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There are 200 more reasons to visit the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
Thanks to the conservation and anti-poaching efforts by officials and wildlife activists, the population of the one-horned rhinoceros at the national park in Assam has registered an increase of 200, taking the total to 2,613.
A four-day rhino census, conducted between 25 March and 28 March recorded 903 females, 750 males and 170 of undetermined sex in the adult category of above six years. The park’s director Jatindra Sarma said 279 rhinos in the juvenile category (one to three years) and 146 calves (less than one year) were also recorded.
During the last census in 2018, 2,413 rhinos were recorded.
“The census revealed that Kaziranga has a healthy population of rhinos despite casualties due to natural deaths, floods and in-fighting. Reduction in poaching has also benefited the species,” KNPTR director Jatindra Sarma was quoted as saying to Hindustan Times.
We take a look at how this animal has survived in India, the threats it faces and how officials at the Kaziranga Park are trying to protect this wonderful creature.
Rhinos in India
The greater one-horned rhino (or ‘Indian rhino’) is the largest of the rhino species.
Once widespread across the entire northern part of the Indian subcontinent, rhino populations plummeted as they were hunted for sport or killed as agricultural pests. This pushed the species very close to extinction and by the start of the 20th Century, around 200 wild greater one-horned rhinos remained.
However, efforts by conservationists and volunteers have helped to push the population from barely 75 in 1905 to over 3,500 by 2018, according to World Wide Fund for Nature–India (WWF-India).
In India, rhinos can now be found in parts of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam.
Kaziranga is the world’s biggest habitat of one-horned rhinos and attracts thousands of tourists, both domestic and international.
Threat to the rhino
The massive herbivore has been listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List owing to its small population.
Experts note that the loss of large tracts of habitat and extensive poaching for its horn — believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties — has led to its dwindling numbers.
Aron White, a wildlife expert with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), in an article published by Mongabay said that “poaching is the main threat to the survival of rhinos today, driven by demand for their horns.”
The rhino’s horn has for centuries been used to treat a host of maladies, though there is no proven medical benefit.
The problem was so prevalent that a 2008 report to the US Congress called the trade in endangered species “the wildlife version of blood diamonds.”
Within Kaziranga, the rhino also faces the threat of flooding. Since 2018, data has revealed that as many as 400 rhinos died as devastating floods swept Assam.
There’s also the issue of rhinos dying in road accidents; when water levels rise exponentially, rhinos in the region move to the Karbi Anglong hills, which offer higher ground and some refuge from the floods. Unfortunately, there’s an important highway running through the area, and forming the southern border of the park — the only road connecting eastern Assam to the rest of the country. This road and the development and construction of buildings around Kaziranga has made it difficult for rhinos to cross into the hills safely.
Saving the rhino
Kaziranga’s conservation efforts for rhinos is a true success story.
Thanks to stronger police efforts against poaching and artificial mud platforms that keep the animals safe from floods, the numbers of the herbivore has seen a rise.
BBC had released a documentary Killing for Conservation in 2017 which had claimed that the forest staff had been given the licence shoot anybody they suspect to be a poacher. However, Satyendra Singh, the then field director at Kaziranga, categorically denied the existence of such a policy and claims that guards only retaliate when they receive fire.
Today, according to an Associated Press report, the Kaziranga Park has increased the number of men scanning the area for poachers. Additionally, a police task force with sophisticated weapons was inducted last year to keep poachers at bay.
The stricter policing has reduced to a drastic drop in poaching. From a peak of 27 rhinos killed in 2013, it came down to six in 2017, seven in 2018, three in 2019, two in 2020 and one in 2021.
Also, authorities have built high mud platforms where rhinos can take refuge with guards providing them fodder to survive during the monsoon season.
Other than this, there are several NGOs who also help in conservation efforts. Leading the pack is the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC).
Situated in Kaziranga National Park, the CWRC was founded by the Assam Forest Department and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) with support from WTI’s partner, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
CWRC is a systematic and scientific initiative to deal with wild animals in distress where immediate human intervention is required for their survival. CWRC has till date attended a record number of 253 rescue cases of wild animals in Assam.
During the floods, the CWRC steps in and helps rescue the stranded rhinos and take care of them. The rescue centre has now become a home for orphaned rhinos.
While numbers have risen, experts say now is not the time to let down their guard, but to build on their efforts. “You have to work every day to protect species like rhinos,” Wildlife Trust’s Vivek Menon was quoted as saying.