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Kaziranga National Park: History, Landscape and Conservation Practices

In an atmosphere marked by a growing confrontation, the Assam Forest Department and a dominant section of the Assamese nationalists and conservationists argue that the Kaziranga National Park is facing imminent danger from its neighbouring habitats. The poor farmers, fishermen, and petty traders in the neighbourhood refuse to give up their land and be rehabilitated. This article journeys briefly into some of the issues to help understand the complex contest over both conservation practices and ownership of a prized space.


Kaziranga National Park: History, Landscape and Conservation Practices

Arupjyoti Saikia

an alarming rate. Mostly less prone to floods, these future tea gardens were primary habitats of multiple species of herbivores as well as carnivores. Tea planters’ memoirs would later on describe in detail the threats from wild animals. Tea gardens manoeuvred some fundamental redrawing of the landscape architecture. The rapid removal of tall or canopy trees and grasses,

In an atmosphere marked by a growing confrontation, the Assam Forest Department and a dominant section of the Assamese nationalists and conservationists argue that the Kaziranga National Park is facing imminent danger from its neighbouring habitats. The poor farmers, fishermen, and petty traders in the neighbourhood refuse to give up their land and be rehabilitated. This article journeys briefly into some of the issues to help understand the complex contest over both conservation practices and ownership of a prized space.

Arupjyoti Saikia (arupjyotisaikia@gmail. com) is at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.

he idea of the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) originated in the early decades of the 20th century at a time when three rhino asylums were proposed along the river Brahmaputra. Like other game reserves in British India and elsewhere, the KNP was born amidst a general cry for lost species such as lions, bisons and rhinos and also the imperial rulers’ claim for privileging hunting practices.

The makers of Kaziranga, being essentially both foresters and revenue officials, paid little attention to the complex landscape of the region. That its landscape is formed by the complex of sprawling floodplain grasslands, numerous water bodies and woodlands that provide an ideal mix of habitats for a variety of flora and fauna was hardly an attraction for the planners. Neither could one blame them. Nineteenth century imperial studies of the region largely catered to the interest of the revenue and mineral collectors, and the less curious travellers. Travelogues originating across the southern foothills of the Himalayas did not say much about the region’s ecology. Unlike the Ganga, the Brahmaputra river system was still a mystery for the imperial surveyors.

Despite these complexities, a simple choice was made by transforming a long strip of land – mostly covered with savannah grasses and swamps, that could be easily accessed from the centres of European tea plantations – into a game reserve.

Fragmenting Landscape

The birth of Kaziranga was preceded by substantial landscape fragmentation in the valley for several decades. One of the key factors responsible for this was the great push for tea plantations since the middle of the 19th century. A lucrative tea industry reclaimed land (mostly forested tracts) at

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and their quick replacement by long and uniform patches of green was an immediate threat to micro-habitats.

Traditional elephant corridors were broken up, habitats of other large mammals were pushed back and smaller varieties were made to disappear. Elephant habitats were pushed to the eastern and southern frontiers of the valley, which were yet to be touched by the adventure of modern capital.

If this was happening in the eastern part of the valley, the western part went through another kind of landscape transformation, which intensified further in the 20th century. Within a short span of time, the floodplains came under rapid agrarian transformation, and were reclaimed for jute production, meant for British-owned jute industries in Bengal. When peasants, mostly migrants from neighbouring East Bengal, reclaimed the floodplains of the Brahmaputra, another critical space came under intense pressure. The riverine areas and sand bars (char as known in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin) were crucial habitats for multiple species and were responsible for creating a complex ecosystem.

This rapid land reclamation spanning a century brought about massive fragmentation for the first time in the valley. Habitats shrunk, migration of animals was disrupted and species were confined to limited ranges of the landscape.

The Kaziranga ecosystem is a complex arrangement of wetland, grassland and woodland. These key components continue to be largely affected by annual floods and also by the ever-increasing changes in the course of the Brahmaputra river. An effective management of the knp is essentially based on an understanding of this very dynamic ecosystem. ve

spite the much-neglected issue of ecological changes, the only problem that has drawn the attention of Assamese nationalists and

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conservationists is poaching of the onehorned rhino. Over the decades, under combined pressure from these groups, the state has ensured sufficient protection to the park. Poaching has been controlled to a large extent despite continuous pressure from international networks to gain access to the resources of the park.

