Doomed By Deluge!
Not only the Kaziranga National Park, located on the edge of the eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspots of Golaghat and Nagaon districts, but the Manas, R.G. Orang and Tinsukia national parks, and the Pabitora and Tinsukia wildlife sanctuaries are also affected by floods and many wild animals have died…
As floods caused by heavy seasonal rainfall wreaked havoc in northeast India, animal life in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park was once again the worst-hit. The park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest home to the one-horned rhinoceros in India, was almost completely inundated as 13 rivers, including the Brahmaputra and their tributaries flowed above the danger mark. As the flooding worsened, a number of wild animals were confirmed dead, many had been rescued and several tigers and rhinos had strayed into nearby villages.
Kaziranga National Park director KP Sivakumar said this year at least 137 wild animals had died so far due to the floods while 163 had been rescued, even as over 95 per cent of the 884 sq km Park was inundated last week. Even with the overall improvement in the flood situation in the state now, 75 per cent of the park area remained flooded. “Last year, 263 animals, including many endangered rhinos, were killed due to the floods while 169 animals were rescued. Currently, we are in the middle of the four-month (June to September) long monsoon. I do not know what would be the final situation. However, all-out efforts are being made to take care of the animals in the entire Kaziranga National Park,” Sivakumar said.
The animals that have perished in the monsoon floods this year include rhinos, hog deer, wild boars, wild buffaloes, porcupines and swamp deer. Sivakumar said to protect the animals from the monsoon floods, more than 33 artificial highlands had been developed where the animals took shelter after their habitats were inundated. “Besides, thousands of trained volunteers were engaged during the monsoon period and a Special Protection Force was created for the protection of the rhinos. Over a thousand country boats and speed boats were deployed while additional staff, including doctors, was mobilised to deal with the floods and safety of the animals,” Sivakumar added.
He said the rising water level in the park had forced three sub-adult tigers to stray into a goat-shed in a village and nearby areas earlier this month. “Subsequently, the tigers have been driven back into the park area,” Sivakumar said, adding that since the first week of June, there had been no respite from the floods which wreaked havoc inside the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve. Forest officials said that not only the Kaziranga National Park, located on the edge of the eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspots of Golaghat and Nagaon districts, but the Manas, R.G. Orang and Tinsukia national parks, and the Pabitora and Tinsukia wildlife sanctuaries were also affected and many wild animals had died.
Better able to ‘tackle’ flooding?
Unlike many other tiger reserves, big cats in Kaziranga and Orang national parks are better placed to deal with the annual floods, a study by Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve (KNP&TR) authorities has found. “Though we have very high density, there are very few numbers of straying cases during flood times. Many forests guards reported that they have seen tigers taking shelter in tree branches for days during the peak flood times,” the study said. The report also read: “There is evidence that Kaziranga tigers share their prey with other tigers. In a camera trap video it was seen that a single prey (a dead rhino) was shared by three tigers in one night. Most likely in the case of Kaziranga and Orang and tiger density is so high that probably many of them overlap their territory… Prey density is so high here that tigers probably don’t have to spend much energy hunting here. Scavenging on dead biomass by tiger is very common here. As Kaziranga is an assemblance of mega herbivores, tigers do easily feed on dead biomass of these mega herbivores.” The study report further read, “Our tigers are very shy. When we enter the park we may not sight them, but they surely see us as we have tigers in every four square kilometre of the park. Though Kaziranga National Park is about 885 square kilometre, the effective landmass for tigers is about 480 square kilometre. Almost half of the park is river Brahmaputra.”
Are floods a necessary evil?
Ironically, while earlier a big flood would hit Kaziranga once in 10 years, now the deluge comes every year. But regardless of the heavy toll on animal life, the floods are cited as being regenerative in nature. Some experts believe that floods are necessary for the Kaziranga ecosystem which would not survive without water. Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve (KNPTR) is sandwiched between the Brahmaputra river and the Karbi Anglong Hills. The entire area is formed by alluvial deposits from the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. It is said the regenerative nature of floods helps replenish Kaziranga’s water bodies and maintain its landscape, which is a mix of wetlands, grasslands and semi-evergreen deciduous forests. The floodwaters function as a breeding ground for fish, which are carried away by the receding waters into the Brahmaputra. i.e. the Kaziranga’s floods replenish the Brahmaputra’s stock of fish. The waters also help get rid of unwanted plants such as water hyacinth which collect in huge masses in the landscape. “In a herbivore-dominated area like Kaziranga, it is important we maintain its grassland status. If it were not for the annual floods, the area would become a woodland,” said Sivakumar. Many also believe that floods are a way of natural selection. “A number of animals — especially the old, weak — cannot survive the floods. Only the ones with superior genes survive,” said Rabindra Sarma, Wildlife Research Officer at KNPTR.
