India’s Kaziranga National Park, which harbors the world’s largest population of greater one-horned rhinoceroses (Rhinoceros unicornis), is at a “high risk” of “permanently” losing its habitat connectivity with the larger Karbi Anglong landscape, part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, due to rapacious quarrying and river erosion, a new report has warned.
The Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve (KNP/KTR) is located in the eastern state of Assam, sandwiched between the Brahmaputra River in the north and the verdant Karbi Anglong hills in the extreme south. Together they make up the 25,000-square-kilometer (9,650-square-mile) Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Landscape.
The expansive grasslands, swamps and open jungle of the park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are home to more than 2,400 rhinos, 100 tigers and 1,100 elephants. During the fierce monsoons, when the Brahmaputra bursts its banks and floods Kaziranga’s grasslands, Karbi Anglong serves as a refuge for the wildlife that migrates over to the hills.
“Wild animals can get the sense of upcoming flood and they often move towards high land in the landscape during the flood,” said Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, secretary general and CEO of the NGO Aaranyak in Assam. “Though there are some highlands in Kaziranga, the Karbi Anglong hills serve as a natural highland that are visible to the wild animals from a distance.”
Destruction of wildlife corridors
The NTCA report blames the “stone mining/quarrying and stone crushers established in the intervening area” between Kaziranga and Karbi Anglong hills for “destruction of wildlife corridors and vital wildlife habitat” essential for elephants and tigers.
Observing that “lack of corridors and habitat contiguity for wildlife dispersal will have serious implications for long-term conservation of wide-ranging species like tigers and Indian elephants of KTR,” the NTCA has directed the Assam government to take “immediate action” to stop mining, quarrying and stone-crushing operations within a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) radius of the tiger reserve.
Kaziranga, spread out over an area of 860 square kilometers (330 square miles), has the highest density and the third-highest population of tigers in the country, based on a 2014 survey.
The NTCA report and directive comes in response to a complaint filed by activist Rohit Choudhury alleging significant environmental degradation and habitat destruction in the foothills of Karbi Anglong, which is a prime elephant habitat and also part of Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong Elephant Reserve.
The NTCA has noted that the mining and crushing activities are also “responsible for drying and siltation of several natural streams and rivulets that flow from Karbi Anglong hills towards Kaziranga.”
Welcoming the NTCA directive, Talukdar said there could be an increase in the number of wild animals dying during the flood season if their natural movement was disturbed due to unscientific mining.
“Some animals, like elephants, use both flood plains of Kaziranga and hills of Karbi Anglong for seasonal needs and the free movement of wild elephants is essential,” he said. “Further, if mining continues in Kaziranga-facing hills of Karbi Anglong, silts and stone dust can damage the wetland ecosystems of Kaziranga and that in turn could create more problem for wetland and grassland dependent species in Kaziranga.”
A month after the report, Assam’s principal chief conservator of forests, N.K. Vasu, said illegal mining activities had stopped along the Kaziranga-facing Karbi Anglong hill slopes.
“Action is being taken and anything that is detrimental will have to stop,” Vasu told Mongabay-India.
KNP director Akashdeep Baruah told Mongabay-India that the impacts of mining on wildlife had been relayed to an empowered committee in a deposition submitted by the forest department following the NTCA report.
“We have given deputation to the empowered committee noting the disturbances caused to wildlife. Mining is falling right in the path of animal corridor. Animal movement is through this region,” Baruah said.
The damage to the north-facing (Kaziranga-facing) hills of Karbi Anglong is visible from far away, the report said, pointing out at least 12 villages of Karbi Anglong where a number of stone quarries and stone-crusher units are located within a distance of 2 to 4 kilometers (1.2 to 2.5 miles) from the southern boundary of the tiger reserve.
More than 40 stone quarries have been allowed in the hill slopes facing National Highway 37 that passes along the southern boundary of the national park, the report added, referring to a 2003 communication between the then KNP director and the forest department.
