In rhino land

Print edition : March 11, 2005

Kaziranga, which celebrates one hundred years of efforts to save the rhinoceros, and Manas, home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, are two success stories in conservation in Asia.

Tourists return to their camps at the end of a jeep safari at Kaziranga National Park.-

ONE hundred years after Lady Curzon returned from Kaziranga in Assam with memories of seeing only the hoof marks of the rhinoceros, her grandson, Sir Nicholas Moseley, lost count of the one-horned animal when he visited the place. Moseley and his wife Verity were in Kaziranga at the invitation of the Assam government to take part in the centenary celebrations of the Kaziranga National Park from February 11 to 17.

Lady Curzon visited Kaziranga in the winter of 1904. Alarmed by the fact that the rhino in Kaziranga was heading for extinction, she convinced her husband, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, to take measures to save the unique animal. Kaziranga was declared a reserve forest in 1908. It became a game sanctuary in 1916. But it was still vulnerable to poaching and hunting. It was opened to visitors in 1938. In 1950, Kaziranga was declared a wildlife sanctuary and in 1954, the rhino was given legal protection through the Assam (Rhinoceros) Bill, which proposed heavy penalties for killing the animal. Kaziranga was declared the first national park of Assam in 1974 under the Assam National Parks Act, 1968, and the original core area of 428 square kilometres was declared a World Heritage Site in December 1985.

The number of rhinoceros at Kaziranga has grown from a few dozens when Lady Curzon visited it to about 1,600 now, and this has been billed by the Assam government as the "century's greatest conservation success story". After it was declared a reserve forest, H. Carter, the Conservator of Forests, banned hunting, shooting, trapping of wild animals and fishing in Kaziranga. However, poaching of rhinoceros for its horn continued unabated, even after the Park was opened to tourists. Poachers used firearms to kill the rhinoceros. The horn was then hacked off. They also used the pit poaching method, taking advantage of tall and thick grass. Pits of suitable sizes would be dug up on the paths of the rhino. Sharp bamboo splinters would be erected at the bottom of the pits so that whenever a rhino fell into the pit it was trapped and killed. In subsequent years, poaching came down, thanks to the efforts of dedicated officers such as Mahi Chandra Miri and A.W.J. Milroy. The park now has 122 anti-poaching camps, including two floating camps on the Brahmaputra. In addition, it has 123 country boats, six mechanised boats, four speedboats, two motor launches, 20 motor vehicles and 47 departmental elephants to assist the anti-poaching squad. There are some 800 personnel, who include about 200 forest guards, game watchers, home guards, forest protection force staff, and temporary staff for patrolling the park. The foresters are equipped with 346 .315 bore rifles, 33 SBBLs, 18 DBBLs, five revolvers, 20 fixed or mobile wireless stations and more than a hundred walkie-talkies.

Located at a distance of 225 km from Guwahati, the State capital, Kaziranga is a floodplain ecosystem in which grasslands predominate. About 70 per cent of the park area is covered with `elephant grass', which grow up to a height of five metres during the rainy season. In the western range, these grasslands dominate, with shorter varieties of grass growing around the water bodies, which are locally known as `beels'. The `beels' are recharged each year by the floodwaters of the Brahmaputra.

The rhino is mostly seen around swampy areas with extensive grasslands, as grass is its main food. Occasionally, during lean periods, it also feeds on water hyacinth (Eichornia crassipes), the fruits of some trees such as Trewia nudiflora, Phyllanthus emblica and Zizyphus jujuba, and the tender leaves of some shrubs and herbs and the seedlings of various trees species. During the pre-monsoon and monsoon months, rhinos spend most of their time during the day wallowing in the water. At night they sleep on dry ground. During winter, they graze for longer hours both in the morning and in the evening and wallow in water for considerably fewer hours.

A baby rhinoceros with its mother.-

The grasslands are dominated by species such as Saccharum elephantinus, Imperata cylindrica, Poinia ciliata, Erianthus ravannae, Saccharum arundinaceum, Arundo donax and Phragmites karka. Interspersed among the grasslands are cane brakes, and woodlands that are dominated by deciduous species such as Bombax ceiba, Albizzia odorotissima, Carreya arborea, Lagerstromia parviflora, Dillenia pentagyna and Zizyphus jujuba. The trees occupy comparatively higher ground, along the central and eastern portions of the park. The tropical wet evergreen forests that are found on the south of the national highway extend into the Karbi Anglong hills and are dominated by species such as Artocarpus chaplasha, Bridelia retusa, Duabanga grandiflora, Aesculus asamica, Schima wallichi, Gmelina arborea and Erythrina indica. These dense, impenetrable forests provide refuge to animals during the flood season. They also constitute one of the places with the highest population density of the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris), a significant populace of Asiatic elephants (Elephas maximus), and the Asiatic wild buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) and the swamp deer (Cervus duvauceli ranjisinghi) in good numbers.

