Indian rhinos on the move to a better future

Manas National Park, Assam, India: After centuries of having their range contracted to the point of extinction, India’s rhinos are on the move outwards again. In a difficult operation,
two male rhinos were taken back to a national park in Assam’s Himalayan foothills last weekend.

The return was an emotional moment for local residents, who lost their last rhinos a decade ago during a 20 year period of civil disturbance that wrecked infrastructure in the famed Manas
National Park and allowed poachers free reign.

A 55-year old local woman said, «The arrival of gainda (rhino) is like a Bihu (a local festival) gift to us». She added, «My son is one of the volunteers who will be
monitoring the rhinos in Manas. It is a great moment for all of us».

It was an emotional moment too, for translocation organizers from WWF India and the government of the State of Assam, who saw the successful translocation as a successful launch to Indian Rhino
Vision 2020, an ambitious plan to give India a population of 3000 rhinos, spread over seven Assam protected areas by 2020.

The release was not without its dramas, either. Elephants were used to help round up the rhinos in Pobitora Wildlife sanctuary. But tranquillisers used to sedate the rhinos were well worn off
after the difficult and slow 240 km transport convoy to Manas.

In his first hand account of the operation, Sujoy Banerjee, WWF India’s Director of Species Conservation said the second rhino «came full charge out of its crate, turned a full circle and
banged the side of the truck that had been carrying it for the last 14 hours».

«Then it galloped and vanished into the thickets, to loud applause from the crowd.»

«As we drove back, covered in a mix of sweat and dirt from head to toe, the significance of this episode dawned on me. It was not merely a shifting of some rhinos into a place where
rhinos once existed, we were bringing back the lost glory of this world heritage site, which the local people were once proud of.»

From a low point in 1905, when just 10-20 of the greater one-horned rhinoceroses survived, the long struggle by Indian conservationists to save rhino habitat and deter poachers has seen the
population grow to 1800 individuals – nearly all in Assam and most (86 per cent) within the confines of Kaziranga National Park.

Nearby Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary had accumulated the world’s highest density of rhinos, over 80 Rhinos in less than 18 sq. km of rhino habitat.

Translocation proved its worth in the successful recovery of Africa’s black and white rhino populations, and not surprisingly, it is also at the core of the IRV 2020 strategy.

«It may be risky to do the translocation but it will be riskier not to do anything,» said Tariq Aziz, Associate Director with WWF-India’s Species Programme.

«These national treasures are at risk if an outbreak of disease or other calamity hits Kaziranga. The translocations will help rebuild rhino populations in Manas and a few other protected
areas in Assam where the rhino population once existed»

IRV 2020 is a joint project of the Government of Assam and WWF India, and is supported by the International Rhino Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – all of which were watching the
first operation with some anxiety.

«Our prime concern was the safety of the people associated with the translocations as well as that of the rhinos being moved,» said Mr M C Malakar, Assam’s Chief Wildlife Warden.
«We are grateful to all for the cooperation that they extended in helping us conduct the translocation.»

Under the guidance of expert veterinarians, conservationists and forest department officials, the two animals were captured and transported in accordance with IUCN’s norms for translocation
using darting tranquilizers and especially designed crates that could withstand the 1.5 to 2 tonnes of body mass of these large pachyderms.

Manas National Park is a Project Tiger and a UNESCO designated World Heritage site and one of the nine biodiversity hotspots in India, and was once home to several endangered species including
the Indian rhinos before local disturbances devastated the park.

As part of the IRV 2020, significant steps have been taken to improve the infrastructure of the National Park. «We have provided vehicles, wireless sets, helped built watch towers,
bridges and roads,» said Banerjee. «In fact, the bulk of resources have gone into resurrecting the monitoring mechanisms of the Park.»

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