But are the annual floods in Kaziranga a boon or a bane?
Can the monumental loss of animal life be dismissed as nature’s balancing act or survival of the fittest? There are many who blame human intervention for this annual stress on animals. An environmental expert requesting anonymity said, “Ill-maintained or poorly constructed river embankments are the main reason behind the flooding. As far as flood management is concerned, Assam is totally dependence on embankments, which were constructed way back in the 1960s and most of which have outlived their utility. Many of these started breaching or collapsing from the 1990s, more seriously from the 2000s.” He also blamed massive deforestation in catchment areas of rivers or release of waters by dams upstream for the flooding.
Pankaj Sharma, divisional forest officer of Nameri National Park, also in Assam, said building artificial highlands was not a tangible solution. “Creating 33 artificial highlands, in addition to the existing 111, will lead to more erosion, more siltation in the grasslands,” he said. “The grasslands of Kaziranga, its wetlands are a very important part of its ecology, on which multiple animal species are dependent, including the rhino.” Elaborating on his experience in Kaziranga National Park, where he had worked in the past, Sharma said that there was a time when the grass grew up to a height of 12 feet in the park. “Now that’s rare,” he said, indicating grassland degradation. Activist Rohit Choudhury also said that instead of diverting resources in creating artificial refuge spots, the thrust should be on clearing the animal corridors to their natural refuge. Experts said when the flood water hit a certain level, the animals moved towards safer, higher ground in the Karbi Anglong hills. However, they had to cross NH-37 which cuts across the park and this often led to the killing of animals in road accidents. They said animals were also killed by poachers who took advantage of their vulnerability. Again, stressed by the flooding animals also moved towards villages, leading to man- animal conflicts.
So what should be done?
Conservationists and animal activists feel in the absence of any long-term alternative, the authorities have to invest in strong, durable embankments to ensure that the situation does not deteriorate every year. Kaziranga, with its rich grassland habitats, has a primary role to play in supporting the wildlife populations. So there should be emphasis put on securing animal corridors and ensuring a safe passage to the hills. The corridors, choked by encroachments and expanding infrastructure, such as (tourist) resorts must be cleared. There is extensive illegal mining (stone quarrying) in Karbi Anglong which must stop and the passage for wildlife to these natural highlands must be cleared and be made safe. Also there is need for a landscape-scale conservation approach that recognises the value of the Karbi Anglong hills, for the highlands of Karbi, where the animals take refuge, are the lifeline of the park during the floods.
At a conclave titled ‘Climate Change Threats on Wetland Ecosystem of Protected Areas and their Management,’ organised by Kaziranga Wildlife Society and Assam Science Technology and Environment Council earlier this year, scientists and other experts said that erosion, siltation and the shallowing of wetlands had become the major threats to Kaziranga National Park. Although erosion in this case – and in most cases when threats to Kaziranga National Park are counted, like by UNESCO – is river-related, Pankaj Sharma said that the artificial highlands further increased this threat. “These artificial highlands may offer temporary relief, but their threat of siltation is graver to the ecology,” he added.
Formed in 1908 and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, the Kaziranga National Park is home to more than 2,200 one-horned Indian rhinoceros, approximately two-thirds of the total world population. Much of the focus of conservation efforts in Kaziranga are focused on the ‘big four’ species— rhino, elephant, Royal Bengal tiger and Asiatic water buffalo. It is also home to 9 of the 14 species of primates found in the Indian subcontinent. Losing a sizeable chunk of its bio-diversity each year is extremely unfortunate. Biologists rightly feel that more flood-resilience measures are the need of the hour.
