A few days ago, a mother rhino with her calf on her back swam towards a country boat in Assam's Kaziranga National Park as if asking the forest guards in the vessel to rescue the baby animal from the floodwaters. Perhaps the mother knew that this was the only way they both had a shot at survival.

The guards picked up the calf and started out for Kohora forest camp as the mother swam away.

This moving image of a mother rhino battling the ravages of nature together with humans best reflects the situation today in the park – a world heritage site now 80% under water that hosts two-thirds of the world's greater one-horned rhinoceros, as well as tigers, elephants, wild buffalo and deer.

At least 80% of Kaziranga National Park is submerged. (Photo courtesy: Wildlife Trust of India.)
At least 80% of Kaziranga National Park is submerged. (Photo courtesy: Wildlife Trust of India.)

Annual floods

Kaziranga is no stranger to flooding. This happens every year. What changes is its severity.

The most devastating flood in recent memory was in 1998. Its most enduring image was the sight of rhinos, wild buffalos, deer, elephants and four forest guards huddled together waiting to be rescued at a highland in Bagori range amidst a sea of water.

This year, the flooding seems worse.

The sanctuary is a massive sheet of water with some green patches where a few taller trees can be seen. Only the thatched roofs of the houses on its fringes are visible.

So far, 129 forest camps have been inundated and 20 have been shifted. All land communication has snapped and the only mode of transport is country boats. The highway, which cuts through the park, has been submerged in seven different places.

On the highway, herds of elephants can be seen making their way into the nearby hills, rhinos roam the roads and hundreds of deer are caught in the headlights as one drives through.

This year has seen the worst flooding, says Uttam Saikia, a freelance photojournalist and honorary wildlife warden at the park, who has grown up in Kaziranga. On Wednesday, he filmed a tiger swimming across Ratan Chapori. Trapped with the water all around, the tiger took refuge on a tree.

This tiger finally took refuge on a tree in Kaziranga. (Photo credit: Uttam Saikia).
This tiger finally took refuge on a tree in Kaziranga. (Photo credit: Uttam Saikia).

Wildlife casualties

During the annual monsoon, when the embankments of the surging Brahmaputra river nearby give way, and water rushes into the park, animals start fleeing south across the highway into the hills of Karbi Anglong.

They are often run over while crossing the highway, and are at risk of being poached once they reach the hills.

This year, 58 hog deer have already been killed on the highway. Many more will not be able to make it to safe ground and will die. However, nine rhino calves have been rescued.

Team effort

Each time Kaziranga is submerged, hundreds of people go to the edges of the park to ensure that the animals are protected from drowning, accidents and wildlife crime. Everybody joins in.

Several volunteers from NGOs have been working overtime to slow down vehicles using the 68 km stretch of the highway that cuts through the wildlife zone. It is these vehicles that often run over animals fleeing the flood.

I recall spending nights on the highway slowing down vehicles that are issued time cards – permits that record their in and out time to ensure they maintain a slow speed on the vulnerable stretch.

Many other organisations are engaged in rescuing animals.

But the forest guards are the real heroes. The park suffers from a staff shortage so it is a challenge to cover the entire park. In fact, it is virtually impossible to do so. But with meagre rations and complex logistics, they work round the clock. While some work from boats others stay marooned in islands deep inside the park just to ensure that the animals are safe.

The only mode of transport in the park now is country boats. (Photo courtesy: Wildlife Trust of India.)
The only mode of transport in the park now is country boats. (Photo courtesy: Wildlife Trust of India.)

The guards battle it out for as long as it takes often leaving their families to fend for themselves in the same floods, which kill people, displace millions, and destroy homes and crops every year in Assam.

Silver lining

But the good news is that the water is receding. On Thursday, there was sunshine and the water levels fell by almost two feet.

The flood is actually good for Kaziranga. The grasslands and wetlands of the park are maintained only by the annual flooding, and is critical to sustaining the ecosystem. Biologists say that though the floods kill animals, what the ecosystem receives in return is also precious for wildlife and the environment.

The community involvement in the rescue mission is also a huge fillip in wildlife awareness. Kaziranga has been one of the best wildlife conservation models that India has, and in times like this it proves itself even more.