Updated: July 22, 2020 11:14:58 am
As a fresh wave of floods ravages Assam, killing 73 and affecting nearly 40 lakh people across the state, 85 per cent of the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve (KNPTR) remains submerged. On Thursday, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal visited the park to take stock of the situation. So far, 125 animals have been rescued and 86 have died, including rhinos, deer and wild boar, in the sixth worst flood since 1988.
Yet, the annual deluge is considered essential for the survival of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. We explain the role of floods in Kaziranga’s ecosystem, how increasing high floods can become a problem, and what can be done to keep it in check.
What is the role of floods in Kaziranga’s ecosystem?
Assam is traditionally flood prone, and the 1,055 sq km KNPTR — sandwiched between the Brahmaputra river and the Karbi Anglong Hills — is no exception. Among experts there is a consensus that floods are necessary for Kaziranga by virtue of its ecosystem. “It is a riverine ecosystem, not a solid landmass-based ecosystem,” said P Sivakumar, Director, KNPTR, “The system won’t survive without water.” The entire area of Kaziranga — formed by alluvial deposits from the Brahmaputra and its tributaries — is centred around the river.
According to Uttam Saikia, Honorary Wildlife Warden of Kaziranga, this “floodplain eco system” has not only been created by floods but also feeds off it.
The regenerative nature of floods helps replenish Kaziranga’s water bodies and maintain its landscape, a mix of wetlands, grasslands and semi-evergreen deciduous forests. Saikia said the floodwaters also function as a breeding ground for fish. “The same fish are carried away by the receding waters into the Brahmaputra — in a way, the park replenishes the river’s stock of fish too,” he said.
The waters also help get rid of unwanted plants such as water hyacinth which collect in huge masses in the landscape. “In a herbivore-dominated area like Kaziranga, it is important we maintain its grassland status. If it were not for the annual floods, the area would become a woodland,” said Sivakumar.
Many also believe that floods are a way of natural selection. “A number of animals — especially the old, weak — cannot survive the floods. Only the ones with superior genes survive,” said Rabindra Sarma, Wildlife Research Officer at KNPTR since 1998.
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Can the floods become problematic for Kaziranga?
“Earlier, a big flood would come once in ten years,” said Rathin Barman, who heads the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), which takes in injured and orphaned wild animals of the park. “Now, they happen every other year,” he said, adding that massive deforestation in catchment areas or release of waters by dams upstream may be contributory factors. Climate change models, too, predict that floods will become increasingly devastating with each year.
Barring 2018, the years between 2016 and 2020 have all featured high floods (or floods which submerge more than 60 per cent of the park) killing and injuring hundreds of animals.
Animals adapt naturally to floods but when the waters hit a certain level, they gravitate towards safer, higher ground in the Karbi Anglong hills.
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While in the past, Kaziranga and Karbi Anglong were part of the same landscape, the animals now have to cross the bustling National Highway 37 which cuts across the park. “Over the years, the highway is getting increasingly tough to cross. A few of the nine wildlife corridors on the highway — Panbari, Haldibari, Bagori, Harmati, Kanchanjuri, Hatidandi, Deosur, Chirang and Amguri — are choked by traffic,” said Dr Naveen Pandey, Deputy Director and Veterinary Advisor, The Corbett Foundation, Kaziranga. “Mushrooming of hotels, restaurants, shops, and ancillary structures of the tea industry has not helped either.”
As a result, animals that venture out of the park, die either under the wheels of speeding vehicles on the highway, or are killed by poachers who take advantage of their vulnerability. In recent years, due to vigilant patrolling, these numbers have decreased. Those that remain in the park — often young or the very old — die by drowning, entangled in the debris under water as they try to swim.
According to Dr Varun Goswami, Senior Scientist at Conservation Initiatives, an Assam-based organisation that works in the Kaziranga landscape, wildlife in KNPTR have adapted to the natural flood regime by finding refuge on higher ground south of the park. If their safe passage is not ensured, major floods can cause serious losses.
This year four rhinos as well as a number of boar and deer have drowned, and 14 hog deer have died in road accidents so far. The authorities will be able to ascertain the actual number of deaths only once the waters recede.
How does it affect the fringe villages?
As per Sarma, at least 25 out of 75 fringe villages on the southern periphery of the park are affected by the floods. Fleeing floodwaters, animals stray from the boundary of the park, and there is an increased interaction between humans and wildlife, at times leading to conflict. “Rhino calves get separated from their mothers, tigers swim and take refuge inside homes, deer amble into villages,” said Sarma. Even so, most villagers, along with the frontline staff of the forest department and other organisations such as Wildlife Trust of India’s CWRC, are part of the tough rescue operations during the floods — guiding strayed animals to safer ground, treating those injured and generally keeping a strict vigil round the clock.
What measures are taken to prepare for the flood?
Preparedness begins a month before floods hit. The authorities keep a track of updates from the Central Water Commission, and monitor water levels of the Brahmaputra tributaries upstream in Arunachal Pradesh.
According to Dr Pandey, the civil administration, park authority, NGOs, and local communities work together to tackle the floods. “To avoid disease outbreaks, a door-to-door vaccination is organised every year pre-floods,” he said, “Thereafter, camps are organised to create awareness against poaching and harming wild animals that are rendered vulnerable during the floods.”
Moreover, when the floods hit, Section 144 is imposed along NH-37, speed limits are enforced and fines levied. Barricades are also placed to help animals cross over to Karbi Anglong. The efforts of the forest department’s frontline staff become crucial during the season.
How helpful are Kaziranga’s artificial highlands?
Over the years, another mitigation measure has been artificial highlands (111 in the Nineties, 33 in 2016-17) built inside the park for wild animals to take refuge in during the flood.
While these highlands have helped a fair bit in reducing the number of animal casualties during floods, some feel that it is not a ‘permanent solution’.
“Animals do take refuge there — especially rhino and swamp deer — but it is not viable to build more highlands since such constructions will ruin the natural ecosystem,” said Sarma, terming the highlands a “temporary refuge.” “These 33 highlands cannot accommodate all animals of Kaziranga, and the older ones are more or less dilapidated,” he said.
According to Honorary Wildlife Warden Saikia, some animals do not take to the highlands naturally. “They have been migrating to natural highlands of Karbi Anglong for centuries; suddenly these artificial constructions do not inspire confidence, they do not find it secure,” he said.
So what is the solution?
Experts believe that emphasis needs to be put on securing animal corridors and ensuring a safe passage to the Karbi hills.
To that end, a 35-km-long flyover constructed over NH-37 was proposed by the Centre in September 2019.
“While this flyover will help, 35 km is a lengthy stretch and might take time to build,” said Sivakumar, “So the focus should be on doing it quickly, using modern technology that will cause minimal disturbance to the animals during construction.”
In April 2019, the Supreme Court banned all types of mining and related activities along the park’s southern boundary and in the entire catchment area of the rivers that originate in the Karbi Anglong hill ranges and flow into Kaziranga, as well as new construction activities in private lands on nine animal corridors.
Apart from facilitating safe and unhindered wildlife movement, Dr. Goswami of Conservation Initiatives recommends the need for a landscape-scale conservation approach that recognises the value of the Karbi Anglong hills to the south. “Kaziranga, with its rich grassland habitats has a primary role to play in supporting these wildlife populations, but the highlands of Karbi Anglong, where these animals take refuge, are the lifeline of the park during the floods,” he said.
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