The death toll of animals in Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve has increased to 208 with water level receding and more carcasses being recovered. The "high flood" being over, officials said around 30 percent park area is currently under water.
According to the flood report generated by the office of the Divisional Forest Officer, Eastern Assam Wildlife Division, 175 animals including 17 rhinos have drowned in floods from July 13 to July 25. Another 17 animals including hog deer and sambar had been knocked to death by speeding vehicles plying along the National Highway 37.
Herds of elephants and wild buffalos that had taken shelter in the higher reaches of Karbi Hills have started returning to the grasslands.
“Speed restrictions remain imposed along the entire Jakhlabandha-Bokakhat stretch of about 50km. We are monitoring the movement of vehicles, and there are penalties for over speeding. A truck that had hit a hog deer was seized the other day. This time, we have maximum casualty in hog deer species that has a population of about 40,000 in Kaziranga. In monsoon, they migrate to Karbi Anglong hills. There are around 9 animal corridors, and the animals use these corridors for movement during floods. High casualty has been reported in Harmoti and Panbari corridors,” said P Sivakumar, director, Kaziranga National Park.
Of the 199 anti-poaching camps in Kaziranga, 15 remain submerged under flood water. With the water level receding, an assessment is also being done of the infrastructure loss along with the number of animal casualties. An age-wise assessment of flood casualties will also be done to ascertain its impact on population dynamics.
“Carcasses will be detected as water recedes. We have to check how much has been the impact of floods on population dynamics. In case of breeding male and female rhinos, it will definitely affect the population growth of the species. We are having about 2400 rhinos as per the last census. The high water level that lasted for almost seven days would have led to more drowning cases,” said Sivakumar, adding that the authorities were not expecting such a flood this time.
To find a solution to the annual flood problem, Sivakumar is of the opinion that the natural highlands for Kaziranga should be reconnected to the greater landscape of the national park through the animal corridors.
“The natural highlands for Kaziranga National Park is Karbi Anglong. In fact, Kaziranga and Karbi Anglong is basically a single landscape. But mainly because of the National Highway and development activities that started taking place since 1974, this landscape got deviated. So, now we have to reconnect these landscapes through animal corridors. There are 9 identified corridors, and the Central Land Power Committee under the Supreme Court of India has given the direction that at least 500 metres on both sides of the National Highway in 9 corridors should be purchased, and we should convert it into habitat for free movement of animals during monsoon time.”
Having no other place to go, different species of animals in Kaziranga have been cohabiting in the highlands inside the park, or had moved to the higher reaches. A total of 33 new highlands were constructed in 2016 in an area of 12,155 hectares. Last year, authorities constructed about 19km of road cum highlands in Kaziranga.
“Highlands do help, but usage wise, mostly the rhinos are using highlands. In case of elephants and hog deer, more than 80 percent had already migrated to Karbi Anglong hills,” said Sivakumar.
“This is crisis time. There are records where tigers and herbivores stayed together during monsoon time. Multiple species use the same landscape, and after monsoon they will occupy their own areas. During the annual flood, the succession stage is retained at the grassland level itself. If there is no flood, the grassland becomes a woodland, and the huge population of herbivores cannot sustain in such landscape. Flood is a necessary evil, in case of Kaziranga,” he added.
Reports stated that 69 animals have been rescued so far by forest officials with the help of locals and teams led by wildlife vets from the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) and other conservation NGOs. Three orphaned rhino calves rescued from Kohora and Bagori ranges, and Biswanath division of the park are currently under treatment at CWRC located in Borjuri village adjacent to Panbari Reserve Forest near Kaziranga.
“This year, we have rescued 28 animals, out of which we have hog deer and three rhino calves. The calves are 2-5 months old, and are being kept at the nursery under our treatment and care. Once they become healthy after 3 years, we will try to release them back to the wild,” said wildlife vet and Assistant Manager at CWRC Panjit Basumatary while appreciating the collective effort of the forest department and conservation agencies in different rescue operations.
“It is challenging. Every animal avoids humans, but we have to treat them. The calves will be in a stabilisation period for two months. They are still not accepting milk in the absence of the mother, but we are trying our best. Hopefully, they will live to be healthy,” said Basumatary.Three keepers at the centre among eleven others are currently looking after the rhino calves during the stabilisation period.