The birds in the Park and its surroundings exceed 500 species, among the highest in the country. Migratory birds visit the park - especially the eastern range - during winter, and some of them establish breeding colonies. A lucky visitor to the park may also witness the rare sight of the courtship dance of the colourful Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis). Identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International for the conservation of the avi-faunal species, the Kaziranga National Park has 25 globally threatened and 21 near-threatened bird species.

Tourist enjoy an elephant ride at Kaziranga.-

Pradyut Bordoloi, Forest Minister of Assam, told Frontline that the State government would now focus on the biodiversity of Kaziranga. The 25 globally threatened species include the swamp francolin (Francolinus gularis), the lesser white-fronted goose (Anser erythropus), the ferruginous pochard (Aythya nyroca), Baer's pochard (A. Baeri), Blyth's kingfisher (Alcedo hercules), the pale-capped pigeon (Columba punicea), the Bengal florican, the Nordmann's greenshank (Tringa guttifer), the black-bellied tern (Sterna acuticauda), Pallas's fishing eagle (Haliaetus leucoryphus), the greater spotted eagle (Aquilla clanga), the imperial eagle (A. Heliaca), the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni), the white-bellied heron (Ardea insignis), the spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus phillippensis), and the Dalmatian pelican. "We have drawn up a vision plan that is beyond Kaziranga. Although the rhino will continue to be the mascot of Kaziranga, it is high time we reflected on its rich biodiversity and the several challenges that lie ahead, especially the control of poaching and other disturbances, weeds, ranging patterns of wild animals outside the protected areas, and the erosion caused by the floodwaters of the Brahmaputra, which are of great relevance for the sustenance of Kaziranga's ecosystem and its biodiversity," Bordoloi said.

The week-long Kaziranga Centenary Celebration, organised by the Assam government to celebrate the completion of 100 years of conservation efforts, brought together 48 wildlife experts from different parts of the globe apart from field managers, policymakers, representatives of non-governmental organisations working in the field of conservation, and the general public. A new roadmap for meeting the challenges in biodiversity conservation in this part of the globe was charted out, which is expected to focus on wetland management, grasslands management, animal health surveillance and man-animal coexistence, to consolidate the gains of the past 100 years.

A great one-horned rhino amidst elephant grass inside the park.-

Located on the northern bank of the Brahmputra river, the 2,837 sq km Manas Tiger Reserve, a World Heritage Site, had its 500 sq km core area declared as the Manas National Park in 1990. Manas, 176 km from Guwahati, was among the first few tiger reserves created in the country after the Project Tiger scheme was launched by the government in 1973. The reserve runs along the India-Bhutan international border, with contiguous wildlife habitats in the other country. The core area is comprised of evergreen forest, semi-evergreen forest, moist and dry deciduous forest, grassland, wetland and riparian forest.

The park is home to 60 mammals, 312 species of birds, 42 species of reptiles, 54 species of fishes, seven kinds of amphibians and 100 kinds of insects. Among the mammals, 21 species are endangered and listed in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. These are the capped langur, the golden langur, the slow loris, the tiger, the black panther, the leopard cat, the clouded leopard, the golden cat, the fishing cat, the bear cat, the sloth bear, the Asian elephant, the Indian pangolin, the one-horned rhinoceros, the Asiatic water buffalo, the swamp deer, the parti-coloured flying squirrel, the hispid hare and the Gangetic dolphin. Ten of the bird species, the rufous-necked hornbill, the pied hornbill, the great pied hornbill, the wreathed hornbill, the common peafowl, the peacock pheasant, the black-crested baza, the lagger falcon, the shaeen falcon, and the Bengal florican are endangered and included in Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act.

Elephants decorated in traditional finery at the Kaziranga Elephant Festival.-

Apart from being the home of the golden langur - one of the rarest animals on the earth - the hispid hare and the pygmy hog, Manas is a place where all terrestrial mammals are found to roam in one area. The only viable population of the pygmy hog in the world exists in Manas.

