Soldiers of conservation



Posted on 11 February 1999  | 
Assam, India: The Indian army has joined the conservation organization, WWF, in a remarkable project to save animals from the floodwaters of the Brahmaputra river in the Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage Site in the state of Assam. Army engineers have constructed highlands that will remain above water and provide refuges for the animals when the river floods during the monsoon.

The park suffered its worst floods between June and September last year, but in less than four months army engineers had built rescue platforms. "The ten highlands have been constructed in an area preferred by the animals when seeking refuge, as it is devoid of human habitation," says B S Bonal, director of Kaziranga National Park.

The work of the sappers, as the engineers are called, was praised by the Army Chief of Staff, General V P Malik, who said the service had an abiding interest in protecting the country's biodiversity. "In Assam our partnership with WWF has borne fruit in Kaziranga," the general said. "But it will also be our endeavour to protect other national parks in the state."

The cost of building the high grounds, met by the army, was about US$480,000. The engineers have also built a "viewpoint" offering a breathtaking panorama of Kaziranga, the Brahmaputra and the snow-capped Arunachal Himalayan ranges.

Although floods are a recurring problem in Kaziranga, the losses in the last monsoon were unprecedented, according to Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury of the Rhino Foundation. As many as 40 rhinos are reported to have died  nine of them poached  and six elephants are believed to have drowned, as well as some hog deer, wild buffalo, sambar, wild boar, and swamp deer.

But the tigers appear to have survived and, according to the latest count, there are about 80 in the park. Experts believe that Kaziranga, which has one of the highest tiger densities in the country, offers perhaps the best chance for the animal's survival.

The floods also damaged Kaziranga's general infrastructure, including telephone lines, roads and bridges. On the fringes of the park, more than a dozen village communities suffered great hardship.

In addition to the emergency funds from the state government, WWF contributed to the rescue and recovery work under the Tiger Conservation Programme. WWF-India's senior representative in the North-East Region Office, Dr A K Goswami, reported that equipment provided earlier by WWF was put to good use for tracking animals in distress.

The government and non-governmental organizations helped in the rescue programme, but Goswami stressed the vital role of the park guards in protecting the animals both from the floods and poachers.

According to Dr Choudhury, this was particularly true in the case of the endangered Indian one-horned rhino. In 1997, only about ten rhinos had fallen victim to poachers' bullets compared to 50 in 1992 and 40 in 1993. Public awareness programmes among the local populations have helped to reduce poaching, but Choudhury also stresses the importance of alert guards.

The battle, however, is far from won. A look at the statistics for the period 1980-97 reveals that more than 500 rhinos have perished in Kaziranga. "Only about 1,800 Indian rhinos are left in the wild, of which more than 60 per cent are concentrated in Kaziranga alone," says Choudhury. "Poaching of rhino for its horn is controlled by powerful syndicates, while the poverty-stricken poachers are mostly unwitting participants."

Problems in Kaziranga and other areas in Assam are compounded by habitat loss and destruction of the forest corridors vital for free movement of animals, says Choudhury. Fortunately, the state has some new wildlife sanctuaries, and additions are being made to existing national parks, all of which augur well for conservation.

In 1997 about 44 square kilometres were added to Kaziranga, making the park's total area more than 470 square kilometres. The highlands built by WWF and the army is in this new area, which consists mostly of grasslands and where rhinos, tigers, swamp deer, wild buffalo, and elephants are found.

The WWF-Indian army collaboration is a small step towards protecting Kaziranga from devastating floods, and there are plans to plant wild grass at the base of the newly constructed highlands to enable them to withstand the onslaught of the river. While harnessing the Brahmaputra may not yet be feasible, a fact-finding mission from WWF-India is exploring ways of preventing future disasters.

(727 words)

*Shekhar Nambiar is Director of Communications at WWF-India

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