THE AN­GRY RIVER AND ITS CA­SU­AL­TIES

Airports India - - CONTENTS - PHOTOS & TEXT: NAVIN M RA­HEJA

Iwas watch­ing the morn­ing news when the an­chor com­mented on the As­sam floods. As per the news, the an­i­mal ca­su­alty so far this mon­soon stood at more than 300. (the fig­ures would rise once the wa­ters re­cede). Ap­prox­i­mately, twenty eight rhi­nos, one tiger, four ele­phants calves,and hun­dreds of deer have died in this year’s floods, mak­ing it com­pa­ra­ble to the floods of 1988, which re­ported nearly 1,200 an­i­mal deaths. But only a few of the au­di­ence could re­late to the an­i­mals af­fected by the rains and feel their pain. For decades, there is one place on earth that had al­ways fas­ci­nated me … A World Her­itage Site and home to the world’s largest pop­u­la­tion of the great one-horned rhi­noc­eros - It’s the Kazi­ranga Na­tional Park in As­sam.

The Land of green val­leys and blue hills, there is some­thing mag­i­cal about this place that brings you here again and again.

At last count in March 2015, Kazi­ranga had over 2,400 one-horned rhi­nos. That’s two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhino pop­u­la­tion.

It is just this an­i­mal – a soli­tary crea­ture by na­ture – that draws wildlife lovers to the park from all over the world. No, they do not come to Kazi­ranga for its tigers,

even though this na­tional park has over a hun­dred of them.

At Kazi­ranga, it’s the one-horned rhino that rules. Here, it is far more sought af­ter than the ma­jes­tic tiger, which plays sec­ond fid­dle to the rhino. Kazi­ranga is its haunt. Its home, how­ever not very of­ten it’s safe haven.

Listed as a vul­ner­a­ble an­i­mal, the one-horned rhino faces se­ri­ous threat from poach­ers who seek it out and hunt it down for its horn. To pro­tect it from them, armed anti-poach­ing teams are on con­stant alert at the na­tional park. A spe­cial law en­acted by the state gov­ern­ment gives these teams the power and the au­thor­ity to shoot down poach­ers.

You are not likely to come across such mea­sures in any other park of the coun­try­but this is the premium the ma­jes­tic rhino com­mands, both for its sav­iors and the po­ten­tial killers.

One would imag­ine that these mea­sures would have se­cured the rhino. Alas, no. There is some­thing else – some­thing far more pow­er­ful and dif­fi­cult to tame – that threat­ens the very ex­is­tence of the rhino as well as that of the hun­dreds of other an­i­mals that call Kazi­ranga their abode.

It’s the rag­ing Brahma­pu­tra that comes into spate ev­ery year dur­ing mon­soon – from June to Oc­to­ber. That is when it spills its banks and wan­tonly floods the na­tional park, en­gulf­ing ev­ery­thing, and ev­ery liv­ing be­ing, in its deathly grip. The Mid­dle Brahma­pu­tra Val­ley is, in fact, one of the raini­est places on earth. And when it rains, it is not un­usual for the Brahma­pu­tra to flood the en­tire park for five to 10 days at a stretch.

Dur­ing this pe­riod, the en­tire wildlife of Kazi­ranga is at the mercy of the mighty river. As the flood wa­ter in­vades the very in­te­ri­ors of the na­tional park, the an­i­mals flee for their lives.

To es­cape Brahma­pu­tra’s fury many of them spill onto an un­fa­mil­iar and un­likely ter­rain –the state high­way and into the vil­lages. The high­ways, in par­tic­u­lar, pose a big threat to them with ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing an­i­mals of­ten be­ing re­ported at this time of the year. This is the rea­son why sign­posts warn­ing mo­torists to be on the look­out for wan­der­ing an­i­mals, dot all the roads near the na­tional park.

But the es­cape doesn’t al­ways en­sure safety. Dur­ing the floods of 2012, as many as 14 rhi­nos and 500 other an­i­mals per­ished in the swirling wa­ters of the Brahma­pu­tra. In the first three months of 2013, poach­ers

shot dead 16 rhi­nos around Kazi­ranga. It is pre­sumed that most of these rhi­nos had blun­dered into the vil­lages dur­ing the mon­soon and could not find their way back into the for­est.

Dur­ing my visit in 2015, I came across an ele­phant herd seek­ing a high­land to es­cape Brahma­pu­tra flood wa­ters. An adult ele­phant, which was part of the herd, got elec­tro­cuted when it came in con­tact with a live High Ten­sion elec­tric­ity line. Thank­fully, the res­cue teams reached in time to di­vert the rest of the herd away from the live wires.

At least three rhi­nos and some deer per­ished by drown­ing dur­ing the floods of 2015.

There is no es­cape from Brahma­pu­tra’s wrath in times like these. Dis­turb­ing sights of an­i­mals in dis­tress can be seen at this time of the year when the Brahma­pu­tra, one of In­dia’s ma­jor rivers, un­leashes its fury.

The Brahma­pu­tra does not dis­crim­i­nate be­tween an­i­mals. Leop­ards, rhi­nos, ele­phants, bears, deers – all bear the brunt of its rage.

