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SOS Rhino : In the News : Horn Of Plenty

Horn Of Plenty

  Kaziranga turns 100 and celebrates the rhino's return from near-extinction with a party in the grasslands

Outlook India
Magazine/February 14, 2005

After a few million years of chomping along the grasslands that stretched from Pakistan to Bengal, you can't blame the Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros for wondering if this party is unforgivably belated.

Late by a 50 million years. That was when the rhinocerotidae family of this behemoth appeared on earth. But then, the Kaziranga Centenary Celebration is not about evolution. It's about celebrating survival. Of the rhinos making it to this millennium, after hunters in Kaziranga decimated their population down to a dozen by 1905. Of staying alive, even as the Brahmaputra's floods claim their calves and old (129 rhinos drowned here in '88).

Today, Kaziranga National Park (KNP), in Assam, is home to the largest surviving population of India's rhinos. In these floodplains of the Brahmaputra, 1,700 of these mega-herbivores still stare out of the grasses, indicating their return from near-extinction. Here, you behold a rhino cloaked in silt--rising from the beels (wallows) with egrets and jungle mynahs riding its shoulders--as it lumbers out in search of tender lokasa grass.

A 100 rhinos were killed in Manas as Bodo insurgents targeted it to vent their anger against the state.

Its distinctive grey battle-tank body visible to all who come to this 860 sq km park. With this regal sighting guaranteed, who would believe that only about 2,000 Rhinoceros Unicornis exist in India. It is an "endangered species" listed in the Wildlife Protection Act.

Besides KNP, six satellite populations of rhinos exist in small numbers.

Unlike the tiger, the target of legal shikars till the '70s, the ban on rhino-hunting came earlier. After Lady Curzon, wife of the viceroy of India, came to see the rhino and only saw its hoof marks. "The crucial moment was when her mahout, Nigona Shikari, said 'your sahibs are killing them as game'," says Nitin Gokhale, co-author Kaziranga: the Rhino Centenary, to be published this week. She persuaded Lord Curzon to propose this as a rhino reserve in 1905.

A 100 years on, Kaziranga is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is recognised for rhino conservation. "No other national park in India has created as many heroes," says A.J.T. John Singh, dean, Wildlife Institute of India. "Its staff live in terrible conditions, face gunfire, floods and jungle-fire. Yet, when they get their transfer orders, they cry." In '88, the year Project Rhino was announced, even the rebel outfit ULFA shot dead rhino-poachers. No one knows why this beast has so many saviours. P. Lahan, KNP's first director in the years 1971-75, says: "All we knew is that the rhino was a rare creature that we adored and protected with our life."

That tradition continues. You can hear it in the squelch of 550 armed guards who patrol this malarial snake- and leech-infested tract skirting rhino trails. With 125 anti-poaching camps inside KNP, wireless radios crackle, reporting suspicious strangers or human movement. The real focus? Not the 1-2 tonne beast. Just its 850-2,000 gram horn. This stump of compressed hair, considered an aphrodisiac, commands a high price. In reality, barefoot doctors prescribed it as a fever-reliever. So far, 12 foresters have sacrificed their lives saving this horn. Most of the annual Rs 3 crore received from the government goes into salaries of guards and equipment used for rhino protection.

Those who aren't on duty are either maimed or paralysed after poacher or animal attacks. "I have 70 injured staff on my rolls," says director N.K. Vasu. Still, they don't aim their guns at charging rhinos or elephant bulls. "Bullets are for poachers," says forester Dharmeshwar Dutta.

"In '95, we found KNP's funds were being diverted for security. Working elephants were starving...the staff were patrolling without pay," says Debbie Banks of the Environmental Investigation Agency, eia. Although it is not a funding agency, eia-London donated £71,140 by '98.The US Fish and Wildlife Service, WWF and local NGOs also donate aid and equipment.

Since 2002, the Centre for Wildlife Rescue and Conservation has nursed many injured species back to health, specially after the monsoons when the park area floods and the fleeing animals get hit by vehicles on the southern highway.

Not everyone is in the mood to celebrate. Says a senior government official: "We haven't saved the rhino as a species, we only saved it in Kaziranga." Originally, four other protected sites in Assam housed good rhino populations: Orang, Laokhawa, Pabitora and Manas (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site). All are devastated. The year 1983 was annus horribilis, in Laokhawa: 56 rhinos were killed in six weeks. By the '90s Orang's population had halved to 40 and Pabitora is too small to hold its 50-odd rhinos.

The worst off is Manas National Park, where the rhino was wiped out by the '90s after Bodo insurgents moved into the park and the army pursued. Since '92, UNESCO listed it as a Site in Danger, with park damage estimated at $2 million. "Kaziranga is our only safe deposit locker, where we are guarding the rhino as a treasure," says Vivek Menon, member of the Asian Rhino Specialist Group. Moreover, "KNP can support a maximum of 2,000 rhinos," says N.K. Vasu. The only hope lies in relocation to neighbouring Dibru-Saikhowa.

Kaziranga is likened to Noah's Ark. Besides being the rhino's largest home, it houses a genetically pure population of wild buffalo; the highest density of tigers in India; and 23 globally-threatened species. It's also a refuge for 500 bird species, like the endangered Bengal florican and Great Indian hornbill, making it a richer bird paradise than Bharatpur.

No wonder, Pradyut Bordoloi, minister of forests and environment, Assam, wants to project Kaziranga as a "mega biodiversity hotspot, with the rhino as the usp". Last year, young wildlife biologist Firoz Ahmed recorded the first wild population of the Black Soft Shell Turtle in KNP. As part of Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based society for biodiversity conservation, Ahmed's recent survey indicating the presence of 100 reptile and amphibian species in KNP is more good news.

Kaziranga is part of the eastern Himalayan ecological theatre, where the mighty Brahmaputra destroys and creates new riverine islands. This means Kaziranga's boundaries are dictated by the 'shifting of rivers'. "As the river moves, so will Kaziranga," says Vasu. But will the government too move its boundaries?

"Preserving this ecological integrity of Kaziranga is the challenge," says Banks, referring to the coexistence of forests and grasslands, wetlands and woodlands, hills and plains unique to Kaziranga. If this happens, the future looks good. As for the rhinos, if there's enough grass and peace in the Northeast, these heavyweights will be around for the next centenary party.

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