Ecology | Environment

Assam floods: Why we need to act fast to save Kaziranga and its wildlife

A one-horned rhino looks for dry land at Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Morigaon District.

A one-horned rhino looks for dry land at Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Morigaon District.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

The animal corridors leading to the Karbi Anglong hills — where Kaziranga’s animals would take refuge during the monsoon each year — are now blocked by quarries and hotels

Hamida Khatun, 42, has never visited Kaziranga National Park (KNP), although it is some 900 metres behind her house in Harmoti, Assam. Her populous village adjoins the Bagori range of the wildlife preserve, best known as the address of the greater one-horned rhino.

On the evening of July 18, Khatun froze when she found a tiger by her home. So did the tiger. The tiger was some 10 ft away from Khatun, between her and a tube-well in the backyard to which she was headed to wash her plates. She clanged the steel plates to chase the animal away, and the tiger disappeared into the bushes.

The people of Harmoti are used to the odd deer taking refuge in their village during the annual floods in Kaziranga. But a tiger has never crossed their path in more than four decades. Nor has a rhino or elephant.

A forest camp surrounded by floodwaters inside Kaziranga.

A forest camp surrounded by floodwaters inside Kaziranga.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

 

What happened after Khatun’s encounter was also unprecedented: angry villagers almost lynched Bagori Range Officer Pankaj Bora and other forest officials who had been trying to guide the animal back to the forest.

They were angry that the foresters had let the tiger lie all day inside scrap dealer Rafiqul Islam’s house. “They should have tranquillised the animal and taken it away instead of endangering our lives,” says Khatun’s 24-year-old son Hafizuddin Sheikh.

The villagers were in no mood to understand that tranquillising was not a good idea for an animal that was probably hungry and tired after having swum through a flood. “We think the tiger slipped into the hills of Karbi Anglong district in the dead of night when there was less traffic on the highway,” says Bora.

 

A 750 sq. km. stretch of hills in Karbi Anglong, south of NH 37, which runs along the southern periphery of KNP, has been the natural refuge for all animals when the park floods each monsoon. Unfortunately, commercial activities on or close to the animal corridors, especially along the 60 km stretch between Jakhalabandha and Bokakhat towns (on the western and eastern ends of KNP), have forced the animals to take unconventional monsoon migration paths over the years. Within the park, 144 artificial highlands were created for the animals, but they cover only 50 acres.

“Stone quarrying in Karbi Anglong over 15-16 years has virtually blocked some of the corridors, preventing animals from moving higher into the hills. This makes them vulnerable to poachers too,” says environment activist Rohit Choudhury, whose petition in the Supreme Court led to a ban on stone mining this April.

Follow the floods

This year, when forest officials followed a few animals, including rhinos and elephants, they found them foraging around the abandoned stone quarries; they also found tiger pug marks there, underlining the importance of leaving animal corridors alone.

The carcass of a one-horned rhino floats in flood waters.

The carcass of a one-horned rhino floats in flood waters.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

 

While wildlife activists are encouraged by the fact that wildlife is returning to the areas around the quarries, they point out that the bigger picture is far from heartening. “Floods are necessary for Kaziranga even though they kill scores of animals every year. The park won’t survive without the floods — they replenish the wetlands and grasslands that the region’s flagship species, the rhino, is dependent on,” says N.K. Vasu, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests. “The water, most importantly, helps drain out aquatic weeds that would otherwise choke the water bodies.” So clearly it’s not the flooding that’s the problem. The biggest problem, as Vasu says, is the “construction and increasing human presence along and around the highway.”

There are, for instance, scores of dhabas, restaurants and guesthouses on a 10 km stretch between the Bagori range office and the Burapahar range office. Many of these, allegedly without permits, came up after KNP was declared a tiger reserve in 2007. The scrap dealer’s shack, where the tiger rested on July 18, was one such structure. Local people say the area also has an illegal cement block-making unit in Najan near Harmoti, whose effluents flow into the Gelubeel water body. The walls built around these structures also hinder animal movement.

Watch: Assam flood takes its toll on people and animals
 

Bending rules

“These structures are beyond our jurisdiction. Ideally, the civil administration should intervene,” said a KNP official, speaking anonymously.

While officials of Golaghat and Nagaon districts, which Kaziranga straddles on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra, claim that no land has been bought in the vicinity of the park for more than a decade, local people say that the circle offices have been bending rules to let investors usurp land to expand hotels and other tourism-related activities. Dhabas, for example, have virtually turned into truck terminals.

The lucky ones that managed to reach high ground.

The lucky ones that managed to reach high ground.   | Photo Credit: PTI

 

River Diffolu, Kaziranga’s lifeline, has suffered because of contamination of some of its tributaries by stone mining in the hills. “Quarrying affects the water quality, impacting wildlife habitats in and around Kaziranga,” says a report by the Divisional Forest Officer of Eastern Assam wildlife division, which was sent to the national park director last June.