Concerns about the mining and quarrying in the intervening area between the southern boundary of KNP and the foothills of Karbi Anglong were raised as far back as 1996, the report noted.
The NTCA assessment also mentioned a 2010 report by the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) of India titled “Performance Audit of Kaziranga National Park — Issues and Challenges” that shed light on the “ever decreasing forest cover due to mining of stone from the hills coupled with the sound pollution from the machineries used in mining operations.” These disruptions forced the elephants to enter human settlements, damaging crops and settlers’ houses.
Erosion — a ‘natural threat’
Illegal mining and stone crushing aside, the NTCA report highlighted river erosion as a “natural threat” to Kaziranga.
According to the report, “precious core (of the park) populated with high density of Indian rhino, Indian elephant, wild buffalo and tigers, is getting reduced” due to the twin threats of mining and erosion.
“While the southern part of Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong landscape is experiencing fast paced urbanisation coupled with destruction of Karbi Anglong hills due to illegal and rampant mining/quarrying activities, the Kaziranga is also facing another natural threat on its northern boundary,” the report said. “Every year, the river Brahmaputra is continuously eroding the northern and eastern bank of Kaziranga core.”
However, Baruah cautioned against attaching a negative perception to erosion. Erosion is a natural part of the flood-plain ecology, he said, adding that he doesn’t see erosion as necessarily damaging.
“Erosion is a natural problem, we gain some areas we lose some areas,” he said. “We also don’t advocate embankments because it affects the flood regime.”
Experts have in the past described the landscape of Kaziranga National Park as “the creation of natural forces of silt deposition and erosion as has been effected by the river Brahmaputra over the centuries.” This process of erosion and deposition is an ongoing process, they wrote in a 2005 report, which becomes acute during the floods that occur at regular intervals during the monsoon season.
A 2014 study found that while rhino numbers had gone up in the national park since 1990, the area available for each rhino had decreased from about 0.31 square kilometers (0.12 square miles) in 1990 to 0.16 square kilometers (0.06 square miles) in 2009. The researchers listed erosion as one of the factors likely responsible for the habitat loss, especially on the northern boundary of the park formed by the Brahmaputra River.
“From this, it is clear that, year by year the rhinos are increasing because of the presence of suitable habitat and management effort,” the authors wrote in the paper. “But simultaneously, the suitable area available for each rhino is decreasing in Kaziranga. There are also other herbivores such as wild buffalo and swamp deer which can give competition to rhino for food. The park maybe reaching carrying capacity for rhinos.”
Baruah, however, said there was a “steady increase” in the rhino population, with room for more. “It is not overpacked,” he said.
Flagging concerns that a protected area like the KTR, is being managed without a proper Tiger Conservation Plan (TCP), the NTCA has also asked the Assam government to take necessary steps for the preparation of a TCP for the park’s core, buffer and corridor areas, and for designating an eco-sensitive zone around the KNP and KTR.
Officials of the Assam forest department, however, said a TCP had been submitted but the NTCA had sought certain clarifications, which were being processed.
The NTCA has sought a TCP “at the earliest” for the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve as mandated under Section 38V of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, to continue funding assistance under the ministry’s Project Tiger scheme.
“Keeping in view the long-term conservation of mega herbivores like Indian rhinoceros, Indian elephant and mega carnivores such as the tiger, the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve boundary may be rationalised by including areas of Karbi-Anglong adjoining Kaziranga,” the report said.
Choudhury described the mining-riddled hills slopes as “an ugly scar.”
“Apart from the physical disfigurement of Karbi Anglong hills, another worrying development is abandoning of these areas by most of the wildlife,” he said. “A decade ago, it was common to hear calls of barking deer and Hoolock gibbon near the foothills and now it has become very rare. Similarly, gaur, Indian elephants, Indian rhinos and tigers and many other wild animals have abandoned the area.”