Cats are lazy and, given a choice, a Royal Bengal will be snug on a family’s master bed than wet its feet in floodwaters. It happens. A tiger resting in the bedroom of a house along the highway that cleaves through Kaziranga is the most enduring image of this year’s monsoonal floods, which have affected millions of people and livestock, and several counts of wildlife, in Assam. Floods in Assam are perennial; the Brahmaputra and his tributaries are the baddest boys in the rains. They behave like angry wet cats—wildly destructive, clawing out clods of soil from their banks, inundating acres upon acres of farmland, and Kaziranga too.
And every year, like this year, images of rhinos, elephants, buffaloes and deer swimming in floodwaters, or sheltering on man-made hummocks, or crossing the busy highway make awe-inducing photo-ops for those unaware of the park’s ecology. Kaziranga exists because of the floods; they are the lifeblood of this 430 square km protected area, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
“Floods are the backbone of a floodplain ecosystem. Without the floods, Kaziranga won’t be like what it is now. There won’t be any rhinos. The natural flooding is good. But we need to ensure safe passage for the animals from the flooded grasslands to the highlands (the Karbi Anglong hills abutting the park),” says Rathin Barman, the joint director of Wildlife Trust of India and head of the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation in Kaziranga.
The floodplains of the Brahmaputra, which licks the park, are washed over every year, leaving behind rich alluvium. Out of this nutrient-rich silt sprouts the tall elephant grass; fodder for herbivores and perfect cover for predators—like the tiger that sneaked into a family’s home. The annual floods bring nutrients to the water bodies that sustain a variety of aquatic life. These “food-rich” ponds attract migratory birds, some from as far as Siberia.
More than 200 wild animals, including rhinos, have died in the deluge. Still, Kaziranga’s problem is not its floods, but us—humans. Over the past decade, an explosion of commercial establishments—private tourist lodges and eateries—have choked the park’s fringes. Encroachment of buffer zones is rife too. And then, growing traffic on the highway and insensitive drivers make it extremely unsafe for animals to cross the road to reach the highlands.
By Abdul Gani in Guwahati