After receiving a generous dose of monsoon showers, the flood-affected districts of Assam can heave a sigh of relief as water level in most of the flooded rivers is receding fast. But what the rain spelled for Kaziranga can best be described as the good, the bad and the ugly. Home to Kaziranga National Park, a refuge for two-thirds of the world’s 3,000 Indian rhinos, hog deer, tigers, elephants, buffalo, and about 30 other mammal species, 16 to 20 rhinos have drowned, most of which were calves and females. The 10 rhinos rescued by wildlife organisations and the Assam Forest Department are suffering from pneumonia. Every year as the water levels rise, the animals in wildlife sanctuaries climb or are shifted to higher land areas to escape flood waters, but this year like most others in the past, due to lack of advance planning, management and training, rescue and disaster management teams failed to take necessary measures to save the most helpless victims of the annual deluge.
Traditionally, the flood is a blessing for the health of Kaziranga as the fresh silt and alluvium deposits from the Brahmaputra and its tributaries increase the productivity of the forest undergrowth and help replenish the elephant grass, which is suitable to animals. But the clear gaps in infrastructure, lack of trained animal rescue teams and preparedness on the part of authorities made the rains a curse for Assam’s animals. Officials claim that the actual number of dead animals, including the livestock, could cross 1,000 once the data collection begins in the field.
There is little one can do to control the annual phenomenon of floods, which are likely to worsen in the future due to climate change and the risks posed by encroachments — in the name of roads, highways and growing number of human settlements — around the Park’s core areas. Some risk-reduction measures if planned in advance can contain the risk to the lives of people and the rare one-horned rhinoceros, which are facing the double risk of poachers and drowning, if not taken to higher and safer shelters during monsoon.
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Taking support from the local communities familiar with the river, its course and the areas where the wildlife can be taken for shelter can be a saving grace. For instance, keeping an animal untied increases its chance of surviving floods by 50%; being vigilant and proactive can also help keep poachers at bay at a high-risk time like this. The traditional knowledge of the locals when combined with capacity-building efforts on the part of the government can increase the number of trained hands that can come to the rescue of these animals when the troubled waters inundate the wild. In a place like Kaziranga one can only predict things after they have happened, but since the situation is not what it was in 2012 when at least 560 animals died, including 14 one-horned rhinos, one can hope for sustained efforts and better luck for the animals next time.