Managing Kaziranga national park is a challenging task, considering the multiple threats facing it. The ever present menace of poachers, erosion by the Brahmaputra, stone quarrying and mining in Karbi hills, environmental hazard posed by national highway 37 and restive populace on the park fringes all indicate how multi-dimensional the problem is. The latest move by the State government to split the 1,030 sq km park into two wildlife divisions is therefore welcome. While Eastern Assam wildlife division on Brahmaputra’s southern bank, headquartered at Bokakhat, will have ranges at Agratoli, Kohora, Bagori, Burapahar and Bokakhat — the Biswanath division will have four ranges of its own, namely Gamiri, Biswanath ghat, Nagshankar and crime investigation range. Most poachers mount their attacks across the Brahmaputra from the northern side, so it makes eminent sense that a full-fledged division on that side will be better able to deal with the menace than the overburdened division on the south. It all depends how soon the new division is adequately manned and equipped to take on the poachers, whose depredations were slightly less last year. Rhino poaching in KNP in 2017 was down to 6, though 4 rhinos have been gunned down this year. This has been attributed to forest guards being armed with AK series rifles and better surveillance with night vision glasses, networked watch towers and swift patrol boats. Expansion of drone surveillance should improve the results further. It is encouraging that the fast track courts set up to try poaching cases have handed down six convictions this year. The public impression that poachers enjoy political blessings is hopefully a thing of the past, and several arrests have been made in anti-poaching operations lately. The park authority has weathered the controversy over ‘shoot to kill’ rights given to foresters, but Dispur needs to sustain the outreach programme among inhabitants of park fringes. After all, the temptation to side with poachers remains strong, what with rhino horn reportedly selling at over Rs 1 crore per kg in foreign markets. It is too early to think the tide against poachers is turning — they are already known to be using other routes more along the north bank to Arunachal and south-west from Karbi hills to Silchar and beyond.
The latest rhino census in KNP has recorded an increase of 12 since year 2015 — the park has 2,413 rhinos presently. Its tiger count stands at 104, a high tiger density in terms of ranging area. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) is unhappy that despite KNP being a tiger reserve since August 2007, it still lacks a tiger conservation plan. In a report to the State government this year, the NTCA pointed to rampant stone quarrying and mining in Karbi hill areas adjoining the KNP tiger reserve. This could cause drying up of streams and disruption of tiger and elephant corridors, the report warned. In this context, the NTCA called upon the State Forest department to draw up tiger conservation plans for core and buffer areas, as well as to notify eco-sensitive zones around the tiger reserve. While floods are yet to visit Kaziranga this year (over 360 park animals perished in the floods last year, including 31 rhinos), the debate continues over the extent of erosion by the Brahmaputra. There is a complex, dynamic interplay between bank cutting by the river on one hand, and sediment deposition and sandbar creation on the other. From 1912 to 2008, Kaziranga is estimated to have lost around 150 sq km while gaining nearly 62 sq. km of land. It has thus been a net loss scenario, and the park authority may need to take a call on appropriate anti-erosion interventions. If the park is hit by a late wave of floods this year, Dispur should be held to account if it fails by then to install sensor-operated automated traffic barriers on NH 37 to check accidental animal deaths. The Assembly has already cleared Rs 11 crore for this work, as revealed by the State government at a hearing by National Green Tribunal. With the highway project to bypass KNP yet to pick up, the existing stretch of NH 37 passing through the park must be made as safe as possible.