“Assam to create nine elephant corridors in Kaziranga National Park,” declared the newly elected Government of Assam. All headlines screamed with a tinge of conservation victory with these words and declaration.
Foresters and conservationists alike nodded their smug heads in satisfaction having won the battle for those hapless pachyderms as the corridors will definitely provide a safe passage for these gentle giants, they said.
The common man too rejoiced amid the pandemic. The only question that remains unanswered though is – “Are corridors the new age panacea for elephant conservation?”
Understanding the Kaziranga National Park success story is irony personified, so says a forest official who has worked and understood Kaziranga like no other: “Kaziranga is just another typical case where its success is going to be its downfall!”
What is a wildlife corridor?
A wildlife corridor is a link or piece of wildlife habitat which connects or joins two or more larger areas of similar habitat – the habitat being native.
Why are corridors important?
Habitat degradation and fragmentation are the major conservation problems leading to biodiversity decline worldwide. Wildlife, being natural foragers and animals like the elephants having large home ranges, moves continually in search of food, shelter and interbreeding which is being hampered by this constant degradation and fragmentation of their natural habitat.
The corridors provide the required connections enabling the movement of the animals for maintenance of these ecological processes.
Why are corridors important for Kaziranga National Park?
Kaziranga National Park stretches across the breadth of the Assam landscape from the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra to the foothills of Karbi Anglong. Hundreds of years ago, the park was a contiguous entity of the much talked about Kaziranga – Karbi Anglong – Intanki landscape (Assam – Nagaland) elephant reserve.
This was one of the 32 elephant reserves declared by the erstwhile Government of India under its Centrally Sponsored “Project Elephant” scheme floated in the year 1996. And then the Numaligarh Refinery built the infamous wall, fragmenting the Intaki habitat from Kaziranga.
Now all that remains of this elephant reserve is the Kaziranga – Karbi Anglong portion which is referred to as the “Kaziranga – Karbi Anglong Landscape (KKI) The efforts of Project Elephant to provide a safe passage for these pachyderms throughout their home range that stretched from Nagaland to Assam died a slow but natural death as Kaziranga rose in stature and success.
A 1997 study by Prof. D. K. Lahiri Choudhury, an elephant expert, revealed an elephant route that traversed from Kaziranga (Panbari Rf) through Karbi Anglong (Upper Doigrung/Lower Doigrung Rf) via Numaligarh to the Assam Nagaland border (Garampani WLS) and then probably towards Nagaland (Intanki RF).
The report was submitted to the Forest Department, Govt. of Assam. But then Numaligarh Refinery built the wall thereafter, only to break down a part of it after probably two decades when an order was passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India suggesting the wall to have been built on an elephant corridor.
The elephants from eons had always moved with ease from the flood plains of the Brahmaputra that formed the core area of the Kaziranga National Park to the hills of Karbi Anglong through the stretches of non forest habitation right from Jakhalabandha to Bokakhat. We could call these the original corridors of Kaziranga!!
Which are the corridors in Kaziranga National Park?
The authorities of the Kaziranga National Park through the years have declared the corridor status to three stretches of habitation along the Park namely Kanchanjuri, Haldibari and Panbari.
It has even stated that the animals especially the elephants use these three stretches as corridors to move towards the hills of Karbi Anglong more so during the floods. Statistics of animal movement in proper data format is though lacking in the forest offices showing that these corridors are in use.
However, field information suffices their declaration of these stretches as corridors. These basically are the structural corridors of Kaziranga National Park, meaning they are the contiguous strips of forested areas that structurally connected the otherwise fragmented large habitats.
The Kanchanjuri structural corridor has been reported to be the most important piece of habitat since animals have been using this corridor regularly during the floods.
The other areas adjoining the Kaziranga National Park that the animals use as passages for movement from one patch of habitat to another are the functional corridors. Basically these are areas where there has been recorded movement of the animals.
All the nine corridors that have been proposed by the Government of Assam are already functional corridors and have been so for years. The new recommendations state that these will also be declared as structural corridors which means that the areas have to be free of human disturbance.
Kaziranga National Park and the proposed nine elephant corridors:
Is the proposal an eyewash to the real conservation issues and plans of the national park making the people to believe that the wildlife conservation problem (man elephant conflict) is solved or is it a means of giving free pass to the rest of the landscape that might be actually carrying a “corridor value” as well?
Kaziranga National Park, a heritage site as declared by the UNESCO, home to the pride of Assam, the one horned Rhinoceros and a plethora of wildlife, the Asian elephant being a flagship species. The park and now Tiger Reserve is one of the best conservation success stories of the nineteenth century.
The Government of Assam has not left any stone unturned in making this park a success, a tourism success, conservation has been an afterthought though considering the economics and the politics of the state. It started during the times of the British empire wherein setting up of the tea gardens lead to huge loss of habitation and strategic fragmentation of the home ranges of the animals.
