The photograph of a tigress found resting on a bed at a shack on the fringes of the flooded Kaziranga National Park last week prompted both mirth and some consternation. The tigress had not decided to pay Rafiqul Islam a casual visit in Harmouti village. She was forced out of her natural habitat to seek shelter in the village.
The photograph that went viral highlighted the alarming rise in the unexpected encounters between wild animals and human beings. Wild animals are increasingly making forays into human habitation because the corridors they normally used to get to the higher reaches during the annual flooding of Kaziranga have disappeared because of the plethora of constructions and man-made structures.
It took 10 hours for teams from the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW-WTI) and the Forest department from Assam to block the highway and sanitise the corridor before coaxing the tigress out and follow the trail.
Floods are an annual occurrence in Kaziranga and a necessary evil. Though devastating to occupants of this landscape, they are absolutely essential to the thriving ecosystem of this unique UNESCO World Heritage site.
Floodwaters fill up the numerous ‘beels’ (water bodies) in the extensive park and make water available to its flora and fauna. They regenerate the soil, carrying silt from the Brahmaputra and maintain the grasslands and forests.
Animals fleeing to higher ground – the Karbi Anglong hills – have to cross the national highway that skirts the boundary of the UNESCO World heritage site. They used to fall prey to poachers in the past but strict enforcement has helped curb this menace.
“The vehicular threat remains to a large extent even with the time-card system. A fine of Rs₹5000 is imposed if vehicles are caught speeding. We have records of 15 hog deer and one sambar succumbing after being hit by speeding vehicles in just the first two weeks of July 2019,” informs Rupa Gandhi of WTI.
Villagers on the fringes of the park treat floods as an annual event when they move self, cattle and belongings to relief camps. The forest department has increased the number of man-made highlands within the park for animals to escape the rising water level.
A total of 64 animals were rescued by teams comprising IFAW-WTI and Assam Forest Department with the help of local people. These were mostly hog
deer, a swamp deer, sambar and rhino calves. Of these, two rhino calves were given safe passage and two have been brought to the IFAW-WTI –Assam Forest Department run Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), Gandhi said.
“The notable rescues during this year’s floods were of four rhino calves. Two young rhinos that were found struggling in water were pulled to high land with floatation devices and our team on boats. As they were old enough to survive on their own, they were released once they found safe passage to high ground,” Gandhi said.
Two other rhino calves who were below six months of age had to be brought to the rescue centre where they are currently being hand raised by a team of veterinarians and keepers, and will undergo a process of rehabilitation that includes weaning off formula milk, learning to forage for food and generally wild survival skills on their own.
Since it started out 18 years back, CWRC has rehabilitated over 5,500 animals of various species such as elephants, rhinos, tiger, clouded leopards, deer, endangered vultures, hornbills, gibbons, pythons, tokay geckos, etc.