As much as 80 per cent of Kazi­ranga Na­tional Park gets flooded dur­ing mon­soon. It’s a try­ing time for the in­hab­i­tants of the na­tional park. The dev­as­ta­tion the river causes, cre­ated the need for a res­cue Cen­tre – the Cen­tre for Wildlife Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and Con­ser­va­tion.

This is the very first cen­tre of its kind. It was set up in the Bor­juri vil­lage near the na­tional park in 2002 by the As­sam For­est De­part­ment, with help from the In­ter­na­tional Fund for An­i­mal Wel­fare and the Wildlife Trust of In­dia. Strate­gi­cally lo­cated, it is one of the few res­cue cen­ters rec­og­nized by the Cen­tral Zoo Au­thor­ity. And, it is to­day play­ing a crit­i­cal role in try­ing to deal with the chal­lenges that the Brahma­pu­tra River throws up for Kazi­ranga, year af­ter year.

Dur­ing my last visit I came across this mis­chievous lit­tle rhino calf re­fus­ing to lis­ten to its keeper, who was strug­gling to give it a bath. Not far away from it, a shy ele­phant calf was obe­di­ently gulp­ing down milk as its keeper bot­tle-fed it pa­tiently. The Cen­tre was a vi­brant place so full of life

I found some of the an­i­mals were hap­pily pos­ing for the cam­era. And oth­ers were mak­ing a nui­sance of them­selves.

Since its in­cep­tion, the Cen­tre for Wildlife Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and Con­ser­va­tion has handraised and re­ha­bil­i­tated sev­eral species of wild an­i­mals in In­dia. Among them are leop­ards, rhi­nos, ele­phants, bears, deer and In­dia’s only ape – the Hoolock gib­bon.

Most of these an­i­mals had landed up at the Cen­tre be­cause of the Brahma­pu­tra – the river that both sus­tains and threat­ens them.

The Cen­tre fol­lows in­ter­na­tion­ally­ac­cepted pro­to­cols and guide­lines dur­ing

the res­cue, treat­ment and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of dis­tressed an­i­mals.

As the river floods Kazi­ranga, the an­i­mals flood the cen­tre.

While most an­i­mals brought to the cen­tre are tem­po­rar­ily dis­placed, many them re­quire long-term ac­clima­ti­za­tion be­fore they are ready for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Some even re­quire life­time care…

As a rule, with young an­i­mals, at­tempts are made to re­lo­cate them back into the wild.

While some of the in­hab­i­tants of the Cen­tre await their free­dom, oth­ers seem to en­joy the care and pam­per­ing. Like these lit­tle black bear.

The Cen­tre’s big­gest achieve­ment was the suc­cess of its Rhino Rein­tro­duc­tion Pro­gramme at the Manas Na­tional Park in As­sam. The rhino pop­u­la­tion in this serene habi­tat at the Hi­malayan foothills was en­tirely wiped out due to the com­mu­nal clashes in the 90s.

Dur­ing my visit in the last decade of 20th cen­tury, I was re­ally up­set when I couldn’t spot even a sin­gle Rhino at Manas. The most pre­cious gem of Manas had been lost in the midst of silly hu­man ri­val­ries.

With the cen­tre’s in­ter­ven­tion, or­phaned rhino calves hand-raised at CWRC were re­lo­cated to Manas, kick start­ing the cru­cial rhino rein­tro­duc­tion pro­gramme in year 2006. An year later, more rhi­nos from the cen­tre were re­leased into Manas. This was in­deed one of the big­gest suc­cess sto­ries of any In­dian wildlife re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gramme.

Most of the re­lo­cated rhi­nos ap­peared to quickly adapt with their new home. Not many had much hope that the pro­gramme would suc­ceed, con­sid­er­ing that the an­i­mals had been reared in cap­tiv­ity for a few years. To ev­ery­one’s ut­ter sur­prise, not only did the an­i­mals start liv­ing a healthy, in­de­pen­dent life, but they also started breed­ing.

In May 2013 came the news that ev­ery­body was wait­ing for. Mainao, the fe­male rhino that was hand-reared at the cen­tre and re­lo­cated to the Manas Na­tional in 2006, gave birth to a calf in the wilder­ness. Her name, in the na­tive bodo lan­guage means the “god­dess of wealth”, and ma­jes­ti­cally in­deed, I was lucky enough to spot Mainao along with her baby in the Bhuyan­para range of the park.

This rhino’s life had come to a full cir­cle. In 2002, as a few weeks old calf, she was res­cued from the flooded plains of Kazi­ranga af­ter the rag­ing Brahma­pu­tra had killed her mother and left her to die.

That the river, which is cen­tral to Kazi­ranga’s ecol­ogy, can turn upon those it so lov­ingly nur­tures for most time of the year is one of na­ture’s mys­te­ri­ous won­ders. Kazi­ranga and its wild in­hab­i­tants have learnt to live on with this re­al­ity – at times turn­ing to the river for life, and at other times, flee­ing from it for that very life. (For al­ready pub­lished sto­ries and films on

wildlife by the writer, which have run on Na­tional Geo­graphic chan­nel, Do­or­dar­shan Na­tional chan­nel and Do­or­dar­shan (In­dia),

please log on to www.ra­he­ja­group.org).

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