NGT powers are remedial: SC
The Supreme Court, in a judgment delivered recently has held that the National Green Tribunal, in appropriate cases, has power to issue general directions for future guidance, to avoid or prevent injury to the environment. While considering an application by Aam Aadmi Lokmanch, the NGT issued a direction to the authorities to ensure that 'no construction permission shall be given to any construction/development work, which is being proposed and is located at a distance may be of 100 ft. away from lowest slope i.e. incline of any hill within its territorial limits, as well as hill-tops, except for Bamboo cottages'. Aam Aadmi Lokmanch had approached the High Court raising an issue of illegal mining and consequent destruction of hills which resulted in the accident death of mother-daughter duo who were travelling through an adjacent National Highway. In the appeal, the powers of the NGT to issue directions banning development and building activities were challenged. Taking note of provisions of the National Green Tribunal Act, the bench comprising Justices RF Nariman, S. Ravindra Bhat and V. Ramasubramaniam observed that NGT’s Jurisdiction is not “restitutionary, but a remedial one”. It said its powers could also be preventive. The court observed thus: “The power and jurisdiction of the NGT under Sections 15(1) (b) and (c) are not restitutionary, in the sense of restoring the environment to the position it was before the practise impugned, or before the incident occurred. The NGT’s jurisdiction in one sense is a remedial one, based on a reflexive exercise of its powers. In another sense, based on the nature of the abusive practice, its powers can also be preventive. As a quasi-judicial body exercising both appellate jurisdiction over regulatory bodies' orders and directions (under Section 16) and its original jurisdiction under Sections 14, 15 and 17 of the NGT Act, the tribunal, based on the cases and applications made before it, is an expert regulatory body. Its personnel include technically qualified and experienced members. The powers it exercises and directions it can potentially issue, impact not merely those before it, but also state agencies and state departments whose views are heard, after which general directions to prevent the future occurrence of incidents that impact the environment, are issued.”
NGT on dump yards near River Khoh
The National Green Tribunal (NGT), hearing a plea against the illegal dump yards on the bank of River Khoh, has warned that erring officials in Uttarakhand authorities may face prosecution if they failed to comply with the rules related to waste management and preventing water pollution. A bench of the NGT, headed by its chairperson AK Goel, also took note of the fact that damage to the environment is continuing, which is a criminal offence. The NGT was hearing a petition filed by one Arvind Baniyal seeking remedial action against waste disposal dump yards illegally set up on the bank of River Khoh at villages Ratanpur, Kashirampur, Gadighat and near a sports stadium in Kotdwar. Baniyal, in his plea, said garbage was being burnt at those sites and the river was getting polluted. The tribunal noted that there was no progress in terms of the timelines laid down under the statutory rules and said: “The liability of the State to take steps is no way different from law and order in view of the potential of a threat to human life and public health”. “While we grant an adjournment, it is made clear that if there is no further progress, the State may be liable to pay damages for the inaction, apart from liability to the prosecution of the officers responsible for the failure,” the NGT said. The bench also asked the Uttrakhand state to file a progress report in the matter and listed the matter for January 11, 2021, for further hearing.
NGT warns of coercive orders
Failure of the committee comprising Khurda Collector and divisional forest officer to submit its report on unauthorised use of a land has earned ire of the NGT that warned the committee to submit report over illegal and unauthorised use of 568 acres of forest land in Jaydev Vihar area of Bhubaneswar by September 10 or face ‘coercive orders’. While constituting the committee, the NGT’s principal bench (New Delhi) had directed it on May 20 last year to submit the report within two months. The committee had sought time on August 30, November 25 and January 20, 2020, but failed to submit the report till now. “We are inclined to grant one more opportunity to them to file the report before the next date failing which, exemplary coercive orders shall be issued against them which shall include punitive measures like cost and civil imprisonment,” the NGT Bench of Justice SP Wandi (Judicial Member) and Dr Nagin Nanda (Expert Member) said in its recent order. The bench made it clear that the order passed by the Tribunal is enforceable as a decree and executable in terms of Section 51 of the Code of Civil Procedure. The NGT issued the May 20 order on a petition filed by Bhubaneswar-based human rights activist Subash Mohapatra. He alleged that 568.039 acres of forest land in Jaydev Vihar mouza of Bhubaneswar tehsil were used without obtaining any clearance from the Forest department under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The CAG General in its social sector report had mentioned about the encroachment on the forest land and in action on the part of the authorities, the petition said.