Wildlife experts say no to artificial highlands at Kaziranga National Park

Wildlife experts in Assam have opposed the Centre’s directive to set up more artificial highlands inside the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) for the flood season. The experts believe that such interference will disturb the ecosystem of the wild habitat widely known for the world famous one-horned rhinos, among others.

Highlands are constructed inside the park so that animals can take shelter during the floods when the national park is submerged in flood water. They said floods are important for the park.

“Creating more artificial highland inside a floodplain ecosystem will fasten the process of ecological succession,” opined the experts.

Earlier on April 24, Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar had asked Assam forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya to take cost-effective measures to prevent animal deaths in annual floods and vehicular accidents. “Directed that more highlands may be made for wild animals, to take shelter at the time of floods,” Javadekar had tweeted.

There are already around 140 highlands inside the park where the animals take shelter during the floods.

The KNP is located in the floodplain ecosystem of the river Brahmaputra that has assisted natural creation of grasslands, wetlands and comparatively less tree forests.

“Wildlife living in such floodplain ecosystems for hundreds of years have learnt to live in the landscape and have adapted to natural calamities like floods,” the experts said.

The experts namely – coordinator, WWF-India, North Bank landscape Anupam Sarmah, secretary-general and CEO of Aaranyak (a known wildlife NGO) Bibhab Talukdar, joint director of Wildlife Trust of India Rathin Barman and CEO of Assam Elephant Foundation Kaushik Barua have come up with 10 major reasons why such artificial highlands shouldn’t be built.

Wild elephants crossing the highway during flood in 2019

“In a more simple language this may be explained as Kaziranga will no longer remain as the habitat of rhino, swamp deer and wild buffalo etc. As the floodplain ecosystem will change to a drier habitat in the long run it will not be suitable for rhino, swamp deer, water buffalo etc,” they said.

One of the points said that the construction of additional artificial highland will drastically change the hydrology of the park.

“This means the flow of water, especially in the flood period, will change to a great extent. This will hamper the natural cleaning mechanism of the ecosystem. Because of this the water hyacinth will increase in the wetlands of the park and will create ecological problems for the wild animals. Change of hydrology will also change the plant species of the park. There are chances that palatable grasses for the wildlife might be replaced with unpalatable plant species in the long run,” they added.

They also believe that this may eventually lead to more human-animal conflict in the surrounding villages.

“Unscientific highlands leads to alter state of the vegetation/habitat composition, as the vegetation are functions of soil moisture regime, soil nutrients, seed bank and other abiotic and biotic factors. Change of vegetation is likely to compel the animals to stray out of the park boundary, especially during the drier seasons. This will bring more threat to the animals, especially to the rhinos,” they further said.

They, however, suggested that it would be more beneficial if emphasis is given to grassland management, restoration of wetlands and anti-erosion measures rather than making highlands.

“Undisturbed animal movement in the identified animal corridors of Kaziranga and the adjoining Karbi Hills must be facilitated aggressively by the authorities. Government should also expedite the process of construction of the elevated highway project in all the identified locations,” they opined.

Last year during the devastating flood, more than 200 wild animals died in the park. Those included the 20 endangered one horned rhinos along with 100 odd hog deer and a few other species.

“Flood is the backbone of a flood plain ecosystem. Without flood Kaziranga won’t be like this and there won’t be any rhino in Kaziranga. So, all natural floods is ok for it provided we keep safe passage for the animals towards highlands (Karbi Anglong) during flood times,” wildlife biologist Dr Rathin Barman who is also the Head of the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation at Kaziranga National Park, had told this correspondent during a recent conversation.

As per 2018 census, there are 2,413 rhinos in the park; 1,089 elephants as per 2017 census; 110 tigers as per 2018 census and 907 swamp deer as per the 2018 census data.

About Abdul Gani

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Abdul Gani is a Guwahati-based journalist

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