Protests and pandemic impoverish Assam’s Kaziranga National Park

The rhino sanctuary and tiger reserve is one of India’s top wildlife destinations, but unrest since 2018 has been deterring tourists
<p>Tourists riding on an elephant take photos of rhinos in Kaziranga in Nov 2019 [image by: Sadiq Naqvi]</p>

Tourists riding on an elephant take photos of rhinos in Kaziranga in Nov 2019 [image by: Sadiq Naqvi]

Ordinarily, the last few days of May and the first of June are a window of leisure time for the locals of Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Before the onset of the monsoon season, one of India’s most popular wildlife destinations shuts to tourists. For the past decade Montu Gogoi, a safari jeep driver, has used this time to visit the city of Guwahati or Shillong. But 2020 has been devastating for him.

In Kaziranga National Park (KNP), a rhino sanctuary and tiger reserve in central Assam, local communities have been hit by a double whammy: protests against India’s new citizenship law and the Covid-19 pandemic. This has bankrupted thousands of people who depend on tourists flocking to the park every year to catch a glimpse of the region’s famous wildlife.

map of Kaziranga National Park, including Brahmaputra River

The village of Kohara, in the centre of the park, is almost deserted. “In December it was CAB [locals still refer to the law as the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill although after its passage in Parliament it is now the Citizenship (Amendment) Act], and in March when things started looking up, coronavirus struck,” Gogoi said. Tourism was affected by country-wide protests against a contentious law that promises Indian citizenship to asylum seekers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, unless they are Muslims.

See: Poaching spikes amid lockdown in South Asia

The lockdown, which started in March, decimated any remaining hopes of good business in the tourist season, which lasts from November to May – when the mighty Brahmaputra River and its tributaries swell, flooding much of KNP’s 884 square kilometres.

Rhinos and other animals taking refuge on an artificial highland in Kaziranga National Park during floods in July 2019 [image by: Sadiq Naqvi]
Rhinos and other animals taking refuge on an artificial highland in Kaziranga during floods in July 2019 [image by: Sadiq Naqvi]
The national park is sandwiched between the Brahmaputra River and verdant hills. The grasslands and forests are home to a number of threatened species, including tigers, elephants and water buffalo. But it is KNP’s success in protecting the Indian one-horned rhinoceros that makes it a big draw among domestic and foreign tourists. There are now over 2,400 one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga – almost 70% of the remaining wild population.

According to Assam’s Department of Tourism, while the number of domestic tourists grew to six million in 2018-19, up from 4.86 million in 2014-15, the number of foreign tourists more than doubled in the same period, with over 41,200 foreigners visiting Assam in 2018-19. “Around 90% of the foreign tourists visiting the state visit Kaziranga National Park,” said Bidyarnav Bora, deputy director of tourism.

Lockdown in Kaziranga

P Sivakumar, director of KNP, said the park lost INR 12 million (about USD 159,000) in revenue for April and May. “For two years we have also been losing revenue due to Citizenship Act protests in the state,” he said. The park generated INR 57 million (USD 753,000) through entry fees and other visitor charges in 2017-18, which fell to INR 48 million (USD 634,000) in 2018-19 and 2019-2020. The current year looks even more dire. “We have already lost 30% revenue this year,” Sivakumar said.

According to estimates from Assam’s tourism department, 200,000 people rely directly on tourism for a living in the state and have been affected by the pandemic. A further 500,000 people rely indirectly on tourism

Checkpoint at an animal crossing corridor in Kaziranga [image by: Sadiq Naqvi]
Checkpoint at an animal crossing corridor in Kaziranga [image by: Sadiq Naqvi]
KNP closed on March 17, but its first brush with the coronavirus happened earlier in the month. On March 6 news broke that a 76-year-old American had tested positive in Bhutan, after he and his partner had travelled on holiday to India.

The couple had stopped in Kaziranga during a week-long cruise on the Brahmaputra River. In KNP, 16 people including mahouts (elephant keepers and trainers), gardeners and a jeep driver came into contact with them. They were assessed for Covid-19 symptoms and thermally screened, but none of them was tested.

Days later, the park shut to prevent the spread of the virus. The number of cases in Assam, which only had its first confirmed case on March 31, had grown to 6,646 by June 26.

“Life has been a big zero since lockdown,” Gogoi said, explaining that he has no work. “I have just earned enough to repair my vehicle.”

Tourism is his only source of income. “I will have to learn another skill if I am to change my profession,” he said, worried about his family’s future. “We earn for six months during the [tourist] season and spend that money through the year.”

The state tourism department estimates that around 440 safari jeep owners in Kaziranga have lost INR 46 million (USD 609,000) this tourist season.

Ripple effects

In Kohora’s small market, local businessmen are equally distressed as the pandemic has disrupted even hyper-local supply chains.

“There is no work. I opened my shop on June 10. But I am only able to sell some tea,” said Fatik Das, whose peras (a sweet made from condensed milk) are usually much sought-after. “The daily supply of 30-35 litres of milk, which I need to make the peras, has stopped since lockdown. Even if there was milk supply, who would buy my sweets?”

man on elephant at elephant safari stand in Kohara [image by: Sadiq Naqvi]
An elephant safari stand in Kohora [image by: Sadiq Naqvi]
Across the road from Das’s shop is Kaziranga Holidays, a hotel built in 2017.

