The hunted: Rhinos in Assam are not as safe as they should be
Recently, a one-horned rhino was gunned down by poachers in Assam’s Manas National Park. Does this spell a bigger doom, Urmi Bhattacharjee looks for answers
Photo: Urmi Bhattacharjee
Not so long ago Manas National Park (MNP), the famous world heritage site in Assam, had welcomed six one-horned rhinos through translocation from Kaziranga National Park (KNP) that took it total count of rhino to 22. Even before the keepers at the park could celebrate the acquisition, a full grown female rhino lost its life to poaching on 23 May, 2012, leaving forest authorities bewildered.
The rhino was shot with bullets from an AK-47 at wee hours in the morning. Its horn was missing and post mortem report said two bullets were lodged inside its carcass. This slain rhino along with three others were translocated from KNP in March this year as a part of the ambitious Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020) that envisages achieving a total rhino population of 3000 in Assam including all the rhino habitats.
The incident was the second mishap at MNP after it reclaimed its status. Needless to say, it took the forest officials by shock. First, a sophisticated weapon like AK 47 was used; second, the rhino targeted was part of IRV, which was supposed to be ‘monitored constantly’.
A befuddled park director at MNP, Anindya Sargowary, could not help but blame the militants for the attack. “We are currently reconstructing the whole management in Manas which was limping all this while. Security has been strengthened to the best capacity. However, the task goes up-hill if people lack consciousness,” he said, referring to splinter rebel group operating in the area for the incident. Manas has for long been a hot bed of insurgency with the banned National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) dominating the area. While the pro-talk faction of NDFB is involved in a peace process, the anti-talks faction, which has further splinter groups have been active in the area bordering Bhutan.
Sargowary told Tehelka that they suspect a nexus between a few administrative officials and ceasefire groups who encourage such activities. “Unless there are grave loopholes like this, poaching would have never happened given the dedication of the forest officials,” he said. He regretted that certain people simply don’t feel an ownership to these hoofed mammals which is their state’s pride. “Poachers usually use country made guns, of a .303 riles at tiles, but AK 47 is a costly weapon, it must have come through the rebels,” Sargowary added.
Despite the latest census reporting an increase of 304 rhinos in Assam, the risk for these mammals continues. “When it comes to greater one horn rhinos, the problem is their distribution. More than 80 per cent of the rhinos are in Kaziranga alone. In case of any epidemic or a natural disaster, the entire rhino species would be at peril. It is therefore crucial to gradually focus on diversifying the species’ location”, explains Bibhab Talukdar, noted environmentalist and the Asian rhino coordinator of the International Rhino Foundation.
To fit the very purpose, the IRV-2020 was initiated in 2006. All the 22 rhinos in Manas have been received through translocation from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, which has the highest one-horn rhino density on earth. IRV 2020 has been envisaged since it was important to have a proliferating population of the species elsewhere other than Kaziranga, which has the highest rhino count of 2292. Pobitora has the highest density of rhinos with 93.
“The rhino translocation is being done very judiciously keeping in mind the right hererozygosity since this would increase the numbers. Even a single rhino is crucial to Manas and loss of the female species is even worse,” said Anupam Sharma, from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “In winters, poachers often escape under the cover of darkness and fog. However, such an incident is unacceptable in summers when there are no bad weather challenges,” said Sharma. WWF plays a crucial role in protecting the IRV 2020.
Conservationists, however, are not convinced with the way forest officials are looking at the development. “If park authorities have figured out the loophole, then why isn’t any action being taken”, asked a conservationist on condition of anonymity. Manas has been a safe haven for various rebel groups of Assam over the last two decades. The United Liberation Front of Asom(ULFA) also used to use Manas as a transit route to its bases in Bhutan before the Royal Bhutan Army launched a major offensive against the underground outfit in its territory in 2003. “NDFB had never killed a rhino. But our boys have killed wild boars and deer in the jungles of Manas for food. But now the anti-talk faction has a lot of smaller groups. They are ill-disciplined. They might have helped the poachers,” said a senior commander of NDFB (progressive) on conditions of anonymity.
Situated in Kokrajhar district of Assam, Manas was first declared a world heritage site in December 1985. But frequent militant infringement due to ethnic unrest between the Bodos and Assamese since 1988 led to poor security and poaching, which eventually wiped away the entire rhino population in the park in 2000. In 1992, the UNESCO enlisted the site as one ‘in danger’. Following recovery of existing conditions through concerted efforts by various conservation groups, UNESCO lifted the ‘world heritage site in danger’ tag in June 2011.
Although rhinos in Manas are comparatively at lower risk of flood, nevertheless they are often at the risk of going astray which increases the risk of poaching. “Translocated rhinos have more propensity to go astray and, at times, cross over the Bhutan border. Difficult terrain, lack of roads and other risks make it arduous to trace the rhinos back,” explained Deba Kumar Dutta, senior project officer, WWF. In October 2011, a radio-collared rhino went missing and it took undying efforts by a forest team who spent hours on elephants to trace it back. Undulating topography of the area often results in weak signals from radio-collars on animals making it even more difficult to trace them.
Manas, which is also one of the country’s biggest tiger reserve, now has 21 rhinos in all. Four out of these had got displaced from their natal herd and were hand-raised in Kaziranga under the joint Rescue and Rehabilitation Programme of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Thereafter they were shifted to Manas. Rest of the rhinos form a part of IRV-2020.
Located in the alluvial-rich foothills of the Himalayas, the MNP is adjoining the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan making geographical boundaries irrelevant. Sargowary said, “On the local level there have been concerted efforts from both countries to protect Manas. However, a concrete report on preservation aspects needs to be prepared. We have sought help from BTC and the centre on this but no concrete report has been received so far.”
The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), an autonomous council that looks after the development of the Bodo tribe dominated areas along with WWF had been a great support for the national park. Just a few months ago, WWF had provided about eight motorcycles, binocular, caps, shoes and mosquito nets to encourage foresters to handle its wildlife. “We are alarmed with this killing. We had to toil hard to give Manas a new lease of life, it will be important to save it,” said Kampa Borgoyary, the deputy chief of BTC.
The one-horned rhino was earlier found in large numbers until they perished and were listed as critically endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with the species, now being listed as ‘vulnerable’ by IUCN since 2008. Nevertheless, they keep falling prey to ceaseless poaching for their horns, which is sold off to South Asian countries at exorbitant rates. The Chinese believe that the horn has aphrodisiac properties. A freshly severed rhino horn weighing around 2.5 kilos is priced more than $25,000 in Vietnam.
So is this incident a foreboding for a future crisis to the IRV-2020 at the MNP? Well, caution-calls certainly seems to have rung since the civil administration, local NGOs and the security forces manning the porous Indo-Bhutan border have reportedly gathered for meetings to save the animals from poaching attacks in the future.
The rebel links could undoubtedly spell an irreversible doom to the modest rhino population in Manas. This incident certainly appears to be a trailer to the possible hindrance to the IRV-2020 programme. Perhaps the situation in Manas calls for New Delhi’s intervention.
Urmi Bhattacharjee is an independent journalist based out of Guwahati