In the wake of a large number of animal deaths at Kaziranga National Park due to recent floods, environmentalists call for better management practices to meet future conservation needs

Desperate situations often call for remedial measures. The Kaziranga National Park (KNP) authorities learnt it a hard way following the havoc caused by recent floods in Assam that left a trail of devastation of the park infrastructure and more importantly, claimed the lives of as many as 595 animals.

It was found that a substantial number of animals were hit by vehicles on National Highway 37 that skirts the park on its southern flank while the animals were fleeing the rising water level inside the park. The remaining either drowned or got washed away by flood waters.

With flood in the Brahmaputra plains being an almost annual feature, authorities are now waking up to the necessity of identify animal crossing zones on the NH 37 towards the Karbi Anglong hills and construct flyovers on those stretches to eliminate the risk of animals being run over. KNP director Sanjib Kumar Bora says that the proposal is still in a planning stage and at present, only signboards mark these crossings. About 30 were hit by vehicles this time despite the park authorities’ enforcing Section 144 and introducing time cards to keep a check on speeding vehicles.

Another proposed measure is to widen and strengthen the existing around 70 artificial highlands to provide shelter to animals during floods. Mr. Bora also stresses on the need for speedy handing over of proposed additional land to park authorities so that new territories free of human movement can be created for the rising population of park animals. So far, the first and fourth additions have been handed over. The sixth addition on the north from Biswanath to Koliabhomora, which include a stretch of the Brahmaputra and sand-isles of river, is in the final stage of notification. However, the proposed third, fourth and fifth additions in Golaghat district are yet to be handed over with human settlements still present there.

The animals that perished in the current wave of floods included 512 hog deer, 17 rhinos (including two killed by poachers), 10 swamp deer, 15 sambar, 28 wild boars, 5 porcupines, two hog badgers, two elephants, one buffalo, one jackle and two pythons.

In 2005, when Kaziranga celebrated its 100-year-long efforts to save the rhinoceros from extinction as the “century's greatest conservation success story in the world”, a road map for the future of this world heritage site was also charted out by experts on wildlife biology, animal ecology, conservationists and field managers from different parts of the globe that reflected on its rich biodiversity as well as the several challenges that lie ahead. Special emphasis was given to poaching and other disturbances, weeds, ranging behavioural patterns of wild animals outside the protected areas, high intensity floods and erosion caused by the floodwaters of the Brahmaputra river, which are of great relevance for the sustenance of Kaziranga's ecosystem and its biodiversity.

Experts while acknowledging that Kaziranga being a floodplain eco-system, flood is a natural phenomenon having both positive and negative impact and only the fittest survive, have reflected on certain interventions which they feel are required for effective management of the park and to meet its future conservation needs.

Dr. Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, a specialist in animal ecology and wildlife biology, says that future health of Kaziranga lies in conservation of the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong region. When flood waters enter the park due to rise in water level of the Brahmaputra, the animals usually start migrating towards Karbi Anglong hills for shelter and fodder. Taking a cue, the Assam government should take the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council, which has control over land in Karbi Anglong hills, into confidence to ensure joint conservation of the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong landscape. If stone quarrying and construction activities are allowed to continue in the Karbi Anglong hills, it would destroy the landscape and prove detrimental to migrating animals during annual floods. Denied passage to migrate, the animals are likely to get trapped in flooded areas on the north. He cautioned the government against giving in to any pressure by groups lobbying for expansion of the existing two-lane National Highway 37 that runs parallel to the park’s southern boundary. Dr. Talukdar, who is also the secretary general of Aaranyak, a wildlife research and biodiversity conservation organisation, is also worried over possible man-made flash floods in Kaziranga, which would become a highly probable problem once the dams coming up in Brahmaputra’s upstream areas in Arunachal Pradesh start releasing excess water during monsoon.

Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) and former KNP director N.K. Vasu feels that a few more highlands should be constructed within the park since the existing highlands were over-utilised. He, however, sounded a word of caution that before undertaking any new construction of artificial highland, care needs to be taken that such highlands do not obstruct the natural flow of water in the park. Any such step will require proper and and require scientific survey and assessment of the park eco-system. He also highlighted the need for regular monitoring of the existing embankments to protect the park from the Diffolu and Dhansiri rivers to prevent a flash flood. In 1988, a breach in the embankment resulted in a flash flood in which 1,203 animals perished. Kaziranga has the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinoceros, Asiatic wild buffalo and eastern race of swamp deer and has the highest density of tiger in the world.

National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) member and wildlife biologist M. Firoze Ahmed argues that the flood this time has caused negligible damage to animal population in Kaziranga as compared to huge benefits such as enriching the ecosystem of the park. The grassland and wetland of the park is naturally maintained by annual floods, he says. About the high mortality of hog deer, Dr. Ahmed points out that the figure was only 1.28 per cent of the parks’ total hog deer population of about 40,000 to 50,0000. He feels that tremendous anthropogenic pressures on all animal corridors, blocking of open space by development and settlement has left little or no space on the south for animals to migrate.