Munna Sarma, its owner, had planned to build another floor. Instead, he is struggling to pay his 10 employees. When the lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24, Sarma’s lodge was fully booked for April and May.

“I stopped paying my employees this month. I have no money. I am only helping them with rations,” said Sarma.

Sarma has benefitted from the burgeoning tourism sector. As well as the lodge, he owns two safari jeeps. This year he also brought in 13 elephants to use for safaris in KNP.

To rent an elephant for the season costs him INR 45,000 (USD 600). “Each elephant deployed for safari would end up fetching me a profit of INR 70,000-80,000 (USD 930-1,060) in six months,” Sarma said.

When KNP shut in March Sarma cut his losses and sent the elephants back to their owners in various parts of Assam. “Feeding an elephant is not easy,” he said. An adult elephant can eat up to 140 kilograms of roots, grasses, fruit and bark in a day.

Protests spoil local businesses

In November, the tourist season started on a good note, Sarma recalled. But the following month, for the second year running, protests started against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was passed on 11 December 2019.

The unrest in Assam and other north-east states started in 2018, when the central government said it would amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. Assam has had a history of anti-foreigner agitations, targeting Bangladeshis.

In 1985 Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime minister at the time, signed an agreement with local student union leaders called the Assam Accord. This promised to deport people who had entered Assam from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971.

Powerful student bodies like the All Assam Students’ Union and other pressure groups want all illegal foreigners, irrespective of their religion, to be sent back. This is why they have been protesting against the CAA, which fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who arrived before December 31, 2014.

The groups also claim that the new law nullifies the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an initiative to document those with valid citizenship documents in Assam, based on the March 1971 cutoff. The controversial exercise, which is nearing completion, could leave around two million people stateless.

See: Frightening parallels between NRC-excluded in Assam and Rohingya refugees

Assam had violent protests in December, as thousands demonstrated against the new law. Five people died when police opened fire on protesters. As the violence spread, authorities enforced a curfew and Indian Army troops were called in to maintain law and order.

Sarma said that Christmas, which is the peak tourist season, was a washout because of the protests. Kaziranga had 22,000 fewer visitors in the past financial year than in 2017-18.

A forest guard in Kaziranga keeps a vigil during floods in 2019 [image by: Sadiq Naqvi]
A forest guard in Kaziranga National Park keeps a vigil during floods in 2019 [image by: Sadiq Naqvi]
Locals go back to agriculture

In the villages around Kaziranga National Park, many are falling back on farming to sustain their families.

Gogoi has three acres of land in the village of Bocha Gaon by the park. “Most of my day is spent on the farm,” he said. He grows rice and some vegetables. “It is enough for the survival of my family. But I still need money to buy salt and oil from the market.” He added that part of his land will soon be submerged in the annual floods.

Others are worse affected. “My small farm will go completely underwater for a few months. I will have to go every day to nearby Karbi Anglong villages to buy local vegetables to sell in the market,” said Utpal Saikia, who runs an eatery in Kohora. He has been selling vegetables for a living since KNP shut down.

The residents of the villages around KNP are demanding help from the government. “The government should give a proper package to make up for the losses and there should not be any restriction on the movement of tourists in the next season,” said Tulsi Bordoloi, president of the Kaziranga Jeep Safari Association.

So far government help has been miserly. During a recent visit, Sarbananda Sonowal, the chief minister of Assam, announced a one-off payment of INR 2,000 (USD 26) per head to 470 jeep drivers and owners of safari elephants.

No easy answers

TV Reddy, the chief wildlife warden of Assam, said the government is considering opening some parts of the national parks during the monsoons to offset losses from the lockdown. “There are some portions of the national parks which are accessible during monsoons,” Reddy explained. The state’s tourism department is also working on a plan to promote intra-state tourism. This may be delayed as, citing a spike in the number of Covid-19 cases, the state government in Assam announced a two-week lockdown in Guwahati from June 29.

Furthermore, Kaziranga National Park may not open before November.

“Water has already started entering the park. Most parts of the park get flooded and animals tend to come toward the tourist circuit during the floods to take refuge,” Sivakumar said. Opening these areas during the floods would not just put the lives of tourists at risk but also endanger wildlife, with animals forced to move back to the flooded areas to avoid human visitors.

Sivakumar, the head of the park, told The Third Pole that last year during the monsoon a tiger was found sleeping in a local scrap dealer’s shack. He said that human-animal conflicts occur when wildlife strays into human settlements to get away from the flooding. While officials had previously worried that the lockdown would exacerbate this issue, Sivakumar said there not been a noticeable increase in such events.

See: With floods and droughts, millions at the mercy of the rains

Sarma said he was not even confident about the next season. “Most domestic tourists come from south India, Maharashtra, New Delhi or Gujarat. These places are like New York now,” he said, referring to the high number of positive cases. “The pandemic has broken the back of the middle class. They have no money. How will they spend on tourism?”