No safe haven for wildlife
With Brahmaputra wrecking havoc on the pristine national parks in Assam, the wildlife is under constant threat from rising waters and poachers
Ravishankar Ravi Guwahati
The heavy floods that hit Assam recently created havoc not only for humans, but also for the wildlife. The Kaziranga National Park bore the fatal brunt of these devastating floods and even Dibrusaikhova National Park, Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary and Manas National Park were adversely affected. Countless animals were washed away from the strong floodwaters and the ones that reached higher ground either became prey to other animals or to poachers. Since the watchtowers that are built to keep a watch on poachers are submerged, the wildlife protection authorities were also forced to take shelter elsewhere, leaving the wild animals vulnerable to poaching. The recent incidents have made the forest department and wildlife organizations to think of immediate measures to save the wildlife in such adversities. Along with the flood-affected people, it has also become important to save the flora and fauna of these biodiversity hubs. Assam’s Forest Minister Rakibul Hussain agrees that this year’s floods require special steps to ensure their safety.
This year’s floods have impacted the wildlife more than it has affected humans. That is because the Army, Air Force, National Disaster Management Authority and other organizations are all working to provide flood-relief to people, while there was no one to save the animals and birds trapped in these inundated wildlife habitats. These animals not only face threats from advancing floodwaters, but also from poachers who are fearlessly operating in these forests.
Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, who did an aerial survey of the flood-affected region on July 1, announced an interim relief package of Rs 500 crore. He also stated that a final relief amount would be given after the central government’s team submits its report after their assessment. The relief package would include the repair of damaged roads, bridges and other public property. While farmers who were affected would be provided with free seeds, there was no talk of rescuing wild animals braving the fury of Brahmaputra.
Moreover, relief is being organized on war footing for humans, no such operation have been launched to save the animals. Left to fend for themselves, these animals are leaving inundated areas in search of higher ground. As a result, many animals have either been crushed by vehicular traffic on the roads, or have been poached by hunters.
Also, the water from Dibru River has flooded Dibru-Saikhova National park that boasts of elephants, many species of deer, and several other wild animals. Here too, the forest department buildings have been submerged. Many deer were washed away by floodwaters while others escaped to bigger towns. Due to this increasing water level, 14 elephants entered Rohmariya village in Dibrugarh district. To safeguard the wildlife from poachers, two vigilance camps have been built on boats and veterinarians have been called in to Kaziranga to treat injured animals.
Nearly 80 per cent of Kaziranga is submerged and this led to mass exodus of a large number of elephants, rhinos, many species of deer, wild buffaloes and wild boars from the protected areas to the fringes in search of food. According to Sanjeeb Bora, between April to July 2012, 17 one-horned Rhinos, one buffalo, one leopard, two elephants, two pythons, five porcupines, 10 swamp deer, 15 sambhars, one wild boar and 512 hog deer were killed by floods, poachers and vehicular traffic on highways. In Pabitora, poachers killed two rhinoceros for their their horns.
On the highway that passes through Kaziranga, rhinos and elephants could be seen escaping the river’s fury. One such group of elephants reached Majuli River Island where humans confronted them. Several people were injured following the commotion.
Several deer and other small animals were seen leaving Kaziranga and crossing the road to the other side of the national park. Many of them sustained fatal injuries while trying to negotiate the traffic. The forest department after witnessing this regulated the mobility of vehicles within the park. Speed-breakers have been built at several places and 24*7 vigilance is being carried out from boats.
Despite the caution, locals and poachers continue to kill animals at will. Interestingly, no forest officials are keeping a watch on the traffic at these highways and are content with speed-limit signs alone. The wild animals from Kaziranaga can be seen heading towards populated areas creating panic amongst the residents.
Pabitora National Park also saw destruction caused by rising water levels. Nearly, 80 per cent of the area inhabited by wild rhinos is submerged in water. The inundated region has the highest density of rhinos in India. While small animals have moved to higher ground, rhinos who prefer plains are at the mercy of the poachers who have been successful in killing some of them. Small animals in Laukhova and Boodha Chaapri Wildlife Sanctuaries too have been washed away. Couple of deer drowned while forest department managed to save 18 of them. Similarly, in Manas National Park most of the areas are underwater. Several bridges here have been destroyed, but wildlife authorities haven’t confirmed any news of animal deaths so far.
The forest department works to protect wildlife throughout the year and keeps a strict watch on any movement in the protected area. But they have no arrangements or plans to protect them in such natural adversities. To protect wildlife from such events, forest department has proposed constructing higher ground inside Kaziranga to help wild animals move to a safer ground during floods. This plan was made during Asom Gana Parishad’s rule, but the governments after that seem to have forgotten about it.
The Prime Minister should have been made aware of this tragedy and the state government failed in bringing this to his notice. The PM has promised a relief amount of Rs 1,00,000 each for the affected families, but no such package was announced to help these biodiversity hubs. Wildlife activists demanded that elevated structures should be built on a priority basis and PM should allocate money for the same.
According to environmentalist and Gandhian activist, Hem Bhai, “The positive aspect of this natural disaster is that the PM saw the destruction with his own eyes. But, the sad part is that he didn’t utter a single word about the safety of the wildlife.” Hem believes that the survival of humans is crucial, but animals and birds should also be given priority.
Interestingly, no tiger mortality has been reported from these areas and senior wildlife officials believe that since the big cat is a natural swimmer, it manages to reach safer areas during any such natural disasters. “Tiger is a smart animal and they know how to negotiate rising water to keep themselves alive. In Sunderbans, tiger manages to brave rising tides, such floods are no big deal for them,” says a senior wildlife official. “Floods don’t kill tigers,” he remarks.