THE ANGRY RIVER and its casualties
Navin M Raheja is a wildlife enthusiast and a passionate photographer. In the past 40 years, he has made several contributions in the field of conservation at various levels. A former member of the Project Tiger’s steering committee, under the Ministry of Environment & forests, he worked persistently to ensure that the big cats survive in India. He is also Chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Society of India. With a holistic vision and being one of the top Real estate Developer, Raheja believes that development and protection of environment can happen simultaneously.
I was 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 country- but 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 hand-raised 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 internationally-accepted 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).