Then came the human habitations, still manageable and acceptable. With the recognition of the national park and highlighting of its success story with much fanfare and publicity, tourism ensued leading to massive growth of infrastructure in terms of hotels, resorts, etc. which in turn lead to increase in the tourist inflow, currently much above the carrying capacity.
Land surrounding the national park shone in its new found glory, property prices shot up, the hoteliers brought landed property left, right and centre putting up monstrosities in the name of uplifting the local populace by providing a means of employment and livelihood. Wealthy people from elsewhere started to purchase land around the park right from Jakhalabandha to Bokakhat, thereby disturbing the original corridors of the elephants.
Since this new proposal is about the declaration of nine structural corridors of which most are already being used by the animals as functional corridors, it is very important for the department of forests and their landscape managers to study the implications of creating structural corridors and leaving the functional part to be developed into spaces for commercial usage.
As soon as we convert these functional corridors into structural corridors, the stretches of land mass surrounding these declared corridors will turn into functional corridors and by regularising only these nine designated corridors will never solve the conservation problem of the Kaziranga National Park in terms of landscape management.
Moreover, this declaration of designated corridors will enable the district authorities to allow free pass to privileged land owners for land conversion from agricultural use to commercial. This will not only aggravate the problem of wildlife conservation and management but create a concrete jungle in the name of facilitating provision of a means of livelihood for the local populace.
A study carried out in the year 2010 has identified the three corridors namely Kanchanjuri, Haldibari and Panbari. Further, the study states that the two big habitat resource of Kaziranga National Park and the hills of Karbi Anglong are facilitated by functional connectivity through the agricultural fields between Burapahar and Bokakhat.
This has been seen in the big floods of 1988 and 1998 when the Kaziranga wildlife crossed over the foothills of Karbi Anglong through these agricultural fields acting as functional corridors.
However the study also emphasizes that due to the growth of protected area based tourism there has been an unplanned and chaotic growth of infrastructure in these functional corridor areas leading to the loss of connectivity between the two major habitats.
The inclusion of the reserve forests of the Nagaon Divison namely the Kukurkata RF into the national park area has helped enormously in providing functional corridors for the wildlife.
What is the need of the hour for Kaziranga National Park?
Instead of declaring already in existence corridors into official corridors, the need of the hour is a landscape management plan where the Competent Authority ensures that the status of the land surrounding the park and which has been serving as functional corridors for years does not get changed from agricultural land to urban/ non agricultural land.
These are the main stretches of connectivity which is of high importance to the park and it’s wildlife.
The authorities should also ensure that by declaring these nine so called corridors, the other agricultural land do not get indirect permission to change it’s land use status into non agricultural activities.
Kaziranga has another very serious problem related to landscape management which is the erosion of the northern boundary. This problem destroyed the heritage Arimora Inspection Bungalow which no longer exists.
Erosion and the waters of the Brahmaputra have taken away a heritage property due to lack of landscape management practices by the park authorities.
The erosion problem has always been ignored or not kept in the public view since the problem of corridors and land usage on the other side is more lucrative for the authorities and the land owners.
The wildlife of the Kaziranga National Park is caught between erosion in the north and concrete jungles and urbanization on the south.
The problems and solutions for conservation of wildlife and the national park is much more deep-seated than just a declaration of nine corridors.
The park needs a holistic landscape development plan inclusive of all adjoining areas of the park with more emphasis on the habitation on the other side of the Karbi Anglong foothills.
Rampant mining and conversion of huge tracts of secondary native habitations into monoculture plantations of rubber and tea in the Karbi Anglong hills has been posing more long term problems for the wildlife.
There has already been recommendations for designating the landscape around the park into a) High Development Area b) Low Development areas and c) No Development areas, this designation should be maintained in spite of declaration of these nine corridors by the authorities.
Further tourist inflow on a yearly basis should be a Government regulated mechanism with strict imposition of these regulations on all the stakeholders including the Assam Tourism Development Corporation and the private players.
Interdepartmental coordination at the divisional and sub-divisional level is an urgent requirement. Proper coordination between the revenue and the forest department officials at the ground level in managing the development and conservation activities should be the priority of the Government.
Moreover, coordination with the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) in terms of their involvement in managing the ecologically sensitive areas are equally important.
The Government of Assam by declaring these nine corridors should not go around in a “chest beating exercise” proclaiming their pro wildlife stand since this declaration will certainly limit the perception of the long term problems faced by the Kaziranga Narional Park.
These corridors cannot be used as a means to the end of allowing free passage to the political honchos and business magnates of the state to regularise their landed property for commercial usage, the wildlife of the park deserve a little more than just corridors of safe passage, they need survival strategies for the ecological processes of food, shelter and interbreeding which are the most important aspects for long term survival of not only the elephants but all species.
(The author, Bijoyananda (Dudul) Chowdhury, is an educationist and wildlife enthusiast, based in Guwahati, Assam)