Reviving the rhino

The revival of the Indian rhino at the Kaziranga National Park is one of the most successful 
conservation stories in the world. Its rhino population has grown to today’s level 
from a mere dozen in 1908, writes Bijay Sankar Bora

AS the winter sets in along the bank of the mighty Brahmaputra in Assam, it’s time to flock to the sprawling Kaziranga National Park (KNP), located on both sides of the busy National Highway 37, over 215 km from Guwahati towards the east. The 859 sq km UNESCO World Heritage Site on the bank of the Brahmaputra turns into a paradise on earth from November to March every year for wildlife buffs and tourists from all over the world.

Numerous groups of tourists troop into the park to embark on jeep safaris and elephant-back safaris every morning and evening during this period to feast their eyes on the unique wilderness inside the park. While the one-horned rhinoceros is omnipresent in every nook and corner, thanks to the successful conservation history that dates back to over a century now, the tourists are overawed by the abundant faunal resources of the park.

An elephant safari against the glowing sky at the Kaziranga National Park
An elephant safari against the glowing sky at the Kaziranga National Park Photos: Reba Kumar Borah

Tourists enjoying a jeep safari in this popular wildlife destination
Tourists enjoying a jeep safari in this
popular wildlife destination

The park is home to about two-thirds of the total population of one-horned rhinoceros on the planet. It has the highest concentration of 2048 rhinoceros on its sprawling grassland interspersed with numerous natural water bodies, swamps full of fish species. The revival of the Indian rhinos at the KNP is one of the most successful conservation stories in the world. Its rhino population has grown to today’s level from a population of a mere dozen in 1908 in the earliest years of conservation effort, which was started in 1805.

While the ubiquitous rhinoceros remains the crowning jewel in the park, its enchanting wild also houses the king of the jungle, Royal Bengal Tiger, different species of deer, wild buffaloes, wild boars, abundant reptile species, hundreds of species of migratory and local birds.

Rhino poachers equipped with sophisticated weapons have posed a stiff challenge to the wildlife personnel in the KNP. With the international clandestine trade on rhino horns continuing despite the global alert against it, inter-state gangs of poachers are mounting pressure on the rhino. Already, the poachers have killed eight full-grown rhinos in the park so far last year.

Poachers’ gangs are often equipped with sophisticated assault rifles to tackle wildlife staff, who are armed with .315 and .303 rifles. The Arms Act provisions do not allow arming wildlife personnel with sophisticated weapons.

`A0"We have set up district-level coordination with police and also get help from Army personnel in nearby camps to keep poachers’ gangs at bay. Our focus is on preventing the poachers from entering the park instead of fighting them inside the 859 sq km wildlife protection area," divisional forest officer (DFO) Dibyadhar Gogoi informs.

The Assam Government has drawn up an action plan to increase the number of wildlife personnel as well as anti-poaching camps in the park. Some temporary wildlife personnel camps have been upgraded to permanent ones while a move is afoot to pitch new camps in certain strategic locations.

Recently, the status of the rhinos in Kaziranga was upgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’ because of the steady increase in population, thanks to the successful conservation efforts. Here, the park authority involves fringe-area villagers in the conservation effort.

"Change of ‘endangered’ tag to ‘vulnerable,’ of course, indicates success of the ongoing rhino conservation effort in the Kaziranga National Park. However, that should not lead to complacency in the efforts to protect the rhino. Otherwise, it will take not much time for Kaziranga rhino to become endangered once again," says well-known conservationist and secretary-general of Aaranyak, Dr Bibhab Kumar Talukdar.

Meanwhile, the Assam Wildlife and Forest Department has proposed amendments to penal provisions in the Wildlife Act 1972 to facilitate stringent punishment against rising wildlife crimes, including rhino poaching in the state. The Forest Department had initiated the process for amending and modifying the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, in the state to hand out exemplary punishment to wildlife poachers.

The existing jail term of three to seven years against certain wildlife crimes is proposed to be increased to 7-10 years and life imprisonment in case of a second offence. The urgent need to have stringent penal provisions under the Wildlife Act has been advocated by the government and wildlife activists as poachers often get away with light punishment under the existing law provisions.

The Kaziranga park is also a tiger reserve as declared by the Government of India in the year 2006, after a census carried out in the same year had found the presence of 86 majestic Royal Bengal tigers.

A sample survey of tigers conducted earlier this year `A0by using the camera-trap method in a specific area within the sprawling park has indicated that the park has a healthy and stable population of the big cats.

The survey was conducted jointly by a conservation group, Aaranyak, along with the Assam Forest and Wildlife Department. However, if the survey, which is part of a bigger endeavour to count tiger heads, is to be believed, there is an average 16 tigers per every 100-sq km area within the wildlife park.

Firoz Ahmed, a field zoologist of the Aaranyak team engaged in the study, informs that the tiger appeared to be thriving inside the park because of good protection and availability of prey. He said the study had been conducted in a 150 sq km area within the park using 50 infrared camera traps.

Moreover, tigers have been spotted by personnel of the Forest Department and others trained by Aaranyak as part of the ongoing project. "Both camera traps and human observations suggest that the number of tigers, of different ages, has not come down compared to previous surveys," the zoologist said, adding that by the end of April next year, an overall estimate of the tiger population could be taken.

Though the study has found out the prey base intact, it has raised concerns that the tiger population in Kaziranga has become rather isolated due to the fragmentation of migration corridors connecting the animals with other tiger habitats. According to Kaziranga Park director S. N. Buragohain, the findings of the survey would be an important tool for the next official tiger census in the sanctuary.