Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation staff rescued rhinos, elephants, hog deer and even a tiger from the floods in the Kaziranga National Park.
Geetanjali Krishna reports.
During this year's unprecedented floods that threatened lives and livelihoods in Assam, one rescue operation caught everyone's imagination.
A baby was stranded in a couple of feet of fast-moving water. Bystanders watched in horror as the water began to rise. Rescue came in the form of two boats that had to be tethered to one another.
It took several men to lift the baby, put it on one boat and maintain balance by quickly getting on the other boat.
The 'baby' in question was a rhino calf rescued by the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation at the Kaziranga National Park.
The first rescue and rehabilitation centre near a protected area in India, CWRC has been quietly attending to a wide range of wildlife emergencies resulting from natural or anthropogenic causes since 2002.
However, this year's floods have cast a spotlight on their work as they have rescued not only rhinos, but also elephants, hog deer and even a tiger from the floods in the park.
The plight of Kaziranga's endangered denizens highlights a basic problem with wildlife conservation in the area -- the loss of natural animal corridors to human activities, which, in this case, has restricted animals to a mere 430 square kilometres of core forest, unable to escape the rising waters of the Brahmaputra.
With large parts of Kaziranga under water, entire populations of endangered species that live there have been threatened and displaced.
Elephant and rhino calves have been separated from their mothers and many have been orphaned.
Hog deer have been hit by cars while attempting to reach higher ground by crossing the national highway.
Wildlife experts stress that the park is well adapted to natural flooding. "In fact, annual floods help maintain the marshiness of the soil and are integral to the wellbeing of the grassland habitat of the one-horned rhino," says Vivek Menon of the Wildlife Trust of India.
Problems arise, as they did this year, when excess water is suddenly released from barrages and dams upstream and water levels rise so quickly that animals get little time to seek higher ground.
"This problem is exacerbated by the fact that their corridors to the hills have been blocked by a couple of villages and a national highway," Menon says.
Consequently, most of the animals that CWRC has rescued this year have been found in or near villages.
However, owning largely to its efforts in training and sensitising locals, this joint project of the International Fund for Animal Welfare-Wildlife Trust of India and the Assam government has noticed a change in villagers' attitudes towards animals, especially those affected by the floods.
"Till some time back, if a deer strayed into a village, people would have no compunction about killing and eating it," says Menon. This has changed.
In fact, this year most of the animals CWRC has rescued were first noticed by villagers who alerted the centre.
"Now we are renewing our training and awareness campaigns in the villages around the forest," he says.
It is important to educate locals about when an animal really needs rescuing, and when it is best left alone. "We also teach them basic first aid and how to respond when they find an injured animal," says Menon.
Community participation has, in fact, been the unexpected silver lining in the clouds of this year's floods.
"People have been moved by the sight of so many dead and distressed animals, especially rhinos," says Menon. "Perhaps that is why this year's response from the community has been truly inspirational."
Local schoolchildren enthusiastically participated in training programmes on wildlife rescue. Volunteers helped the overworked staff at the centre however they could, working round the clock to rescue and tend to the animals.
At the centre, many of the rescued animals, especially the young ones, were shocked and traumatised, needing to be hand-fed, some being little enough to need feeding bottles.
Towards July end, when the number of rescued animals swelled, the centre needed funds urgently to expand their facilities. At that time, Menon and his cohorts found that help was close at hand.
"I was touched to see that local villagers contributed whatever they could, sometimes as little as Rs 5, through which we managed to raise over Rs 60,000," he says.
Students of a local school donated the money that would have been spent on their midday meal to buy milk powder for the baby animals at CWRC.
"Stories like these give us all great hope," he says. For it is when locals feel that they are stakeholders in the well-being of the jungle that wildlife conservation becomes truly meaningful.
CWRC's task at hand is to now slowly reintegrate the rescued animals, especially the young ones, into the wild.
Hopefully, in doing so, it is not only creating replicable protocols for the rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals, but also giving a voice to these mute victims of disasters, natural or man-made.
For more information, visit www.wti.org.in or follow them on Facebook.