Much of Kaziranga’s existence, since it was made a ‘Proposed Reserve Forest’ in June 1905, has depended on the cooperation of people who live along its periphery. Over the years, villagers have tipped off park officials about poachers, and also volunteered to rescue animals during floods. They have also taken rare attacks by wild animals in their stride; a few years ago a wild buffalo that had escaped the flooded park injured a person in Silimkhowa village on the foothills of Karbi Anglong.

 

 

Which is why forest officials were taken aback by the anger in Harmoti this time. They attribute it to the anxiety among people living along Kaziranga’s periphery that they might lose lands and livelihoods if a 10-km Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) is demarcated around the park, which would ban several activities.

ESZs are envisaged as ‘transition zones’ for wildlife moving from areas of high to low protection. In March this year, a Central Empowered Committee submitted to the Supreme Court a recommendation for an ESZ around Kaziranga as “some kind of shock absorber for the protected areas”. The next month, the Supreme Court asked the Assam government to respond to the recommendation.

Wildlife perched on the ridges inside the Park.

Wildlife perched on the ridges inside the Park.   | Photo Credit: PTI

 

“We are not opposed to the ESZ, but it cannot be 10 km everywhere around the park,” says Jitu Sarma Rajkhowa, president of Greater Kaziranga Human Resource Development and Environment Protection Committee. “Yes, we need environment protection, but we cannot let the people suffer. Villages have always existed 50-100 metres from KNP’s boundary. It will be a great injustice if they are shifted. Kaziranga sustains more than 5 lakh people.” .

Shrinking spaces

Deben Konwar of Jakhalabandha talks of the sacrifices made by local people for Kaziranga. “We were from Gotonga, a revenue village that was inundated by the Brahmaputra in 1969. We then moved to Kawoimari, which was acquired after Kaziranga became a national park in 1974. We moved again. Now we may be displaced again if an ESZ is established. Why should Kaziranga keep expanding and our space keep shrinking,” he asks.

But KNP director P. Sivakumar points out that Kaziranga is not expanding. “People usually talk about its core area, which is 430 sq. km., but the national park is 898 sq.km, and Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, demarcated in 2007, covers 1,080 sq. km.” Sivakumar says the ESZ need not be 10 km all around the park. “It can vary from zero to 10 km, depending on the level of sensitivity. There are stretches on the highway that animals do not use. We have no issues with commercial activities there. But areas along the nine animal corridors and about 50 dandis (paths) have to be protected.”

On June 27, at a meeting headed by Assam Chief Secretary Alok Kumar, following the Supreme Court’s direction of April, a suggestion was made about a possible relaxation of the ESZ width where necessary: “in areas of conflict the zero kilometre (boundary of KNP) limitation should be delineated and a minimum of 300/400 metres should be spared where there may be already existent public utilities/interest, government installations, building, etc,” the minutes of the meeting stated.

Assam forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya says “We are yet to take a call on how wide the ESZ will be. The people will be taken into confidence to work out a formula that suits both humans and animals.”

Forest officials believe these fears have been fuelled by commercial stakeholders. “The ESZ protects villagers and agricultural lands and prescribes a ban on new commercial and industrial activities. We believe the hospitality lobby is behind this misinformation campaign,” says a senior forest official.

Communication gap

The Kuthari-Bagmari Eco-Development Committee is one of many such formed by the KNP authorities to involve villagers in conservation efforts. Its president Jayanta Rajkhowa points to a communication gap between foresters and the people. “Most people here are poor and subsist on agriculture. They don’t know what the changing status of Kaziranga from reserved forest to national park to World Heritage site and tiger reserve entails in terms of conservation.”

To address misconceptions, a meeting was held recently between Sivakumar and the people of Silimkhowa village, some 5 km south of the highway, facilitated by Pranab Bora of the World Wide Fund for Nature-India.

As Jonah Sing Engti of Silimkhowa explains, “Unlike commercial establishments along the highway, our houses have traditionally been spaced apart, so animals can pass through between them during floods. But the stone quarries not only came in their way, they have dried up five streams and damaged farmlands downstream. We are ensuring these quarries don’t come up again.”

Park officials know that Kaziranga needs tourists. But there are plans now to contain them within the centrally-located Kohora, the most popular halt for tourists, which is away from the animal corridors. Plans are also afoot to develop Bokakhat and Jakhalabandha towns as tourist hubs. A three-lane elevated highway in three stretches, totalling 35 km, has also been proposed to free up the nine animal corridors between the park and the hills.

“The world recognises Kaziranga as one of the best conservation stories of a century. But if we don’t act fast, we might lose the park in less than 100 years,” warns a range officer.

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Printable version | Aug 5, 2020 4:51:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/assam-floods-why-we-need-to-act-fast-to-save-kaziranga-and-its-wildlife/article28720848.ece

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