southern boundary of the national park — the Asian Highway 1 — locals are already building temporary shelters for themselves. Twenty-seven people have been killed and around 1.5 million affected by the floods this year. While people move to temporary shelters to escape the fury of the swirling waters, Kaziranga’s animals migrate to the Karbi Hills.
“Elephants are usually the first to migrate,” Sivakumar points out.
To make their movement easier, barricades have come up along the nine animal corridors on AH1. Forest officials and the police are on round-the-clock duty. “We have already stepped up deployment,” Golaghat district superintendent of police Pushpraj Singh says.
The deployment of security personnel on the highway is to curb roadkills. Eight hog deer have already been killed in the last week.
Kaziranga is a high-security national park, and instances of poaching have reduced drastically in recent times. “It is not easy to poach in Kaziranga. The terrain is difficult. Plus we have armed forest guards. There is no guarantee that a poacher will go back safely,” Sivakumar warns.
But the prized rhino horn — said to be an aphrodisiac and sold illegally — continues to lure poachers to the national park. In May, a rhino was killed by poachers, the first such incident in 13 months. The poachers, armed with Kalashnikovs and a grenade, were arrested, and one of them was killed in an encounter in Karbi Anglong.
During the floods, the rhinos remain mostly inside the park. If the water levels rise abnormally, they are seen taking refuge with wild buffaloes and other animals on the 33 artificial highlands that were built in 2016-17.
In the 1980s and ’90s, 111 highlands were built but are now in a poor shape. The authorities, however, are not in favour of building any more highlands since they believe these adversely affect the riverine ecosystem. “The 190-plus wetlands form the lifeline of Kaziranga,” Sivakumar says, adding that increasing the height of the existing roads and pathways is a better option for keeping the animals safe.
Meanwhile, as patrolling becomes difficult because of rising water levels, pressure builds up on the forest guards inside the park. Most of the 223 anti-poaching camps get flooded and the security guards require boats to move around. The park’s fleet of 300 country boats, 22 motorboats and six mobile camps was serviced and kept ready for deployment well before the floods. “We usually start preparing for the floods in April, after [the festival of] Bihu,” Sivakumar adds.
“We are on the field 24×7 during the floods, carrying out rescue operations,” says Samsul Ali, a veterinarian with the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation, a facility near KNP where rescued animals are taken care of before they are released back into the wild. “Last year, there were 100-plus cases of rescue,” Ali says. There are occasional instances of a rhino calf being separated from its mother, warranting a rescue. But 98 per cent of the rescued animals are deer species, mostly hog deer.
On their way to the Karbi hills, deer often stray into human habitations or get waylaid by stray dogs. “People call us for rescue,” Ali says. Some deer also end up being caught by locals for bushmeat. On Tuesday, officials of the Biswanath division of the national park arrested two hog deer hunters while they were allegedly cooking bushmeat.
Despite the massive management challenge involved, foresters believe that floods are an essential part of the ecosystem. “Floods are not a problem for wildlife. They are an issue for humans,” says Ramesh Kumar Gogoi, divisional forest officer of Kaziranga. “Kaziranga will die without floods.”