600 Animals Dead 1,000 Displaced

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Ironically, flooding is vital for Kaziranga’s ecology. But as governments dither on an integrated river management plan, a sediment-laden Brahmaputra is killing too many too often. Jay Mazoomdaar and Ratnadip Choudhury report on a recurring tragedy

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ITS GAZE transfixed on the busy road, the hog deer was shivering. Shoulder-deep in chilling water, the tired creature was struggling to stay afloat. It made its way through the sweeping currents of the Brahmaputra to the edge of a submerged Kaziranga. The highland where it could find its feet was finally within sight, but it was on the other side of the afternoon traffic on a noisy highway.

“It was on 28 June. We were volunteering with a patrol team on National Highway-37 when we spotted the animal near Burapahar. Too frightened to approach the road, it did not move except for involuntary efforts to avoid being swept away by the current. Only when we looked away, the deer veered towards a submerged bush, away from the road. I don’t know if it survived. The sequence was repeated many a time during those three days. One just feels so helpless,” recalls Soumen Dey, Associate Coordinator of WWF’s Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Conservation Programme.

During 25-28 June, Kaziranga drowned hundreds of its wildlife. Dozens were knocked down by speeding vehicles on NH-37 while escaping to the highland of Karbi Anglong in the south. Many more were killed by villagers in their backyards. Pohu (deer) and bonoriya gahori (wild boar) meat is a monsoon delicacy in these parts of Assam and locals happily make a meal of animals edged out by floods. Even roadkill is often used in the kitchen. With dozens of villages between Karbi Anglong and Sonitpur feasting on wild meat during the last fortnight, it is impossible to keep count.

Opportunistic poachers gunned down fleeing rhinos for their horns. On official records, three were poached — one in the Paharpur range, one further to the west and another in Pobitora. Field sources claim that another two were put down in the north bank and in Buraphapori. “Rescuing animals was our main mandate as the floods gave poachers a chance to target rhinos,” admits Dibyadhar Gogoi, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Eastern Wildlife Division, Kaziranga. Poachers, however, continue to prowl as too many animals are still roaming outside Kaziranga.

Their stories are pouring in: a desperate swamp deer interrupting a local football game, an estranged rhino calf drifting to a village cattle shed, and helpless animals stuck in mud or mazes of hyacinth. Some villagers in Kohara range even reported tigers clambering up trees. Large elephant herds that took shelter on tiny high banks built by the army in the 1980s, chomped clean the entire vegetation of those islets within 24 hours. Hunger forced many herbivores to move from one shelter to another; in the process, many small ones were swept away.

MANY ANIMALS that survived the flood have been displaced while looking for land. While the young may never reunite with their mothers, others are likely to find their way back to natal herds and territories if they escape a section of so-called volunteers who are rescuing even fit, adult animals to collect rewards announced by some local NGOs.

“Such rewards build competition among the locals who go after every animal they spot,” explains Uttam Saikia, honorary wildlife warden of Golaghat district. “We don’t want to rescue animals unnecessarily, we want to provide safe passage to them. Capture myopathy kills up to 70 percent of the rescued animals.”

Saikia’s voluntary group Bhumi swung into action on 23 June when the first warning of a flood was sounded. Kaziranga traditionally prepares for the annual flood season in July when coordination meetings between the forest department and NGOs take place. Everyone was caught unprepared when the water suddenly rose on 25 June and drowned more than 80 percent of Kaziranga in just three days. There were not enough country-made boats for rescue operations. Patrolling in peripheral beats where poachers target displaced animals could not be strengthened. The forest department did not even have enough time cards printed to regulate vehicle speed on NH-37. Not a single vehicle responsible for roadkill was caught.

Kaziranga will now brace for its annual flooding routine as the Brahmaputra is likely to inundate the grasslands twice between late July and September

As the water recedes and bloated animal carcasses reveal themselves, the weathermen have issued fresh flood warnings. Grappling with the early monsoon hit and the challenge of carcass disposal, Kaziranga must now brace for its annual flooding routine as the Brahmaputra is likely to inundate the grasslands twice between late July and September. Most animals that have moved to the highlands may simply stay put, though their survival is suspect as they have little to forage on. But the rest of the Kaziranga’s wildlife will again have to walk the razor edge between rising waters and speeding vehicles.

MUCH OF Assam depends on the Brahmaputra for life. Thanks to the river, more than 60 percent of the state constitutes one of world’s most fertile alluvial tracts. Yet, over-precipitation in its catchment areas and massive sedimentation make the Brahmaputra overflow and ravage the Valley.

The grasslands and beels (floodplain lakes) of Kaziranga, the Brahmaputra’s gift, host India’s only significant population of the one-horned rhino and wild buffalo and nurture the region’s only viable population of tiger and swamp deer. But scores of these animals drown every monsoon when the mighty river inundates the plains. This year’s toll of 600 (and counting) has been the highest since 1998.

Taming the Brahmaputra is a daunting task, perhaps, unwise too. Like Assam, Kaziranga survives on the river’s bounty and annual flooding is vital for its ecology. The loss of nearly three-fourths of the original forests of the Brahmaputra watershed and random flood control methods have led to heavy silting of the river. While an integrated approach to respect the hydrology and protection of natural ecosystems may allow the river to hold better, the Brahmaputra will, and should, continue to flood.

