Assam floods: Islands of high ground keep Kaziranga’s marooned wildlife safe
Abutting the Brahmaputra river, the lowlands of Kaziranga are inundated every year and the floodwater replenishes an eco-system that sustains the largest population of one-horned rhinoceros in the world.india Updated: Jul 16, 2017 08:07 IST
Like Noah’s ark, little islands of high ground become the sole difference between life and death for the marooned wildlife of Assam’s Kaziranga National Park during its annual floods.
These sprouted 19 years ago in an experiment to save the animals of the 434-square-km park from drowning in the flooded grassland dotted with large natural ponds.
Abutting the Brahmaputra river, the lowlands of Kaziranga are inundated every year and the floodwater replenishes an eco-system that sustains the largest population of one-horned rhinoceros in the world.
But the floods breached all records in 1998 and caused considerable damage to the wildlife, prompting forest officials to alter the park’s landscape. They built flat-top highlands, roundish and rectangular, to shelter the animals.
This year more than 70% of the park is flooded. Rhinos, Asiatic water buffaloes, and even carnivores, are riding out the tempest and deluge from the safety of these islands that are generally 5.5 hectares in size. The largest are 12 hectares and the smallest 2.8.
These can accommodate up to 50 large animals, park officials said.
“The park has 111 highlands built in the late 1990s. They are old and need renovation but are still good enough to keep the animals out of floodwaters,” Kaziranga director Satyendra Singh said.
“We started building 33 more with a total area of 22 hectare this year, but they will have to be rebuilt after the monsoon,” he added.
The new one will be 16 feet above Kaziranga’s average altitude of 196 feet. The older islands are about 12-feet high, almost the same height as the camps on stilts for forest guards.
Kaziranga has 178 camps, of which 142 have been submerged, forcing guards to evacuate or spend nights on boats around the islands, where animals are vulnerable to poaching.
The new highlands will cost the park an estimated Rs74 lakh a hectare.
Park officials say the expenditure is worth it.
“The islands save animals that cannot escape to the hills beyond Kaziranga. We have this year lost 41 animals, including three rhinos, mostly due to drowning,” Singh said.
A dozen animals were rescued but they died on the way to a rehab near the park.
Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who inspected the flood-affected park on a motorboat on Wednesday, said his government will push for more highlands in Kaziranga and other flood-prone wildlife reserves.
“The animals on the almost-submerged highlands need fodder. I have directed park officials to do whatever it takes to ensure the animals do not starve in case the flood persists,” Sonowal said.
Apart from three drones keeping an eye on the animals, police personnel are deployed to assist 1,100 forest guards and officials to monitor Kaziranga, the chief minister said.