The floods in Assam have submerged 85 per cent of the Kaziranga National Park, famous for its one-horned rhinoceros. Already 113 animals, including 11 rhinos, have died — two of the rhinos succumbed to natural causes. And with this year’s deluge said to be the “sixth heaviest” in the park’s history, the fear is that the animal toll will rise.
But park officials insist there is hope. They say the 33 new artificial highlands created within the sanctuary in 2017-18 and better corridor management will make a difference this time. In the floods last year, over 300 animals had died, including over 20 rhinos.
“Elephants and deer migrate whereas a vast majority of the rhinos tend to remain in submerged parts of the park and for them, the highlands provide succour,” said park director P Sivakumar.
“Obviously, the highlands have helped. On a recent trip, I saw over 50 animals on three highlands. We have also ensured that food is provided at the highlands,” said Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya.
This year, the Centre approved Rs 12.5 crore for a highland and road project that will heighten some of the low roads in the jungle to the level of the existing tourist-circuit road. “In the non-monsoon period, it can be used for patrolling and during floods, it will serve as a highland,” Sivakumar said.
But still, artificial highlands have their critics. Uttam Saikia, Honorary Wildlife Warden of the park, warned that these “highlands should not come up in the core areas of Kaziranga because it might damage the ecology”. “They can be built in the periphery and additional areas. Animals are forced to take shelter in these artificial highlands, the mountains are the natural highlands for them,” he said.
Sivakumar rules out any new construction inside the core area. And Akashdeep Baruah, a senior IFS officer who was the park director when the highlands were constructed, maintains it is “possible” that had they not been there, more animals would have died.
“The highlands were built for a very limited purpose and they are serving that well — they were never thought to be a permanent solution,” Baruah said.
Sivakumar says the park administration is also focussing on managing animal corridors, including those cutting across NH-37. “Recently, we took over 500 hectares, which will help in developing three corridors,” he said.
During floods, animals in Kaziranga migrate to the upper reaches, crossing the highway — and often get hit by vehicles. At least 15 hog deers have been killed in road accidents so far this season. On Sunday, a video of a rhino resting on NH-37, while forest officials and police restricted traffic, went viral on social media.
“Traffic control on the highway has been more effective. This year, rescue teams have been strengthened with more equipment and boats. We have been able to rescue big animals also on boats,” Minister Suklabaidya said. As of now, officials say, 140 animals have been rescued.
However, Honorary Wildlife Warden Saikia contends that floods are essential to Kaziranga’s eco-system. “It’s a process that maintains ecological balance — deaths are a part of that process. For the last 100 years, we see that floods play a very important role in the natural balance. But obviously for us humans, we feel really bad,” he said.
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