Hundreds of vehicles got stranded on Highway 37 – that cuts through the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) in Assam – as forest staff pave the way for a herd of hog deer escaping surging flood waters to cross over to the adjacent Karbi Anglong hills.
Wildlife cannot avoid roads, railroads and other linear obstructions and the result is sometimes injury or death.
Addressing the wildlife passage problem during high floods, a speed limit of 40 kmph for vehicles plying on National Highway 37 has been issued to try and keep animals from being run over.
Although the order has been in place, news of animal casualties poured in.
With the flood level of the Brahmaputra flowing through the north of the Kaziranga crossed the danger level at Dhansirimukh on July 13, 90 per cent of the park got inundated.
With rising water level, most of the existing highlands inside the park were submerged and animals including elephants, buffaloes, rhinos, deer, wild boars were seen crossing the NH 37 that runs paralell to the southern boundary of Kaziranga National Park (KNP) to take shelter on the Karbi Anglong Hills.
In the process, quite a number of wildlife got killed or injured by speeding vehicles on the highway.
Speed limits hardly make a difference to the wildlife waiting late into the night for traffic to thin. Some did not make it.
The Assam Government drew flak from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for death of wild animals in accidents and was directed to ensure their safety.
Scores of hog deer were run over by speeding vehicles, said a forest personnel engaged in rescue operations.
Most of the protected areas including the two World Heritage Sites – Kaziranga and Manas National Park – along with the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, Nameri National Park, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuary and the Orang Tiger Reserve in Assam were ravaged by the recent waves of flood.
Heavy monsoon rains has lashed India’s northeast since the second week of July.
Floods and landslides triggered by the heavy rain have claimed 70 lives so far in the state of Assam and displaced more than a million people from their homes.
The Brahmaputra that has breached its danger level along with all its major tributaries submerged as many as 3,000 villages in the state.
Over 50 lakh people across 31 of the state’s 33 districts have been affected so far.
Recent floods threaten to unsettle KNP’s ecological balance
Flood is not a new phenomenon in Kaziranga. In fact, it is a part of the Brahmaputra flood plain.
The Brahmaputra River flows by Kaziranga National Park in a braided course for about 53 km and forms the northern boundary of KNP.
Three other rivers also cut through the 430 sqkm Park.
Grassland and savannahs occur in riparian flats inundated by the floodwater of the Brahmaputra.
These grasslands are unique natural vegetation and the combination of these grasslands, swamp forests and marsh form the ideal habitat for the rhino, elephant, swamp deer, the Asiatic buffalo and a wide diversity of animals.
The forest- edged riverine grassland of Kaziranga National Park (KNP), that hosts two-thirds of the world’s Great One-horned Rhinoceroses and boasts the highest density of tigers among protected areas in the world, has been maintained by fire and annual floods.
“Flood is intrinsically linked with Kaziranga cannot exist without the yearly event. Flood flushes out the aquatic weeds that would otherwise choke the water bodies and rejuvenates it every year. In fact, we were a bit worried when Kaziranga was going without flood last year,” said Akashdeep Baruah who had just left KNP as its director to join as Principal Chief Conservator of Forest in Guwahati.
Due to climate change, more erratic patterns in rainfall and flood disasters threaten to unsettle the park’s ecological balance.
The 2012 floods left a trail of devastation quite unmatched and caused the death of 559 animals of which 14 were rhinos, according to Assam Forest Department.
The Central Government report put the death toll at 595 – that included 17 rhinos.
In 2017, two waves of flood ravaged key protected areas like Kaziranga NP and brought doom to wildlife.
Most of the existing highlands were submerged as 90 per cent of the Park got inundated within a couple of days.
About 350 animals including 26 rhinos, five elephants, a tiger perished in that flood.
This July flood too, left a trail of devastation in this World Heritage Site.
Reports claim more than 200 animals perish in the latest surge that include 17 rhinos, a Royal Bengal tiger, two sub adult elephants, hundreds of deer, buffaloes, hogs, porcupines, badgers and other ‘lesser’ wildlife.
“Sometimes carcasses of wild animals perished in flood are carried away by surging waters beyond anyone’s reach. Such casualties remain unaccountable,” said Debasish Baruah, a member of Kaziranga Wildlife Society stationed at Kohora in Kaziranga.
“We are still counting and fear that number of animal casualties may rise this year with many drowned by surging waters that reached an alarming height,” said a forest guard and added that the total number could be ascertained only after the flood waters recede completely.
Inept tackling of disasters
Floods in recent years exposed the real scenario inside KNP.
This year the state chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal visited the Park well in advance to take stock of flood preparation measures that included 33 newly created highlands.
“The forest department prepares itself well in advance for the annual event but it has always been a tough time. With most of the forest camps inside inundated it is not easy to contain wildlife casualties using boats,” said a forest guard.
Of some 199 camps, half of them remained under water for days.
Absence of proper mechanism to deal with flood risks could be felt in every step that brings doom to a sizable wildlife population every year in Kaziranga during floods.
Resources and manpower is limited in the only rescue and rehabilitation centre in KNP – Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) – to cater to the entire Park during high flood.
Excessive pressure and lack of basic amenities, particularly in the fur-flung and remote forest camps, resulted in a lot of frustration.
There is also no fixed tenure for the frontline staff to man difficult situations.
Erosion and floods remain major threat to Kaziranga
Floods and erosion are recurring phenomenon and remained constant threats to both the animals and the park authorities.
Except some high grounds, the entire National Park area gets submerged under flood water of the Brahmaputra during monsoon which takes a heavy toll of wildlife in the park.
Flooding also results in erosion, leading to severe degradation of the land.
According to a 2001 report, KNP is losing 0.7 square kilometers of land every year due to erosion.
Kaziranga is said to be the jewel in the crown of Assam’s green assets.
An ideal habitat for breeding of rhinos, it has seen a rise in the number of the species over the years.
With the growth of wild life population as well as the ever swelling human habitations in and around the Park, it has become a daunting task to meet these challenges without proper advisory and practice.