Guwahati: The rhino is about 30 feet from the bathroom, settled in a spot by the pond in Nripen Nath’s backyard. As it chews on his gourd vine, grunting occasionally, the 47-year-old and his two daughters watch silently. “I am not scared,” says Nath, who works as a tour guide, “I love animals.”
According to a report in Indian Express, the same cannot be said for his aged parents, who, too, have been sharing this ‘Assam-type’ cottage on the fringes of the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary with the endangered animal for over a week now as it takes refuge from the floods.
“Chase it away, there are kids in this house’,” Nath recalls his father saying, when the rhino ambled in last Friday. But the animal has shown no signs of budging, except to forage for grass in the backyard, and on one occasion, destroy his bamboo shed.
Rhinos straying out of Pobitora — located in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra river in the Morigaon district, and surrounded by at least 27 villages — is not new, especially during the annual floods when food becomes scant inside sanctuary. However, this year’s unusually prolonged deluge in Assam — which has taken 97 lives and affected nearly 40 lakh people — has resulted in a serious shortage of food forcing the animals to move out of the sanctuary for such long stretches for the first time.
“It is a very serious problem,” says MK Yadava, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam, “For the first time, we have had to provide them with grass and fodder from outside.”
As of Saturday, ninety per cent of the sanctuary remains submerged. “While floods are a natural occurrence, the situation is grave this year and the animals are stressed — all the grass is submerged,” says Jitendra Kumar, DFO, Guwahati Wildlife Division.
In July alone, multiple waves of floods have submerged the tiny wildlife sanctuary, giving its animals little time to adjust. “In 20 days, there have been three waves,” says Dr Bibhab Talukdar, rhino expert and secretary general of wildlife NGO Aaranyak. “Usually floods happen in cycles from June until mid-September, waters recede for about two-three weeks before another wave hits the sanctuary. But this time, while one wave has barely receded, another wave hits. This is a rare case.”
On Friday, two rhinos visited the sanctuary’s range office in search of food. Since then, Mukul Tamuly, Range Officer, Pobitora, has left the gates of his office open, so the rhinos can come feed themselves “as they please.” “We have also cut stacks of grass and left it out in the open for them,” he says.
In Nath’s house too, the rhino is getting a free range. “I have convinced my parents since I know a thing or two about animals,” says Nath. “They won’t attack for no reason. But our neighbours are scared, ringing up the forest department at the slightest movement.”
Currently, five rhinos are taking refuge in three homes in Rajamayong village. “Many others come and go,” says Tamuly, who is in constant touch with the families, in case they need help. “We are patrolling, creating awareness among people so they don’t chase it away. Any damages in their homes, we will compensate for.”