Government funds are being used to fence off areas in the Kaziranga National Park, home to many elephants, rhinos and tigers. While the move has been welcomed by local people, will it necessarily help conservation?

For the last three years, the forest department has been busy electric-fencing large portions of Kaziranga National Park in Assam, a world heritage site which is considered one of the finest habitats for the one-horned rhinoceros, tigers and Asian elephants. A welcome move, many would say, given that animals routinely make their way into human habitations or the adjoining highway, making them vulnerable to poachers or high-speed traffic. Except there’s one simple biological fact:wild animals need to move for foraging, breeding and dispersal. That’s why, while it is normal for wild animals to stray out of a park boundary, for a wildlife manager it poses a dilemma—whether to ignore it or to construct power fences that are expensive, difficult to maintain and yet provide some semblance of having ‘managed’ the potential man-animal conflict.

Rohit Choudhury, a Right To Information activist concerned about the extent to which Kaziranga was being fenced on all sides by the forest department, raised this question with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).

Based on the concerns raised by Choudhury, the inspector general (IG) of forests from the regional office of the NTCA conducted an exhaustive review of the areas that were being fenced off.

In his reply dated October 2015, the IG states that “the electric fencing was a win-win situation as it prevented wild animals like the rhino from straying into the village while at the same time preventing cattle from straying into the park".

For wildlife managers struggling to protect bio-diversity in a sea of humanity, physical barriers like fences can prove to be helpful. They keep the wild animals in and keep cattle out.

The problem with the fences is that for a habitat like Kaziranga, which gets flooded every year, the movement of animals is imperative, even if they end up risking their lives on National Highway 37 while escaping the flood waters.

In fact, the park director, in an ongoing case in the National Green Tribunal, admitted that as many as 1,400 wild boar, 700 barking deer, 1,400 elephants, 221 rhinos and 60 tigers were using animal corridors to move out of the park boundary. That’s why keeping these corridors free from any physical barriers is important.

In his defence, the IG states that power lines are switched off during the monsoon season to allow the animals to escape and that sections of the fences have been kept open, especially at points like Panbari which are known to be animal corridors. The report points out that some areas where tigers and rhinos used to stray out of the park have now been fenced in but then defends his action by stating “but the behaviour of the tiger needs to be modified" since the "tiger is not safe outside" the park boundaries.

While the installation of fences to deal with human-wildlife conflict is common the world over, it is the way the physical barrier are installed that can end up being a problem.

The response to a further RTI query filed by Rohit Choudhary reveals that “no scientific study was conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India or the National Tiger Conservation Authority" about erecting these fences.

Interestingly, another report on Kaziranga, the Rhino Task Force, which came out in May 2015 is against the concept of power fencing, stating very clearly that this “will further lead to restriction in the movement of the large mammals such as the rhinoceros, elephants, buffalos, tigers, leopards and deer species".

Scientists Matt W. Hayward and Graham Kerley, in their book Fencing for conservation, raise the same questions based on their experience from Africa. They state that fences “are costly to build and maintain; they have ecological costs through blocking migration routes, restriction of biodiversity range use which may result in overabundance, inbreeding and isolation".

So, what then are the solutions? Wildlife scientists are of the opinion that development of adequate buffer zones and proper research on animal corridors is imperative. Hayward stresses the need for SMART fencing, which is more in tune with the grain of the land (for instance including water points rather than excluding them) and in tune with ecological processes such as migration and flooding of the land. Simple line fencing based on the demands of the local people is a short-sighted intervention, which in the long run may not be in the interest of Kaziranga and its wild animals.

Bahar Dutt is a wildlife biologist and author of Green Wars.

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