“It (flood) is a normal phenomenon in Kaziranga and an important part of the ecosystem,” says Firoz Ahmed, a member of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). “The flood may kill some animals but it also carries out a massive ecosystem management service in Kaziranga by maintaining the grassland, the wetland and the natural drainage system.”

Kaziranga has been much more than today’s national park demarcated by the NH-37 in the south and the river in the north. The original landscape stretched to the south on the other side of the highway to Karbi Anglong Hills with an altitude variation between 70 and 600 metres. When the Brahmaputra floods revitalise the grasslands and beels, animals move to the highlands. Over the decades, the dirt track dividing the floodplain and the hills became a highway, bringing with it hotels, settlements and industries.

Today, all four north-south corridors are choked, restricting the wildlife retreat to the highland. The Amguri corridor in the west, still spacious, is witnessing a construction boom. Tea gardens are fencing off the Kanchanjuri corridor at Burapahar. The temple complex on the Haldibari corridor is threatening to expand. Settlements and quarries have blocked the Panbari passageway. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee describes the highway as a “potential threat to the integrity” of Kaziranga.

TEHELKA has earlier exposed (Where the Wild Things Were, 12 May) how illegal mining in the No-Development Zone (NDZ) near Kaziranga is devouring space used by wildlife. While replying to activist Rohit Choudhury’s petition against illegal stone quarrying around Kaziranga before the National Green Tribunal, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) admitted that 64 industrial units, including 26 stone crushers and 14 brick kilns, are in operation inside the NDZ, in violation of the MoEF’s own notification in force since 1996. RTI replies in TEHELKA’s possession show that the state had set up a Minor Industrial Estate close to Kaziranga and permitted stone crushers on elephant corridors though the estate was meant only for wood-based industries.

“This year’s flood was abrupt and vigorous. But the animal toll has increased because the known animal corridors around the park have been blocked by human activities like stone mining,” says Wildlife Trust of India’s (WTI) Rathin Barman whose team has successfully released 94 of the 130 animals it rescued. DFO Gogoi accepts that the issue of human activities disturbing animal corridors is “important” but not “totally within the forest department’s ambit”.

Hemmed in by encroachment and chased by flood waters, the traumatised wildlife braved the few available passageways across the highway only to be knocked down by heavy traffic. Hundreds of flood-displaced families squatting on highway stretches passing through Burapahar further funnelled the wildlife movement. The smaller species, such as the hog deer, took the maximum hit.

DFO GOGOI claims that but for the preparedness of the forest staff and the awareness of the villagers, the animal toll would be higher. Amid the carnage, indeed, there have been moments of, and reasons for, hope.

A rhino calf was spotted trapped in flood waters in Baghmari village under Baghori range. When rescuers from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)-WTI-run Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) reached the spot, they found it impossible to approach the animal as their boat failed to negotiate the flood rapids. With the animal already nose-deep in water, it was a race against time. Animal keeper Bhadreswar Das jumped into the water, swam to a nearby tree and tied a rope on its trunk so that the boat could be towed. The calf was eventually rescued. Another rhino calf, barely seven weeks old, rescued in a dehydrated state from Haldibari village under Kohara range, is back on its feet, under the CWRC’s care.

Mohammad Siraj Ali, of Deochur village in Kaziranga’s Burapahar range, led a team of 15 volunteers and rescued at least 50 animals, mostly hog deer, using bamboo and country- made boats. Dhruvajyoti Saha, a local reporter from Kohora, quickly summoned local students to form human chains on NH-37 to ensure safe passage to an exhausted herd of 17 elephants with calves.

There were also those odd moments of humour. “The flood notwithstanding, Kaziranga was also in the grips of Euro soccer fever. While patrolling in Kohora range, our team spotted a swamp deer taking refuge in the bushes of a football field in Haldibari. We clicked its pictures as the animal was quietly playing spectator until we tranquilised it,” says Shasankha Barbaruah of the WTI.

Rescue tales are always heart-warming, but the harsh reality is that a certain number of animals, mostly the infant, old and infirm, are supposed to die in floods just like they do in the summer. That is how nature cleans its gene pool. The Brahmaputra will require an integrated strategy for river management and inter-state coordination rather than ad hoc site-specific measures such as embankments to rein it in. The Northeast Water Resource Authority, proposed after the devastating floods of 2004, is yet to be set up.

Likewise, a large number of roadkill is expected when hundreds of animals are scampering across a highway unmindful of heavy traffic, unless the road is closed temporarily or shifted for good. Since 2005, when Kaziranga celebrated its centenary, authorities have been sitting on the proposal for an alternative alignment of NH-37 along the north bank of the Brahmaputra. The NHAI had apparently prepared a Detailed Project Report for the Kaziranga diversion but kept it under wraps. The Assam Public Works Department also conducted a feasibility study.

Locals, however, have staged several demonstrations pressing their demand for widening the existing road to four lanes with adequate safeguard against roadkill. “We are not against animals but we want development here. The diversion will make the stretch 50 km longer. Anyway, the plan was to build four-lane flyovers over a stretch of 21 km under which animals could freely move between Kaziranga and Karbi Anglong,” points out Debopradip Bora of the Fourlane Demand Committee.

The choice is tough: a realignment resulting in a 50-km detour, or an expensive flyover that will be one of India’s longest. There is also a third choice: the one that killed 600 animals in the last fortnight and will kill thousands more in the weeks and years to follow.

With inputs from Dhrubajyoti Saha and Urmi Bhattacharjee

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
jaymazoomdaar@gmail.com

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
ratnadip@tehelka.com

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