After being shut for nearly eight months, the Kaziranga National Park & Tiger Reserve (KNPTR) — famous for its one-horned rhinos — opened to tourists on Wednesday.
The park was officially re-opened to visitors in a ceremony held at Mihimukh, Kohora, graced by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal on Wednesday afternoon.
As per a release from the Chief Minister’s Office, the park was opened for tourists, both domestic and foreign. Addressing the media, CM Sonowal said that re-opening of Kaziranga would help revive Assam’s tourism sector after the COVID-19 induced lockdown. The release stated that the chief minister also “expressed optimism that the unemployed youths in and around Kaziranga would find meaningful employment again through jeep safari and other tourism activities”.
Assam’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries usually remain closed for five months, coinciding with the annual flood season from end-May/June to September— however, this time the parks shut earlier, since March, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This is the first time in history that the park has been shut for so long,” said P Sivakumar, KNPTR, director, “We closed in March itself because of the pandemic. We are shut from June to September anyway because of the floods.” This year the park faced its sixth worst flood since 1988, killing more than 150 animals, including several rhinos and hog deer.
The authorities said that the park will be opened with strict Covid-19 protocol in place — wearing masks, using hand sanitisers, as well as a regulated number of jeep safaris at a time, among others. Additionally, tourists will be screened on entering.
“We have tied up with the local hospital authorities — if anyone shows symptoms on being screened, they will be referred there for a test,” said Rabindra Sarma, Wildlife Research Officer, KNPTR.
As per a notification from the office of the Divisional Forest Officer, Eastern Assam Wildlife Division, only some areas in the Park will be open for limited access to visitors. For now, only jeep safaris in Kaziranga Range, Kohora and Western Range, Bagori would be open to tourists due to “inclement weather and road conditions” inside the park. The date for opening the other ranges eastern range will be notified in due course of time, said the order.
Sarma said that each vehicle entering the park will be sanitised. “At the entry point, there is a station for sanitising the wheels of each vehicle,” he said, “Only four jeep safaris can ply at a time, and a distance of at least 500 m between each jeep will need to be maintained at all times. The guards have been informed that people cannot get down, or gather together.”
Only four people, including the driver and forest guard, will be allowed on the jeep at a time. “This means two guests can occupy the jeep at a time. If they are not accompanied by a forest guard, there can be three people,” said Sarma, adding that children below 10 and seniors above 65 cannot visit the park.
Sivakumar added that elephant safaris will begin on November 1. “There will be five new tourist destinations this year — two under the north bank’s Panpur and Biswanath ghat area, and three more under Eastern Assam Wildlife Division: Chirang pahar for trekking, Bandardhubi for jeep safari, and Bhomoraguri for riverine activities,” he said, adding that these would also be functional from November 1.
Sivakumar said that the response from the tourists was so far ‘below normal.’ “We expect it to take some time,” he said, “The tourist season is usually open from November, we have brought it a little forward because of Durga Puja. The first two-three days usually has local tourists visiting.”
Sarma said that many locals, who depend on tourism for their income, had suffered because of the extended closure of the park. “The park usually is open till May. This year, there were two blows: first, the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in December last year, and then the pandemic,” he said.
On Wednesday, CM Sonowal also took a jeep safari into the national park, accompanied by local MLA of Bokakhat and Agriculture Minister Atul Bora, Water Resources Minister Keshab Mahanta, Industries and Commerce Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary, MLA Rituparna Baruah, PCCF (Wild Life) AM Singh, among others.
Apart from KNPTR, Manas National Park and Tiger Reserve opened on October 2 with strict Covid-19 protocol in place, and Orang National Park and Tiger Reserve will open on November 1.
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