The one horned rhino (rhinoceros unicornis) is among the important and popular wildlife species in India, beyond any doubt. A majority of rhinoceros population in India is found in northeast India- particularly in Assam. As per data obtained from WWF India, over 90 percent of Indian Rhinos are in Assam. Within Assam, the animals are found mostly in the Kaziranga national park and Pobitara wildlife sanctuary. However, the number of rhinos in Manas national park cannot be overlooked either. It is in Kaziranga that you find the majority of rhinos of Assam and a 2015 population census revealed the number crossing 2400 mark.
Threats and hurdles in Rhino conservation in Assam
The root of threats and hurdles to existence of Rhino population in Northeast India can be traced back to the British era. As the British rulers focused on setting up tea plantation in the state, rhino hunting became a favorite pastime for them and the Indian elites. Rhinos became soft target for trigger happy zamindars and royal families of India along with tigers. It was in the beginning of 20th century, the rhino population in Assam declined abysmally and this forced the authorities to take notice. Lady Curzon, who was the wife of then Viceroy of India, persuaded her husband to save the rhinos in Assam from extinction. Lord Curzon thereafter made Kaziranga a reserve forest. Later it was made a sanctuary and the first national park of Assam. In 1985, it was given the status of a World Heritage Site. These moves in a way saved the one horned rhinos and served as conservation boosting measures.
Poaching: the persistent menace
Despite the governments putting in measures to safeguard the rhinos and protect their habitats in Assam, the hurdles have remained. The rhino calves being hunted by tigers are not much worrisome as is the persistent menace of poaching. The practice of killing rhinos for their horns with reported medicinal properties have continued for decades-even after independence. Despite the wildlife laws strictly prohibiting killing the animals in protected areas- rhino killing has not stopped in Assam and adjacent regions till date. While the instances of rhino killing have diminished compared to the pre-independence era, poaching incidents shot up from time to time.
The landscape of the forests in Assam makes the rhinos an easy target for these poachers. The tall elephant grasses make it easy for them to hide and shoot the animals from close. Most of the rhinos are killed in full moon nights. They prefer the monsoon months when rhinos submerge a majority of the park and the animals start fleeing to higher grounds. The poachers resort to methods like shooting down the rhinos, poisoning them or using electrocution.
Insurgency related rhino killing
It is not only the regular poachers who sneak into national parks of Assam to kill rhino and collect their horns. The militant groups active in the region also resort to the same measure for money. It reached a peak in the 1990s when the United Liberation Front of Asom and similar insurgent groups resorted to rhino killing to fund their activities. After that, poaching spiked once more in 2012, post formation of new insurgent groups like the Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger.
Related: Must visit National Parks of Assam
Threat posed by flooding
The lack of flood control mechanism also takes a toll on rhino population in Assam. While it is not as severe as other threats, flooding does take its toll on the animals. The baby rhinos fare worse than adults. The 2016 flood cost lives of more than 20 rhinos in Kaziranga alone.
The mixed result of Rhino conservation endeavors in Assam
The state govt of Assam has adopted many measures to boost rhino population in the state and curb poaching activities. These efforts have produced mixed results so far. While the growth in rhino population in Assam is undeniable, poaching continues to loom over the rhinos like a dark cloud.
More than 100 poachers have been shot down and over 500 rhinos fell prey to them since 1985- as per available data. Measures like using camera traps, Rhino DNA indexing system, satellite surveillance, trained dog squad have yielded positive results but more have to be done- feel the wildlife experts. The Assam government amended the Wildlife (Protection) Act 2009 but execution of the same remains shoddy.
It is necessary to equip the Forest personnel with better weapons who still use outdated weapons. The fact a majority of poachers who get arrested have not been convicted as per legal norms raises concerns about the state of affairs. Lack of co-ordination between the forest department and law enforcement agencies is a glaring issue too. In recent times, a BBC documentary slamming the conservation efforts in Kaziranga became the subject of much controversy.
Ray of hope: RHV 2020
Despite the shortcomings of Rhino conservation effort in Assam, all is not lost! The ambitious Rhino Vision 2020 program -collaboration between the US and Indian government agencies and some conservation groups- has come as a ray of hope. The involved agencies include Bodoland Territorial Council, Assam Forest Department, International Rhino Foundation, WWF India etc. Launched in 2005, IRV 2020 is aimed at boosting rhino population in Assam and mitigating threats affecting its survival. The plan is taking the rhino population of Assam to approx 3000 by 2020.
As part of the program, a few rhinos were translocated to the Manas National Park. The rhinos should be translocated to other wildlife zones in the state like the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuary, feel the experts. This will help balance distribution of Rhino population in Assam. However, the results of translocation made to the Burachapori wildlife sanctuary have not been positive so far with one rhino mother and her baby dying within short time.
The focus of IRV 2020 is now re-assessing the experience and resuming future translocations later. Lack of knowledge on health of these herbivores continues to be a hurdle too. However, the population growth which is on rebound mode and growing awareness on rhino conservation should act as morale boosters for involved entities.