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SOS Rhino : In the News : Operation Rhino Vision
 

Operation Rhino Vision

  To expand its rhino map, Assam has roped in global partners for ‘foolproof translocation’ to five PAs in next 3 yrs

JAY MAZOOMDAAR
The Sunday Express
www.indianexpress.com

Posted online: Sunday, September 25, 2005 at 0000 hours IST

WHAT if an epidemic or natural disaster were to strike Assam’s famed Kaziranga National Park? The world stands to lose about 70 per cent — and India almost 95 per cent — of its total one-horn rhino population. To minimise this risk factor, the Assam government, in collaboration with WWF-India and International Rhino Foundation (IRF), has decided to translocate rhinos from their existing homes at Kaziranga and Pobitora National Park to five other erstwhile rhino territories — Manas, Orang, Burahchapori, Laokhowa and Dibrusaikhowa — in the state.

The project — India RhinoVision 2020 — seeks to achieve a rhino population of 3000 by 2020. An action plan for the first three-year-phase is ready. Even former Bodo extremists have pledged total support to the ambitious mission. While about 20 rhinos still survive in Orang, the other target areas lost their last rhinos to poachers in the 90s. If all goes fine, the first lot of rhinos will reach Manas National Park by 2007.

Depending on the Manas experience, subsequent translocation plans will be finetuned. Once translocation is over, constant monitoring will continue till each target territory reaches at least 100 rhinos by 2020. Given good sex ratio, safe habitat and a minimum population size of 30, rhinos can potentially double their number every 12 years.

‘‘Kaziranga is India’s safest national park. But we cannot keep all eggs in one basket. Besides, we sense problems of overcrowding at Pobitora. The condition of Manas has improved a lot after a decade of insurgency and other areas are also looking up with increased protection,’’ Assam’s Chief Wildlife Warden M.C. Malakar told The Indian Express from Guwahati.

HOW THE GIANTS WILL BE HANDLED

A rhino is re surrounded by trained elephants before a tranquiliser shot fired by wildlife experts ground the animal. A platform is pushed under the animal and a wooden cage is inserted on the top of the platform through inbuilt hinges. Since it is very difficult to lift the animal — and operate cranes on soft forest soil — a dredger digs soil to create an incline just next to the rhino where a truck can drive down on reverse gear so that its carrier platform aligns with the ground level. Now the same dredger pushes the cage on to the truck and it is dispatched to the destination. The operation is usually carried out in the morning so that evacuation is possible in case of any emergency and the animal can be released in the wild before sundown. The elephants must be trained well so that they don’t give away when the rhino gives the charge to break loose.

The state government has already set up a task force, headed by Malakar, which held its first meeting earlier this month and constituted two committees. One will examine target habitats while another will determine the number, sex and age of the rhino population to be translocated.

HEADCOUNT

Since about a dozen in 1905, India’s rhino population has already crossed 1900. Kaziranga National Park alone is home to more than 1700 rhinos. Nepal’s Chitwan National Park is the only other Park that boasts 100-plus one-horn rhinos. The recent spate of poaching has drastically reduced the number here from 544 to 360, highlighting the need for more pockets with sustainable rhino population.

‘‘Since the formation of the Bodo Tribal Autonomous Council, the ground situation has changed. The days of militancy are over. Now people understand the value of conservation in the context of their livelihood warranty and work in tandem with the forest department. They want tourism to flourish and are fully backing the Vision programme,’’ said Tariq Aziz, WWF-India representative in the task force.

Money, however, remains a grey area. Malakar claims that WWF-India has promised to mobilise funds from international sources. ‘‘I have been given to understand that IRF will be a major sponsor,’’ he said. While the cost of individual rhino translocation is anybody’s guess, Aziz pegs the first phase expenditure at least at $70,000 in three years.
‘‘Most of it will go in improving target habitats and training staff. Next, we have to organise funds for translocating the animals but that won’t be very expensive,’’ he said.

Besides, the Dudhwa fiasco of 1986 is still at the back of his mind. Released in 1986, seven rhinos could not achieve a population of even 20 in Dudhwa after two decades. ‘‘Wrong sex ratio and too few translocated animals spoilt that early experiment. Our programme will be foolproof,’’ Aziz said.




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