Lights, camera, conservation - by Dia Mirza
Nature lover and founder-member of WTI Club Nature, actor Dia Mirza is moved by how a few special people and organisations are making a huge difference in the wildlife reserve at Kaziranga
“The Sky is full with the sun and stars and the World with varied Life. And amongst all that, little ‘I’, have found my place. The sheer wonder of this makes me break out in song!” — Rabindranath Tagore (Akash Bhora Surjo Tara)
The Kaziranga National Park World Heritage Site is one of the most dynamic and fascinating ecological strongholds of India. On a recent visit organised by the Wild Life Trust of India, I had the opportunity to witness firsthand the incredible work being done by the Wildlife Trust of India, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Elephant Family and the Assam Forest Department in rescue and rehabilitation, re-wilding rescued animals, protecting flora and fauna and conserving this rich eco-system. It is important to understand the unique environment that Kaziranga National Park exists amidst to appreciate the work being done by these organisations.
Flanked by the Brahmaputra river in the north and the Karbi Anglong hills in the south, Kaziranga lies in the river’s flood plain and experiences annual flooding during the monsoons and several unseasonal torrential rains that cause large-scale temporary displacement of animals. This natural annual flooding is as vital to the ecosystem ( it nourishes the grasslands and the tropical forest and regenerates the eco-system) as it is damaging. Many animals are stranded in the rising water levels due to their inability to access high ground on time. They cannot reach high ground on time because of increased encroachment by human settlements, mining, tea plantations, and the speeding highways. Some of these highways block the pathways of the one-horned rhinoceros, and Kaziranga is home to the world’s largest population of these. Besides the annual flooding, the park’s elephants, rhinos, tigers and over 230 species of other fauna face a regular threat from poachers.
I was fascinated by the experience that this diverse ecosystem offers and am filled with immense wonder at how incredible nature is. There are so many management systems in the wild that convey profound life lessons — the flora that regenerates with such magnificence year after year, with absolutely no evidence of how millions of bushes, plants, and branches were submerged in the destructive flooding waters. The fauna always know when they have to start moving towards higher ground as the monsoons approach; they adapt to extraordinary conditions and manage to survive despite the many natural challenges they face. It is also apparent that while animals can adapt their sociology to challenges that are natural, it is the man-made hurdles that cripple and often kill them.
Animals don’t understand boundaries, they cant read road signs, they can’t smell the danger of a lurking AK-47, they don’t know that homes and plantations are not to be trampled on, they cant tell if cattle is wild or owned by someone. This ‘ignorance’ leads to damage, loss of life and a struggle of livelihood between humans and animals.
This is why I admire what Wildlife Trust of India, International Fund for Animal Welfare, The Elephant Family and the Assam Forest Department are doing in Kaziranga. They are working painstakingly to create a harmonious coexistence between the wild and the human worlds. This service to nature that they perform can be seen in the work being done to create elephant corridors (connecting forests that have been divided by human settlements), and resettling the villagers who inhabited these areas with homes and sustainable livelihoods. And then there is the work being done at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) in Kaziranga. The centre is a haven where wildlife is rescued, hand-raised, acclimatised and finally released back into the wild. Established in 2002, CWRC has till date managed to handle over 5,000 birds and animals that have gone back to the wild, minimising the risk of these displaced animals ending up in confinement and zoos.
I was one of the fortunate few that had the rare privilege to get access to areas of the Centre that are otherwise strictly off limits. This, of course, was only possible because I assured Vivek Menon, CEO, Wildlife Trust of India, that I would follow every instruction, starting with washing hands, soaking my shoes in potassium permanganate, and paying close attention to everything the caretakers asked me to do. This opportunity was deeply enriching, to say the very least. As a nature lover, nothing can be more compelling that witnessing first-hand the love and care that goes into helping these animals.
The joy I experienced in feeding elephant calves with milk from bottles, being so close to them, is indescribable. The rhino that nuzzled me as I sat on the ground, waiting for her to make her way towards me, the thought of her struggle and eventual rescue that led her here to safety and the knowledge that her journey from here would lead her back home was heartening. As I walked by, these spacious enclosures that had ensured the survival of so many inhabitants breathed gentle life into my veins. And if I could have sung with joy, I would have.
This forest, much like many others in India, is assailed by the growing human population, the shrinking areas reserved for the wild, and the rise in human wants. What we do not realise as human beings is that in our quest to scale up our economic progress, industrialise, mine and cut down our forests, we are killing our richest natural resources. That much of this ‘growth’ will be short-lived. Conserving flora and fauna is critical for the survival of the human species. I don’t mean to over-simplify, but the fact is that these are the very eco-systems that feed our rivers. Rivers form the crux of the earth’s sustenance. So imagine an India with sprawling urbanised colonies but no water. What will we eat? How will we survive?
I am not suggesting that all urban roads lead to hell, but what I do believe is that it is critical to strike a balance. We need to protect and connect with our wild so that nature can repair itself and restore the quality of our lives, which we have so unthinkingly destroyed.
It is efforts like those at Kaziranga that help us strike that crucial balance. Kaziranga will always invigorate my spirit and strengthen my resolve to continue finding ways to convey how important it is that we urban dwellers recognise the importance of the relationship between man and nature. I believe that I am a better human being because of these experiences and wish that all of us could benefit from such exposure. Our world is enriched by the work of some very special people, who toil relentlessly, in places and corners of this world that are far away from our homes, with a valour, a passion and a commitment that makes a difference.