Sivasish Thakur GUWAHATI, May 30 - Hardly had the dust settled on Oil India Limited’s controversial move to explore hydrocarbon inside Dibru Saikhowa National Park when the park’s wetland ecosystem came under grave threat following a massive oil well blowout at Baghjan Oilfield in Tinsukia district on Wednesday.
The carcass of river dolphin.
The carcass of a sub-adult Gangetic river dolphin (Platanista gangetica gangetica) – a critically-endangered species and the first wildlife fatality of the blowout – was recovered from the Maguri Motapung Beel yesterday, triggering apprehension in conservation circles about far more widespread damage to flora and fauna in the coming days unless the leakage is brought under control immediately.
The leakage of gas and crude oil has not yet been contained, with the OIL authorities stating that it could take several days to stop the outflow. People in large numbers, including those manning forest beats and camps, have been evacuated.
The oil rig is located very close to the Maguri wetland, which constitutes a major and integral component of the national park’s ecosystem. It also falls within the 10-km eco-sensitive zone of the national park and provides a much-needed extended buffer area.
A top forest official told The Assam Tribune that the Tinsukia Wildlife Division DFO had given a preliminary report and that a joint team comprising Pollution Control Board Assam Chairman and the OIL Chairman-cum-Managing Director visited the area today to take stock of the situation.
“It is a serious situation for Dibru Saikhowa National Park. The PCBA-OIL team will submit a report tomorrow. We had earlier asked OIL to brief the forest department on various aspects of the leakage, such as extent of the spillage, damage to biodiversity, composition of the gas, etc. Any major spillage on the wetland and grasslands could be disastrous,” he said.
Conservationist and professional bird guide Binanda Hatiboruah informed the The Assam Tribune said that the oil seepage is spreading to a large area of the wetland which is directly and inextricably linked to Dibru Saikhowa National Park, providing a secure home to wide-ranging fauna, including birds and aquatic species.
The wetland, in fact, is one of the last refuges of the river dolphin, the State aquatic animal of Assam. Also an Important Bird Area (IBA) site, it hosts large congregations of migratory and resident birds, including many endangered and some endemic to the region.
“The river dolphin carcass was coated in a black, slimy substance – obviously the result of the leakage. Not just the wetland’s water but the marshy grassland in its periphery, too, has come under the spread of leaked oil. We also found some small dead fish in the area,” he added.
The forest official added they had collected the carcass for postmortem and forensic tests. “Samples of some dead fish have also been collected. The situation is being monitored and we are in touch with the OIL authorities for stopping the leakage quickly before it can cause damage to the park,” he said.
“The floating crude oil is a definite threat to the area’s rich biodiversity. The scattered crude oil over both wetland and grassland – home for endangered birds like Jerdon’s babbler, Marsh babbler, black-breasted parrot bill, swamp prinia and many more – is now highly inflammable and a single spark can trigger an inferno,” Hatiboruah said.
Motapung wetland, which is a part of Lohit River and also of the larger Dibru Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve, is in the downstream of these pipelines and any leak in these pipelines is fraught with disturbing consequences for the national park and the entire biodiversity-rich area linked to it. The Lohit River, too, which is one of the best habitats of the Gangetic river dolphins, could also suffer widespread damage from such leaks.