The famous grasslands of Kaziranga are not a self-maintaining system. This fact came as a shock to me. I’d thought of it as a nature preserve, where the balance is naturally maintained. I should have been aware of this, since the rhino-springback, for which it is famous, is a success story more than a century in the making. Nor can it be entirely natural, since it lies on the banks of the Brahmaputra.
On one of our drives through the park we reached the banks of the Brahmaputra. A shallow slope led down to the deceptively low waters. In recent decades the park has lost almost 14% of its area to erosion from the annual flooding of the river. Flood plains have their own ecology, which is often lost when rivers are dammed, or other “flood control” meaures are taken. However, the flooding of the Brahmaputra is a danger to the animals in the park.
We saw an ameliorative measure being taken. A few massive earth movers and trucks were going back and forth between the banks of a stream and a spot inside the woods. When we passed it, we saw an enormous earthen plateau being built up artificially. We asked our jeep driver what this was for. “Refuge area for animals,” he replied. With more questions we could tease out a detailed answer from him: the forest department was constructing an immense high ground where the animals could retreat in case of flooding. This was the first major piece of ongoing engineering we noticed inside the park.
Another thread was not at all obvious. I saw silk cotton trees with fruits and seed pods hanging on them. Many had fallen off the tree and burst open (see photo above). The winds were lifting the silk parachutes off the ground and wafting it about. It took many conversations for me to realize that this was a problem. Apparently, give the large areas of grassland, the seeds often fall on fertile ground. As a result, there is a spurt in the growth of these trees, leading to a shrinking of grasslands.
The solution that the forest department has adopted is to identify patches where the trees have taken hold, clear the larger trees and set a small controlled fire to kill the shoots. We saw little circles of blackened stumps rather often in a relatively small area. It would have left us mystified if we hadn’t had that conversation.
Many years ago I’d read a short story about a bridge being built on Jupiter by tele-operated robots, and disaster after disaster being averted by some quick action. Kaziranga reminded me of that. It has been one of the successes of wildlife conservation in India: with the rhino, elephant, numerous birds, several species of deer, and tigers being brought back from the edge of local extinction. That story ended badly, with several problems striking together. One hopes that Kaziranga can work things out better.