While animal deaths remain a cause for concern, experts believe floods can revitalise grasslands, add mineral-rich soil essential for forest growth. We take a look at both sides of the story
Guwahati: Threatening, furious, hazardous, fatal -- these are some of the adjectives often used to described floods that devastate several parts of Assam every year, including the famed Kaziranga National Park. However, not too many people are aware of the fact that floods can also revitalise the grasslands, add mineral-rich alluvial soil essential for the growth of grass and shrubs which are food for herbivores, and these seldom find space in flood reports related to the park.
The rules of a civilised society may not be applicable to the wild but it is Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, ‘Survival of the fittest’, that has overlapped over the years. This is exactly what we see during floods in Kaziranga National Park but tend to ignore.
Nature’s way of cleansing
According to information furnished by park authorities, the death toll of this year’s flood was 220 till August 1, including 21 rhinos, 20 wild boars, 13 sambars and 146 hog deer. To anyone who has been served these figures will be intrigued and concerned over the deaths caused by the flood whereas, according to experts, it is nature’s way of decontaminating the national park.
“For the survival of Kaziranga, flood is a must. Annual flood is a major factor to keep the grasslands permanent, otherwise it will get converted to woodland. Once the landscape changes, it cannot support any herbivore population. Our herbivore population is around 50,000, the hog deer population itself is between 35,000 and 45,000 which is a huge base. So, if the grassland [is] not taken care of, the population will not sustain”, said P Sivakumar, director, Kaziranga National Park, during a conversation with EastMojo.
P Sivakumar, director, Kaziranga National Park
The director also informed that there are large areas of wetlands within the national park and the floods help in the cleaning process. However, this time Kaziranga was hit by high flood that disturbs the population, hence causing deaths of a large number of animals, including 21 rhinos, of which 16 cubs died due to drowning, as on August 5.
In such a scenario, construction of more number of highlands and safer animal corridors are the only way to minimise the number deaths. While the government is planning to construct highlands in the north bank of the National Park, it is the corridors that require serious concern in order to prevent any unnatural death.
“In 2016, we had constructed 33 highlands and last year, a 19-kilometre stretch of road-cum-highland was constructed so because of that, despite high flood, the causality was under control compared to any other flood in the recent years. There are nine animal corridors in the 50-km stretch between Bokakhat and Jakhalabandha and except Harmoti and Bagori, we don’t have any major issues,” said Sivakumar .
In Harmoti and Bagori corridors, there are a large number of dhabas (eateries), truck terminals, restaurants which is blocking the animal movement to Karbi Anglong hills. “So, in order to resolve the issues in those areas the government has constituted a committee and clear any barrier in animal movement. If required we will purchase the land with proper compensation,” the director added.
Dr Rathin Barman, joint director, Wildlife Trust of India, also echoed similar views, stating that flood is the backbone of the ecosystem of the national park. He also mentioned that along with controlling traffic in the animal corridors, a long overpass will help in reducing animal mortality. He also expressed concern of artificial floods due to construction of dams upstream.
“This time it took around seven days for the water to reach to the maximum level, so there was enough time for the animals to move to the highlands. But it will be a problem if there is artificial flood due to big dams constructed upstream, which will cause severe problems for animals as they will not have enough time to move to the highlands,” Barman told EastMojo.
There were also speculations regarding the food cycle being destroyed due to flood resulting in scarcity of food within the park. However, Rohini Ballav Saikia, Divisional Forest Officer, Kaziranga National Park, opined otherwise. Allaying such speculations, Saikia said that it is a myth that wild animals need to be fed.
“The message we are trying to give is that wild animals have their own ways of finding food and there are areas and natural highlands where there is ample amount of food available. The problem is with water receding the grasses get dirty due to the flood water. If we get two to three drizzles after flood, it cleans the grass which has happened and the animals have clean grass to eat,” Saikia added.
Rescued or caged?
While the number of animals killed due to flood has drawn concern from various corners but there were also few animals that were rescued during the flood. However, it is not the preferable step for both, the rescuer and the animals. Many wild animals find their way among people after they have been found either injured or abandoned. While our general notion is to rescue the animal, but experts believe otherwise, unless the animal is struggling to save its life.
“The more number of animal rescue cases will mean that we are not doing fine. If the number of rescue case is low, it means that we are doing fine. Wild animals never try to stay near human beings until something is wrong with their habitat,” said Panjit Basumatary, assistant manager, Wildlife Trust of India.
In this year’s flood, total 72 animals were rescued by the team of forest department, Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation and locals. The animals include 57 hog deer, four rhinos, two swamp deer, two turtle, two pythons and one sambar and elephant each, of which, 63 have been released after being treated at the CWRC centre while four rhinos are undergoing treatment.
Along with several other measures, flood preparedness also focuses towards eradicating man-animal conflicts or quick response measures. It also makes people mindful of correct handling techniques, and manage to calm distressed animals on location until our rescue team reaches. The team including the forest department, police department, Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation, local NGOs and the local people and conduct several joint pre-flood awareness camps in fringe villages. Time-card system for vehicles on the highway with strict enforcement, stopping traffic at night when animals cross safely, ensuring a convoy system for vehicles with 20-minute breaks to facilitate animal crossings are also introduced by civic authorities with the forest department.
The overlooked section
During floods all the focus remains on wildlife while there are several villages around the national park that face the wrath of flood and deal with the aftermath every year. There are around 340 villages with an approximate population of 6,800 people that survive on farming and livestock.
As devastating was the flood, the after-effects are even worse as the villagers now on an enduring struggle for food and resettlement. After spending around two weeks on the road and surviving on relief materials the villagers have now returned home but only to find their grains rotting and their homes completely destroyed.
The base of the houses has been washed away in the flood and the pillars creak at the slightest of push. On the other hand, the paddy fields are still under knee-deep water, while there are several acres of land that used to be ploughed fields just weeks ago but are now filled with water hyacinth washed in by flood.
Shyam Bhowmick, a resident of Dighalipathar in Bokakhat district, said that flood did not take long to submerge the homes of the villagers.
“Water has still not receded; our fields are still submerged. There were around 10 bags of rice grain which had gone under water. I somehow managed to bring them out of water after returning back home and put them under the sun to dry but most of it has rotten. Now we will not be able to cultivate anything else other than boro rice which also a gamble. To feed the family, the women are going to work in the tea gardens and the men stay back at home taking care of the livestock and domestic animals since we don’t have anything to do. We will have to wait for another six months to start cultivating,” Bhowmick said.