Book Excerpt: The Return Of The Grey Unicorns – One-Horned Rhinos
One-horned rhino at Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. (Image courtesy: Pobitora Sanctuary website)

Book Excerpt: The Return Of The Grey Unicorns – One-Horned Rhinos

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Excerpted from Rewilding, by Bahar Dutt, with permission from Oxford University Press.

Imagine encountering a steely one-horned rhinoceros on your evening walk in the park. Pobitora, a small wildlife sanctuary in Northeast India, on the floodplains of the grand Brahmaputra, provides the opportunity in spades. The grey ‘unicorns’, grazing so casually, are found in every nook and corner here, making it hard to reconcile to the fact that there’s less than 4,000 of them left in the wild. There’s a mother with a calf who snorts at us angrily, raising her heavy, one-horned nose in the air as trigger-happy photographers surround her.

A few kilometres ahead, we spot a male rhino with some bruise marks on its armour plates, the result, perhaps, of a fight for territory. The Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary is no bigger than 39 square kilometres, yet it is home to over 100 one-horned rhinos—and they’re jostling for space with wild buff aloes, barking deer, and over thousands of migratory waterfowl that arrive here in winter. Pobitora may be full up—but in this problem of plenty lies an opportunity.

The situation has brought about a conservation coup in Assam in the form of the grand Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020, a coordinated conservation policy that has seen scientists and NGOs band with the government. Under this vision, animals are being shifted from protected areas, such as Pobitora and Kaziranga, where they abound, to those like Manas, where the twin pressures of insurgency and poaching have wiped out local populations. Ungulates like the Swamp deer (Rucervus duvaucelii) are also part of this grand plan to rewild parks in Assam. It’s been a gamble, given the losses along the way, but now, hopefully, the vision’s on its way to becoming a grand success.

Assam is, in fact, the proud host of more than two thirds of the global population of the one-horned rhino, even though the animal is a frequent victim of poaching.
A one-horned rhinoceros at the Kaziranga National Park, Assam. (Photograph Courtesy: Chris Miller/Kaziranga National Park)
A one-horned rhinoceros at the Kaziranga National Park, Assam. (Photograph Courtesy: Chris Miller/Kaziranga National Park)

Topping the revival story is the World Heritage Site of Manas; its fate bends and folds quite like the Manasa River from which it gets its name. The park almost lost this special status bestowed on it by UNESCO after a period of internal strife wiped out its entire rhino population along with those of animals like tigers and deer. However, after a decade of hard work, efforts to rewild Manas are finally yielding results. A ceasefi re with the extremist group that once ruled the park has helped the forest staff record significant conservation gains.

Now, a few years later and for the purpose of this book, I am on my maiden visit to Manas under happier circumstances: there has been a lull in poaching in the last few years. Wildlife biologist Amit Sharma, from WWF-India, is accompanying me. Amit was at the front line of the reintroduction effort in Manas, which saw 18 rhinos brought in. ‘Poaching in Manas is cyclical,’ he tells me. ‘It comes and goes in waves, so we can never say it is finished.’ Right now, though, the world heritage site is riding the peace wave. In 2017, its famous green hero, Bibhuti Lakhdar, had been given the IUCN award for his efforts to restore this landscape. Assam’s most famous forest staff , D.D. Boro, the hero of many landmark wildlife documentaries, transferred here from Kaziranga, has been appointed here as an officer on special duty. Boro flahses his famous wide grin and says he is happy to be back among his people. His smile reflects an optimism that is shared by many, from the WWF staff to the forest guards. It is, however, an optimism that is laced with caution.

(Image courtesy: BloombergQuint)
(Image courtesy: BloombergQuint)

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It’s a sentiment echoed by park director H.K. Sharma, who knows it may be too soon to call Manas a conservation success story—the threat of poaching is always circling around the park, daring them. Sharma operates under several constraints. Many posts in the forest department are lying empty, with no one interested in joining the wildlife wing, he tells me. I ask him if the security of a government job doesn’t serve as enough temptation, to which he retorts, ‘Who wants to leave their families behind and live in a war zone?’ He may be right; Manas has a long, chequered history, not just of poaching but of insurgency as well. Even now, there are whispers that parts of Manas are not really within the control of the forest department. Some of the guards mention in informal chats that they are too scared to venture into the western range of the park, which is under the control of insurgents. And that’s not the only problem that Sharma faces: in spite of all the international talk of saving tigers and rhinos and the glory that this park has received over the years, the forest staff has not been paid in eight months. ‘My men are patrolling on the ground with no salaries,’ he says. That, it seems, is how conservation operates in the real world.

Given the ground reality, it’s clear that IRV 2020 is an ambitious programme—the objective being to attain a population of 3,000 wild rhinos across Assam, distributed over seven of its protected areas by the year 2020. Begun in 2008, it was decided to halt the translocation by 2013 because of the rampant poaching of translocated rhinos.

In 2013, just as conservationists were celebrating the birth of two calves born to reintroduced rhinos, a heartrending piece of news came in. One of these mothers had been poached for her horn, leaving behind a two week-old calf. The calf was rescued and hand-reared. So why are conservationists refusing to give up on Manas, engulfed as it is by episodes of poaching and insurgency? It is to understand this that I find myself in the park.

I spend several days in Manas moving around in a noisy SUV, searching for the ‘Big 5’—rhinos, tigers, wild buff aloes, gaurs, and elephants—as we make our way through the tall grass. I am equally interested in smaller species; Manas is after all the last stronghold of the wild populations of the pygmy hog, the smallest pig in the world, but their sightings are indeed rare. Quite often, I request the forest guard to let us just switch off the cantankerous vehicle to take in the sounds of the forest.

