In a major boost to tiger conservation in North East India, and Assam in particular, Orang National Park was declared a tiger reserve last month, making it the fourth of its kind in the state and 49th in the country. Wildlife conservationists – who have long been demanding this in order to protect the big cat in Orang and in the forest corridor that connects it to the better-known Kaziranga reserve – hailed the decision.
Located on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, Orang is often called the "mini Kaziranga", due to a similar landscape and rich population of the one-horned rhino. Its tiger population – estimated at 24 – is equally healthy. Experts say the big cat often swims from one riverine island on the Brahmaputra to another and gets to Kaziranga on the southern bank.
“The big advantage of this decision [of Orang being declared a tiger reserve] is that the Kaziranga-Orang riverine landscape will now be protected,” said Feroz Ahmed, head of the Tiger Conservation Division in Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based NGO. He added that the 1,100 square kilometre area from the east of Kaziranga to the west of Orang is now the single largest protected area with a tiger habitation in Assam.
Protecting the area that often turns into a wetland has other big benefits – it stores water during the dry non-monsoon months, and releases it slowly for use downstream, at a time when the water flow in the Brahmaputra is otherwise low.
Ahmed had first studied Orang in 1996-'97, and has been monitoring its tiger population since 2007.
“The connection between the two national parks is through river islands and grasslands,” he added. "Further, this continuous landscape also includes Burachapori and Loakhowa wildlife sanctuaries which are also tiger habitats. We had therefore proposed that Orang be given the status of a tiger reserve way back in 2008. I am glad it has finally happened."
In 2015, the National Tiger Conservation Authority gave its nod to declaring 492.46 sq-km of Orang as a tiger reserve. Of this, 79.28 sq-km is the core area and the rest the buffer of the reserve. The state board for wildlife, headed by Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, had given its approval a year earlier, in 2014.
Now, with a state government notification on February 24, what is officially called the Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park has been declared a tiger reserve. From being declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1985, to a national park in 1999, to this final notification, Orang has come a long way. It now enjoys equal status with the Kaziranga, Nameri and Manas tiger reserves.
Sushil Kumar Daila, conservator of forests, Mangaldoi wildlife division, said: “This is a big boost for the morale of our staff. There will be better monitoring of the tiger population and its prey species, thereby helping in the long-term conservation.”
According to Daila, 24 tigers including four cubs were found in Orang in a 2013 census, using camera traps. Bhupen Talukdar of the forest department, who has worked as range officer in Orang between 1987 and 1992, however said the numbers keep shifting.
“It’s mainly because of the tigers’ movement along the Kaziranga-Orang corridor. But the concentration is high, given Orang is the smallest national park in Assam, with a size of just about 79 sq km,” said Talukdar, who has also worked in Kaziranga and Pobitora.
Given that it is such a small national park (Manas occupies 950 sq-km, Kaziranga 430 sq-km, and Nameri, 200 sq-km), Orang is rich in biodiversity. Not only does it have a viable population of tigers and rhinos, but also of elephants, barking deer, Sambar and migratory birds. Ahmed said that he found three new species of frogs while doing research in Orang.
“They were the Orang Sticky Frog, the Assamese Balloon Frog, and the Minervarya chilapata,” he said. "I also spotted a pygmy hog, after which it was re-introduced in the park."
People used to live in the Orang area over 100 years ago. So there are 26 man-made ponds in the area. Today they serve the animals as watering holes, especially useful in the winter months when water flow in the Brahmaputra is at its lowest.
Explaining Orang’s geography, Talukdar said, “Almost half the park comprises low-lying areas, and there are two rivers [Belsiri and Dhansiri] that border the park and join the Brahmaputra.” During the monsoon, the whole area becomes part of the Brahmaputra floodplain with streams overlapping one another.
The tiger reserve also has a lot of high grassland. “Although it is not studied in depth, grassland holds more carbon than forest, so Orang’s carbon sequestrations value is also high,” Ahmed said. "Grassland is an annual crop, unlike trees, and is more productive." The enhanced protection that Orang is expected to receive with its new status will thus help absorb more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
The big question remains – will the new status help foresters to deter poachers more effectively? Poaching – especially of the highly endangered one-horned rhino – is the biggest threat in Kaziranga and Orang. The black market price of rhino horn can be as high as $300,000 per horn in China and some other parts of South East Asia, primarily because of its mythical medicinal properties, reputed to cure everything from hangovers to impotence. Even the global fame of Kaziranga has not been able to keep poachers away. The same black market also leads to poaching of tigers.
Just days after it was declared a tiger reserve, officials at Orang stumbled upon an M16 rifle during a patrol, confirming suspicions that poachers are now using more sophisticated weapons. This particular weapon, Daila said, most probably belonged to poachers who had entered the reserve on February 5 and had got into a gun battle with officials. Two poachers were killed, three escaped. There was a similar incident in Kaziranga later in February.
“When it comes to wildlife conservation (in the North East), protecting rhinos from the hands of poachers is a challenge. They are adopting new means, more sophisticated weapons,” said a forest department official who did not wish to be named. Three rhinos have been killed in Kaziranga just between the start of the year and February 10; in 2015, 17 rhinos were killed.
When it comes to tiger conservation, experts say the bigger challenge is depleting prey base. “In the hill areas especially, the tribal population kill the prey species of the tiger, thereby affecting the tiger," Ahmed said. "There are vast forest areas in hilly areas like Karbi Anglong and the North Cachar Hills which the government should declare protected in order to conserve various animal species.”
Local residents often have a different story to tell – of tigers killing their cattle, of elephants trampling their farms and wrecking their crops. Just a few weeks back, the only tiger so far spotted in Nagaland was killed by locals when it strayed near a village.
Experts say the conflict cannot be resolved unless wild animals have sufficient protected space, so that they do not have a reason to get too close to human habitations. The new status of Orang should help that process.
This article was first published on The Third Pole.