As the August sun beats down mercilessly on the floodplains of Kaziranga National Park, a leopard finds a quiet spot atop a tall tree for his afternoon siesta. It’s one of his favourite spots inside the large enclosure at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), a project run by the Assam forest department, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The leopard, rescued months ago after it strayed into a village on the outskirts of the game reserve, will never go back to the wild, unlike the rhinos, elephants and the like that are rescued and hand reared in the CWRC’s sprawling complex at the Panbari Reserve Forest, about 220km from state capital Guwahati.
“We cannot teach leopard or tiger cubs to hunt in captivity. Those skills are taught by their mothers. And a leopard which does not know how to hunt is as good as dead in the wild, hence, they are sent to zoos after their rehabilitation is complete,” says Rathin Barman, the joint director of WTI and incharge of the centre.
The idea for the centre came up during the annual floods in 1998, one of the worst Kaziranga had seen, when more than a 1,000 animals, including rhinos, died. Many animals were rescued too, but the forest department did not know how to take care of them. “During a show on Doordarshan, then Union minister for wildlife, Maneka Gandhi, proposed to fund the initial cost of a rehabilitation centre. The WTI agreed to provide its expertise and that was the beginning,” Barman tells Outlook.
Besides Barman, the centre has two veterinary experts and 11 animal-keepers to look after the rescued animals and birds, ranging from rhinos and elephants to hornbills and fishing cats. “We are now taking care of three leopards, seven rhinos and four elephants,” says Barman.
Care-giving assumes a different meaning for wildlife. Rhinos and elephants are fed an exclusive diet of enriched milk till they are six months old. “They are just like human babies...even the slightest contamination in milk makes them sick. The feeding bottles are sterilised after every feed,” says Pranjit Basumatary, one of the two veterinarians. “Treating diseases and wounds of wild animals is even harder—we don’t know how they will react. We always work from a distance, with special tools,” he adds. “We also try to minimise interaction with the animals so that they retain their wild traits. Except for feeding time, the animals stay by themselves and bond with each other as they would in the wild,” says veterinarian Samshul Ali. The threat of contamination is high and anyone entering the facility has to walk through a trough filled with water treated with potassium permanganate.
The rescuers’ biggest challenge comes during the monsoons when the rain and a swollen Brahmaputra abutting the national park inundate large tracts of the grassland, forcing the animals to seek refuge in higher land. The animals—especially hog deers—panic, become disoriented and try to cross the National Highway 37 cutting through the park. “This leads to vehicle hits, often fatal,” says Barman. Barricades and speed regulations have cut down such cases in recent years, but the threat remains. Barman says unless people are sensitive to animals, such incidents will continue.
As the sun starts to dip over the horizon and the shadows lengthen, the cries of baby rhinos and elephants float in from their enclosures—it’s time for their evening meal. As Tarun Gogoi and Lakhiram Das, two of the keepers, approach with feeding bottles, the rhinos rush to their “foster mothers”. At this centre, these rhinos—once pushed to the threshold by poachers—find love and care from the very species they try to avoid in the wild: humans.
Text by Anupam Bordoloi in Kaziranga
Photographs by Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/IFAW-WTI