Senior Consulting Editor Bijay Sankar Bora talks to Dr Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, Chair of IUCN/SSC; Asian Rhino Specialist Group, CEO of Aaranyak and Asia Coordinator of International Rhino Foundation
Q.Flood is an annual phenomenon in KNP? The rhino habitat is there as long as flood occurs there. Please elaborate on it from conservation point of view.
A. Flood has been a natural and annual phenomenon in the Brahmaputra flood plain ecosystems like Kaziranga National Park. The annual flood energises the alluvial flood plain ecosystems providing renewed nutrients to soil for better growth of grassland each year. Flood may be low, or moderate or high in different years based on monsoon rainfall received by the Brahmaputra flood plain areas and the upper catchment areas of the Brahmaputra which originates in Tibet, where the river is known as the Tsangpo River.
Kaziranga National Park being located in the floodplain ecosystem of the river Brahmaputra, it has assisted natural creation of grasslands, wetlands and sparse typical riverine woodland forest. Wildlife living in such floodplain ecosystems for hundreds of years have learnt to live in the landscape and have adapted to natural calamities like annual floods. When flood water level increases inside KNP some wild animals move to higher lands both within the NP and also in adjoining Karbi-Anglong Hills to the south. This has been a natural instinct for wild animals and they can sense the rising river in monsoon and slowly they move to safer sites. However now-a-days, the situation becoming more complex, as along with monsoon rain water, Dams also release water. Monsoon rain increases gradually, but when a Dam releases water in big volume, water level increases in Kaziranga and other such areas suddenly, giving less time to wild animals to anticipate and run for safety.
Q. Do man-made highlands pose threat to ecology of KNP in the long run?
A. Not necessarily. It depends how highland construction is planned, where these highlands artificial highlands are to be located. In flood plain ecosystem like Kaziranga NP, selecting appropriate site for highland construction is crucial which needs to be scientific keeping in mind the in-flow and outflow of water, drainage pattern, contour of the area so that we don’t interfere with natural hydrology of the national park too much.
Creating more artificial highland in a floodplain ecosystem will fasten the process of ecological succession leading to change of existing wet habitat towards a drier habitat and in the long run it will not be suitable for rhino, swamp deer, water buffalo etc. This change, in turn, is likely to hamper economic benefits that fringe villagers are getting through tourism activities.
Unscientific highlands lead to alteration state of the vegetation/habitat composition, as the vegetation are functions of soil moisture regime, soil nutrients, seed bank and other abiotic and biotic factors. Change of vegetation is likely to compel the animals to stray out of the park boundary, especially during the drier seasons. This may bring additional threats, not only to the animals, especially to the rhinos, but also to people, resulting to human-animal conflict in the surrounding villages of the park.
Further creation of man-made highlands if not made based on science may also interfere with the line of sight for animals inside the park. This might also affect the prey-predator reflex in some areas of the park. I also have a strong anticipation that un-scientific man-made highlands are likely to create opening of grassland areas thus exposing such areas to weed infestation. Such highlands may act as hotspots for invasive plant species because the highlands are immune to flooding effect. Thus, in later part, these acts as seed banks and disperse stations of invasive plant species.
As an ecologist, I would rather encourage government to pay more attention in grassland management, restoration of wetlands and anti-erosion measures.
Q: How to mitigate the impact on faunal resources during intensive waves of flood in KNP like what is happening there now?
A. In annual flood, specially if the flood is high and Kaziranga is hit by series of flood in a span of 1-2 months then casualties likely to be high. In July 2020, there have been at least three waves of flood in Kaziranga National Park and on 13th July the flood level in Kaziranga was sixth highest in four decades. The highest level flood, so far, inside Kaziranga National Park was recorded 1988. As I mentioned earlier, Karbi-Anglong hills and foothills areas are natural refuge sites of flood-hit wild animals in Kaziranga, efforts should be made to engage local people in that area creating a sense of stewardship and maintain less human disturbance in these refuge sites during high flood when some wild animals come to karbi Anglong areas for temporary shelter. These villagers may be recognised as friends of wild animals to create good will. Because when wild animals stray out of Kaziranga and takes shelter in areas where human habitations are there, only way to gather success is to engage these local people proactively and recognise their assistance with some incentives from the government. Karbi_Anglong District council should be allocated some fund by Assam Government so that they can use their man power during high flood in Kaziranga to give maximum protection to these stray wild animals coming to Karbi Anglong areas for shelter.