We drive around the forest at a slow pace, encountering wildlife, stopping at lonely forest watchtowers, chatting with the frontline staff engaged with the onerous task of protecting the wild inhabitants of Manas, and gulping down black tea laced with lots of sugar. Fresh milk is a rarity. It’s a minor hardship though, compared to the life-threatening struggles the staff deal with daily. The threat of possible gunfire, patrolling among tall grasses that decrease visibility—these are only part of the physical hardships they endure. There is the psychological hardship of being away from their families for weeks on end, not to mention living in the isolation of the watchtowers. It’s the story of the hundreds of countless Indian soldiers as well who patrol our borders, except in this case, not many people are aware of these soldiers of our forests.

The story of Manas National Park would be incomplete without understanding the political struggles of the Bodo people, recognized as one of the largest hill tribes under the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The conservation successes or failures of the park have been incumbent on the demand by the Bodos for a separate state. Their struggle for self-determination originated in the colonial period: as early as the 1930s, Gurudev Kalicharan Brahma, the then lone leader of the Bodos, submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission for a separate political administration for the indigenous and tribal people of Assam. However, the British ignored his demand.

Even after the country gained independence, this struggle continued, leading to a volatile mix of politics and ethnic conflict in the region. In 1987, the Bodo people raised a demand for a separate state consisting of areas located in the extreme north, on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra. The six-year-long vigorous Bodoland movement culminated in the fi rst tripartite Bodo Accord on 20 February 1993 with the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), the central government, and the Assam government as signatories. This paved the way for the creation of the erstwhile Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC) and the suspension of the demand for a separate state. The ABSU revived the movement in 1996, claiming that the BAC had failed to fulfi l the aspirations of the Bodos.

Meanwhile, the erstwhile militant outfit, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), launched an armed struggle for statehood, leading to further incidents of violence. On 10 February 2003, the second tripartite Bodo Accord was signed by the BLT with the centre and state governments. The Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) was created under an amended provision of the 6th Schedule, which led to ABSU suspending the movement. Manas is currently under the control of the BTC and the forest department comes second to it as far as managing the park is concerned. This is unlike other parts of the country where the state forest department has the primary responsibility for managing the protected area. That’s why the story of conservation in Manas is embedded in struggle for identity of the Bodo people. Even as Manas was being repopulated with rhinos, NGOs like the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) were reaching out to the BTC for conservation gains. In August 2016, a grand announcement was made that would boost the ongoing rewilding eff orts in the region. BTC’s deputy chief Kampa Borgoyary announced that an additional 350 square kilometres would be added to the park’s existing 500 square kilometres, increasing the total area to 850 square kilometres and creating more space for rhinos and tigers. This was the first step to creating a larger landscape for wildlife.

Following the ceasefire agreement in 2002 and the creation of the BTC, some semblance of peace returned to Manas. The time was ripe to undo the damage of the past and look at reintroducing the wildlife species that had been lost in the intervening years of strife— all its rhinos, and, it is believed, almost 50 percent of its tiger species. In February 2006, for the fi rst time in India, a hand-raised rhino calf was translocated, by the Assam forest department and the WTI to Manas. WTI was already working in Kaziranga, rescuing wild animals that got injured or separated from their mothers during the annual fl oods. And this rhino rehabilitation project endeavoured to give orphaned or displaced hand-raised rhinos from Kaziranga a home in Manas.

A one-horned rhinoceros at the Kaziranga National Park, Assam. (Photograph Courtesy: Chris Miller/Kaziranga National Park)
A one-horned rhinoceros at the Kaziranga National Park, Assam. (Photograph Courtesy: Chris Miller/Kaziranga National Park)

Over the years, as part of this project, WTI has released eight rhinos in Manas. The process that is followed is simple: after their translocation from CWRC, the rhinos are released into a spacious African-style semi-open enclosure, called boma, spanning about 33 acres that has been created in Manas. The rhinos will be confi ned here until they attain sexual maturity. The boma ensures that the calves are safe from predators even as it helps them acclimatize to the local environment. These rhinos have no interaction with humans, except during periodic medical assessments. After about two or three years of acclimatization, the calves are released into the wild and are remotely monitored round the clock with the help of radio transmitters.

In addition to this, the government of Assam, with support from the BTC and NGOS like WWF-India and the International Rhino Foundation, got involved in reviving Manas through the implementation of IRV 2020; the fi rst wild-to-wild rhino translocations began in April 2008 and continued in phases till 2012. In all, 18 Indian rhinos were moved from Pobitora and Kaziranga to Manas. Eleven rhino calves have been born in the park since then.

The struggle to maintain and protect wildlife in Manas will always be a work in progress.

. Efforts are on to expand the scope of the park and thus create more space for biodiversity. The idea of the Transboundary Manas Conservation Area (TraMCA) was conceptualized in 2011 as a larger space that goes beyond national boundaries and connects protected areas, biological corridors, and adjoining reserve forests of southeastern Bhutan with that of northeastern India. The creation of TranMCA addresses the third ‘C’ that ecologists Michael Soulé and Reed Noss describe in the concept of rewilding, corridors; carnivores and cores being the other two. Another advantage would be that the landscape forms a vital mosaic of conservation spaces across the Eastern Himalayas.

The long-term survival of Manas’s inhabitants is inextricably linked to the fate of the Bodo community. Once the political cauldron of conflict is addressed, conservation will be a piece of cake.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and an environmental journalist.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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