While big species are being protected, apprehensions have been raised about the general decline in the ecosystem in the park. Wildlife scientists have privately continued to express their uneasiness with the bureaucratic high-handedness associated with getting permission for research inside the park. Many privately agreed that their research permission would be determined not purely on the basis of their academic credentials. The lack of long-term research has resulted in gaps in our understanding of not only the ecology of the landscape, but also of the be

but also of the behaviour of most species. Flooding patterns and wetlands are two crucial parameters of habitats in Kaziranga and a regular monitoring of habitats is clearly missing from the present conservation discourse.

An increasing population of mega herbivores, viz, elephant and buffalo, and its possible impact on the management of the park is yet to be understood. Smaller species like rodents, turtles, raptors are yet to find their place in the management discourse. A longterm investigation into an existing landscape intervention by way of controlled burning of grasslands and its impact on the habitat of herbivores, the rhino in particular, is an urgent priority. The


“regional environmen-“regional environmen-
talism” is strikingly silent on these issues.

The management of the park is essentially based on a set of prescriptions which ignore both the landscape and the ecological history of the region. The basic management framework is based on an understanding of closed geography which refuses to look beyond the existing park boundaries.

The public discourse, directed by the sense and sensibilities of the Assamese nationalists, has over the years pushed the KNP into a space whose management is beyond public criticism. The desire to preserve the KNP, well pronounced in the Assamese public life, is not essentially driven by a sense of recovery of a natural space, but more specifically due to its embodied cultural value. This cultural value is further reinforced by the fact that unlike

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in the 19th century, the Brahmaputra Valley has lost its importance as an undisturbed natural space. It is because of both these reasons that the protection of the prized species became an important agenda in the Assamese public imagination.

An increasing flow of tourists to the park has augmented its economic value, thus benefiting large numbers of small traders and peasant families, while also attracting corporate capital. Such rapid changes in the political economy of the park have spurred new management practices, which refuse to acknowledge the presence of a rural landscape surrounding it.

An Acrimonious Debate

In the last couple of years, acrimonious debates have taken place in the public domain about the scope of the Forest Rights Act (FRA 2006) and its implementation in the neighbourhood of the KNP.

Who are the claimants under the FRA? When the KNP was made into a stateowned space, very little was done to investigate and understand the nature of local practices with regard to exploitation of natural resources. Local ideas about ecology, land and water use patterns, grazing practices were seldom recognised. The imperial governments, while creating game reserves, denied rights to the local people; and this became the standard practice for successive governments too.

Over the years, the park required further territorial expansion. Both science and bureaucratic convenience played their own part in making choices in this. However, in making these choices, the park management made its disapproval of the neighbourhood well known. Two categories of populations are living in the neighbourhood, which are now part of the proposed extension of the knp. First, those whose land tenures were recognised previously, and, second, those who had been living on government owned forested landscape. This might consist of swamps, savannah grasslands, or low-lying floodplains.

As the land acquisition for the extension began, in most cases, landholders, whose record of rights was entered, refused to cede their land. Several factors were responsible for this. Public opinion was increasingly concerned about the post-rehabilitation traumas – nobody wanted to leave a prized

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habitat, and relative compensation packages were seen as resulting in a worsening of their present living conditions. For those whose tenure rights were never recognised, displacement meant no compensation. This new threat came when they had already been demanding tenure rights. Organised villagers demanded that their rights be first secured before the reclamation process began. In lamenting the loss of their access from the commons, they highlighted the increasing private and profit-making activities like stone quarrying or tendering of the water bodies to private players.

The possible implementation of the FRA came as a major relief to some sections of the people but only temporarily. Opposition to the FRA became evident from various quarters. Sections of conservationist forums unleashed scathing attacks on the scope of the FRA. That human habitation is a serious threat to the park has been continuously articulated in the public domain. There is a heightened sense of increased poaching inside the park by the peasants living in the neighbourhood.

The government’s dilemma has emerged out of a range of complexities. First, the contemporary classification of land in the Brahmaputra Valley had never recovered from the colonial arithmetic, resulting in the presence of various obscure categories. Second, large stretches of “Unclassed State Forests”, an important constituent of government forestland, remained over the years, a fluid category and lost its importance. While the forest department began to disown and abdicate their management, the revenue department foresaw hardly any possibility of converting them into an immediate gain.

A conservation discourse which identifies people as a powerful enemy of nature is bound to have unwelcome repercussions. Without taking the neighbourhood social milieu into account, conservation would have a long way to go before it can achieve its goal. That the rural non-industrial world in Assam has created mechanisms to ensure its means of livelihood, i e, ecological landscape, needs to be recognised. This will not only ensure adequate community participation but will also integrate local ecological understanding with macro-conservation science, and hopefully hold a better future for the KNP and other protected areas of the Valley.

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