Q. Explain the importance of Karbi Anglong hill areas opposite to the core of KNP in long-term conservation of the prized wildlife habitat?
A. In fact, ecologically Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong is single entity and some wild animals use habitats in both parts to get their annual nutrients from diverse food sources available in Kaziranga and also in Karbi Anglong hill in different seasons. Elephants being a long ranging nomad, utilise habitats of both alluvial flood plains grassland habitats along with tree forest for their biological needs. There are movement of tigers from Kaziranga to Karbi hills and vice-verse. Even hoolock gibbon population which are found in Kaziranga NP is connected with Karbi-Anglong Hills and as such Karbi-Anglong hills are inseparable from Kaziranga NP.
Q. Should the conservation of the KNP adopt the approach of landscape conservation comprising the present Park area as well as areas from Karbi Anglong hills opposite to it?
A. The plains of Kaziranga along with the natural highlands of Karbi Anglong is a single entity and the importance of Karbi hills should be well acknowledged and free movement of animals should be allowed rather than opting for hurried man made highlands inside Kaziranga NP. Further it is crucial to keep animal movement in the identified animal corridors of Kaziranga and the adjoining Karbi un-disturbed.
Q. How to engage locals in conservation process providing them with livelihood options so that Karbi Anglong areas too can be kept Green in the greater interest?
A.Now as forests and other open lands adjacent to Kaziranga NP has declined, and traffic movement in NH passing along the southern part of Kaziranga has increased many fold, human activities also increased in the surrounding areas, wild animals do have challenging time to find a safer place in southern part of Kaziranga. This is the time, we as human being need to come forward and offer the needed support these wild animals are looking for during flood time and that’s too for few days only. As such for long term future of Kaziranga and its animals, conservation of remaining forests in southern part of Kaziranga is important. We must remember, the future of Kaziranga NP depends lot on Karbi Hills and its vegetation cover.
Local communities around Kaziranga have been playing positive role supporting the conservation efforts of Kaziranga NP. As such the local communities also need to be covered with some schemes of the government that could give them some financial benefits, like covering health insurance and supporting child education of poor families living around the NP.
Further proactive engagement of Karbi Anglong District Council is very important. Council should be engaged fully as major player for future of Kaziranga NP and the Kaziranga facing forest areas within Karbi-Anglong may be protected under the various purview of Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 for which State Government need to create a special Karbi Anglong Forest Battalion to safeguard the key forests areas of Karbi Anglong, specially those adjoining to Kaziranga NP.
Q. You seems vocal on your views against creating more artificial highlands haphazardly inside Kaziranga NP.
A. Kaziranga NP is such a unique ecological landscape which is hard to find in other parts of the World. I love my state and that’s why I can’t keep silent when I know hurried and un-scientific construction of more highlands inside Kaziranga NP will ultimately invite slow death of this unique World Heritage Site. Kaziranga NP has been conserved with highest attention of our government and no-doubt that this is one of the best managed national parks in the world. As such we can’t afford to take any wrong direction in conservation planning. We have to take right direction to secure the future of Kaziranga NP and for that we have to treat Kaziranga and adjoining Karbi Anglong hills as single ecological entity.
Q: Forest and Environment Minister of Assam few days back in a webinar organised by PIB mentioned that central govt had approved about Rs 12 crores for building more artificial highlands in KNP. What is your opinion on this announcement
A: If government has money for construction of new highlands as you have mentioned, I would suggest that let an expert committee be formed by the state government involving some earlier officers who served in Kaziranga NP and aware of decade long annual flood issue, scientist with experience on hydrology and drainage pattern in flood plain ecosystem, GIS and Remote Sensing specialist who could guide in scientific decision making through use of high resolution satellite imageries, plant ecologist who can throw light on precaution needed to avoid unpalatable plant species invades in grassland areas, wildlife biologist for rhino and herbivores behaviour and season food need. Scientific analysis needs to be respected with regards to where highlands are needed based on digital elevation model and contour and where highlands should not be constructed keeping in mind the in-flow and out-flow of water so that during annual flood water hyacinth deposited in wetlands of Kaziranga in rest of the year can find its natural way to flow out of the NP. I also feel that if government has money, more emphasis should be given in coming winter to manage wetlands and grasslands from excess silt and weeds.