The silent sufferers of Assam floods

As of July 22, as many as 199 animals perished in the Kaziranga National Park, home to the world's largest population of one-horned rhinoceros. Experts feel the highlands in the park are not enough to house so many animals and the government should take measures to help these animals that suffer silently during floods, year after year, as the Park, situated on the banks of the Brahmaputra river, is prone to consistent floods

Shivani GuptaShivani Gupta   29 July 2019 7:50 AM GMT

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The most touching image of this year's floods in Assam was a picture that surfaced online --an adult male Royal Bengal tiger resting on a bed inside a shop in Bagori range, in the western park of Kaziranga National park.

The beast, which was looking hungry and tired, probably attempted to cross-over to higher patches as the water level went up and accidentally strayed into residential areas. Veterinarians and forest department officials had to brainstorm for nine hours to facilitate safe passage for the tiger.

Many search operations are going on at Kaziranga National Park in Assam -- sandwiched between the Brahmaputra River in the north and the Karbi Anglong hills in the extreme south -- after flash floods in the state led to many wild animals straying out of forests to seek refuge at safer places.

A Royal Bengal Tiger wandered off the Kaziranga National Park and entered a shop near the national highway -- 200 meters from the park

As of July 22, as many as 199 animals perished in the Park, home to the world's largest population of one-horned rhinoceros. Among the dead animals are 139 hog deer, 17 rhinos, one elephant, seven swamp deer, two water buffaloes, 13 sambars, 17 wild boars, and three porcupines.

According to the Assam State Disaster Management Authority, more than 9 lakh big animals, more than 5 lakh small animals and more than 4.5 lakh poultry living in and around Kaziranga National Park perished in the floods.

"The water level in the park is receding now, but the jungles are still affected. Few animals, including deer, rhinos, elephants and tigers are coming back from the highlands where they had taken refuge," said Pinku, who has been organizing safaris in the park since many years and has helped in the rescue of animals this year.

Animals move to highlands when their "homes" get flooded

Kaziranga is home to one-horned rhinoceros (2,413), Asian Elephants (1,089), tigers (104), wild water buffaloes (1,937)and swamp deer (907), collectively called the"Big Five" of Kaziranga.

When the floodwater gushes in, animals in Kaziranga flee to highlands within the Park. There are 111 highlands, which were built in the late 1990s, all are 12 feet high and large enough to accommodate up to 50 large animals. The government is building 33 more highlands -- each would be 16 feet high, having a total area of 22 hectares.

"A new highland was constructed this year by the government. It has a capacity to accommodate nearly 600-1,000 animals. Forest officials and NGOs work together to rescue animals. The local villagers also help in rescuing them," added Pinku.

Experts, however, feel these highlands are not enough as compared to the number of animals that the national park houses. The Park is situated on the banks of the Brahmaputra river hence it is more likely to get flooded during monsoon every year, say experts.

"The government should build enough high-raised platform before the monsoons hit. The state faces the wrath of floods every year, yet it's never declared a national emergency," said KukilBaruah, a resident of Biswanath district in Assam, president of North East Contractual Employees Association and a wildlife enthusiast who helped in rescuing five deer recently.

According to information provided by Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Eastern Assam Wildlife Division on the official website of Assam State Disaster Management Authority, the flood water level is receding, but the death toll is likely to rise once entire floodwater would get drained out of the Park.

When the water level rises, the animals start migrating towards the Southern area of Kaziranga. They cross the national highway and go towards Karbi Anglong area, an area vulnerable for poaching. They are thus forced to look for refuge in human habitations and highlands.

Post floods, many deaths occur due to vehicle-hits

In 2019, 16 animals from the Park were hit by vehicles when they were crossing the National Highway (NH-37). Stretched over 49 kilometres, the highway carries up to 6,000 vehicles a day.

When 70-80% of Kaziranga is underwater, the animals usually flee to the hills of Karbi Anglong, South of the Park beyond NH-37 running along its edge. Speed of vehicles is regulated during floods, but some animals invariably get killed.

Every year, hundreds of rare breeds lose their lives due to floods, vehicle-hit and poaching. Dr Partha Jyoti Das, head of Water, Climate and Hazard division of Aaranyak, an environmental protection organization in Guwahati, believes that moderate floods are welcome. "However, these floods are catastrophic. Many animals get hit by vehicles when they start migrating and accidentally cross NH-37. Also, when they migrate, they are prone to poaching. One never knows if all the migrated animals return to the Park."

The organization voluntarily teams up with government agencies to rescue wildlife in national parks during floods.

"Problem is not floods per se. Whenever floods hit Kaziranga, animals migrate to nearby natural highlands, but this natural movement has been partially blocked due to the developmental activities within and around the Park. Because of this they get hit by vehicles," said Udyan Borthakur, wildlife biologist and head of media production and communication division at Aaryanak.

"During floods, we team up with forest officials Kaziranga National Park in a bid to help them in rescuing animals. We have rescued 50-60 animals so far in the last 3-4 weeks. We work at night because then there are less chances of vehicle-hit," said Pranab Goswami, organizing officer at Aaranyak.

When asked if animals living in Kaziranga National Park should be moved out before the monsoon, he said: "We don't think so.Animals get accustomed to live in a particular environment which becomes their comfort zone. Moving animals is not wise as it will be difficult for them to live in a different habitat."

Not just the wilds, domestic animals suffer too

There are many people who live on the periphery of the national park. The animals that they rear are their source of living. When floods hit, the calamity affects these animals too. For instance, many villagers rear cows, who can't live in water for long unlike buffalos. So, when flood water rises above a certain limit, they drown. They have to be ferried in boats.

"We have lost all our domestic animals in this flood. Our paddy cultivation has suffered too. Our livestock was useful in farming. We have lost everything. We request the government to set up a veterinary camp for domestic animals," said Kancha Dewri, a local, who lives in Kamarbori village in Morigaon district of Assam.

"These villagers have lost cows and other livestock. They were asked to send pictures of their livestock loss to the government and in return they were to get a compensation of Rs 3,000. But no such measures have yet been taken yet. My home collapsed too and many of us are living by the main roads," said Pinku.

Baruah said: "It's sad to see people live on the main roads. Also, the number of wildlife deaths reported by the government are not true. Many more animals must have died deep inside the Park."

Are floods necessary?

During summers, grasslands go dry, so fodder becomes a major issue for a large number of animals within the Park. The annual floods in Kaziranga helps sustain its fragile ecology.

"Floods are necessary to some extent in Kaziranga. The wildlife is thriving because this ecosystem has been prevalent since hundreds of years. And this has become possible because of the Brahmaputra river. The floods rejuvenate the wetlands and grasslands, which are necessary for rhinos and elephants to survive," said Das.

Pic: Udayan Borthakur

The national park's vast grasslands and wetlands get revitalized annually by the river's overflow. Floods helps in recharging the Park's wetlands. It deposits mineral-rich alluvial soil to facilitate the growth of grass and shrubs and helps in triggering the growth of plants — the main source of fodder for the herbivores. Besides, the floodwaters, while receding, flush out aquatic weeds and unwanted plants wetlands. If this natural system is disturbed, the fodder base will shrink.

"Floods are necessary for the ecological balance within the Park. But the government should set up more highlands as the present ones are not as sufficient to accommodate all animals. The rescue teams have more volunteers and they should be provided with more number of boats. The government should protect older highlands and construct new ones," said Goswami.

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