The Manas river, after which the tiger reserve and the park are named, is known as Dang-me-chu in Bhutan. After entering India at Mathanguri, it splits into two major channels - the Bispani-Hakuwa and the Manas/Beki. The bed of this beautiful river, covered with boulders, can be seen through the crystal-clear water during the non-flood season. A study carried out by Gauhati University found as many as 106 species of fish in this river. Owing to heavy poaching for consumption, the numbers of large-sized fish have been depleting, which in turn has adversely affected the predators dependent upon the river. However, according to a recent survey, the fish population is recovering. The trail of footprints on the sands of the riverbank at Mathanguri left by tigers, wild elephants, deer and wild buffaloes, during their movement towards the river overnight shows that the river system is the only source of water for all the major fauna. For tigers, elephants, deer of all species, bisons, leopards and other cats, this is the only source of water during severe drought.

The topography of the park area varies from more-or-less flat ground to moderate slopes. The northern edge bordering Bhutan is hilly, the hills being the outer portions of the Himalayas. The altitude of the hills varies from 150 metres to 500 m. The hilly tract slopes down to the alluvial plateau along the southern extremity until it finally merges with paddy fields. The alluvial plateau forms the watershed area of various rivers that originate from the Bhutan hills and finally drain into the Brahmaputra. The buffer zone of the tiger reserve encompasses 19 different forest reserves spread over the lower Assam districts of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Barpeta, Nalbari and Darrang.

Kaziranga also has the world"s largest population of Asiatic wild buffalo - more than 2,000.-

The grasslands of Manas are highly diverse in nature and constitute an area for several endangered species, including the Royal Bengal Tiger, to survive. Nesting sites of the Bengal florican can be seen in the grasslands, where a number of reptiles are also found. The core area abounds with a large number of medicinal plants.

A breathtaking view of the Manas river.-

Manas is generally open to tourists from November to April and field trips are permitted from sunrise to sunset. The social unrest in the Bodoland area for more than a decade has affected the park's management, as militants and anti-social elements have taken advantage of the situation. There have been several cases of killings, encounters, arson and looting, abductions and the snatching of arms. In 1989, 1990 and 1994, all the three ranges of the Manas National Park were attacked by militants, and two ranges - Panbari and Bhuyanpara - were completely destroyed. During this period, about 28 camps and beats were also destroyed. Six staff members lost their lives. One ranger was assaulted and another one was kidnapped and killed. Tourism was adversely affected. With the situation returning to normal, tourists have started flowing in, prompting the park authorities to undertake measures to restore the damaged beats and other infrastructure. Ritesh Bhattacharya, Deputy Director of the park, said the road network of the reserve was being restored in order to enable visitors to move deeper into the park and enjoy the scenic beauty of the flora and fauna and help forest guards to step up the vigil against poachers. However, the poor flow of funds from the Assam government has come in the way of the restoration and conservation measures. Visitors to the park have to take a tortuous two-hour-long ride on the 22-km-long road from the park's Field Director's office at Barpeta Road to the Bansbari range office - the only road through which entry to the park is permitted. Repeated pleas by the authorities and the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) to repair the flood-ravaged road and make it motorable to facilitate the inflow of tourists have fallen on deaf ears. After making it through the potholed road, one has to cough up an extra Rs.100 to ferry the tourists' vehicles across a channel of the Beki. The river changed course and washed away the bridge at Kalpani during the floods last year. The administrative control of the park was transferred to the BTAD authorities and a new administrative body set up under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution following the signing of a new Bodo Accord with the erstwhile Bodoland Liberation Tigers (BLT), the Indian government and the Assam government on February 10, 2003. However, financial control still rests with the Assam government. The funds released by the Central government meant for the management of the park is routed through the State government.

A road inside the Manas National Park.-

Bishiram Narzary, Executive Member (Forest and Environment), BTAD, told Frontline that though the Centre had released Rs.1.58 crores to the Assam government for the park for the 2004-05 financial year, the park authorities were yet to receive the money. This had adversely affected the protection measures and the management plans of the park. The park authorities had to divert the funds meant for buying fodder for elephants to pay the wages of forest guards, he said. There is a threat to both the ecosystem and the fauna of the park from organised poaching and timber-smuggling. However, the park authorities, in cooperation with the BTAD, have succeeded in checking timber smuggling to a great extent. Ritesh Bhattacharya, however, said that with more than one-third of the posts of forest guards lying vacant, patrolling has become a Herculean task. Besides, the eastern and western ranges of the park, Bhuyanpara and Panbari, are under constant threat from the teeming fringe population trying to enter into the park area.

Elephant grass and woodland in Kaziranga.-

Pradyut Bordoloi admitted the delay in the release of funds and put the blame on the Finance Department, but said that restoring to Manas its lost glory is very much on the agenda of the State government.

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