Two months after a large-scale flooding created panic, Kaziranga National Park, the biggest refuge for one-horned rhinos in the world, opened for tourists a month earlier than scheduled on Saturday.
The decision to open the park on October 1 instead of the usual practice of opening on November 1- after it remains closed for six months every year due to flooding - was taken by chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal.
“There was a demand from local residents and the hospitality sector to bring forward the opening dates and the chief minister also wanted it,” forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma said.
Several cabinet ministers, including Brahma, were present at Kaziranga for the opening ceremony, which follows negative publicity due to floods, poaching and an anti-encroachment drive last month.
The Orang National Park and Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary too were opened on Saturday ahead of their usual schedule.
But the sudden move to reschedule hasn’t found many takers as several of the resorts and hotels located near Kaziranga reported a lukewarm response from both domestic and foreign tourists.
“Only two of our 66 rooms are booked for Saturday. But we are getting inquiries for the coming weeks,” Belinda Hazarika of Borgos, one of the bigger resorts in the area, said.
Hotel operators blamed inadequate publicity about the change in schedule as the prime reason for very few tourists turning up.
“Many people are not aware the national park will open a month earlier. We hope more tourists will come soon,” Arunav Das of Iora, where only 10 of the 42 rooms were booked on Saturday, said.
This year’s floods had submerged nearly 80% of the park’s 430-sq km area. Over 300 wild animals, including two dozen rhinos, died due to floods.
Movement of the animals towards higher ground for safety encourages poaching as well. This year too, some of the dead rhinos were found with their horns missing.
There were allegations against the previous Congress government of remaining blind towards poaching of rhinos. In contrast, the BJP-led coalition government in Assam has launched a drive against poachers.
“Kaziranga is Assam’s pride. Action against poachers will continue,” local MLA and agriculture minister Atul Bora said.
In a bid to manage the park better and ensure the safety of animals, there is a plan to divide Kaziranga into two forest divisions and also set up a special rhino protection squad.
Last month, acting on a Gauhati high court order, the state government had evacuated hundreds of residents from three villages set up inside the park. Two people were killed during the drive.