Question: How does one weigh the recent news of two rhino calves born in India’s Manas National Park against reports of increased poaching in the region?
Answer: These new additions to the Park’s rhino population help offset losses that, unfortunately, are difficult to prevent. The births also offer hope that efforts designed to restore Indian rhinos to former habitats and safeguard the species’ future will ultimately prove successful.
A little more than a century ago, northeastern India was home to three rhino species – the greater one-horned or Indian rhino, the Javan rhino and the Sumatran rhino. Throughout recorded history, this region appears to be the only one on Earth where three different rhino species could be found. However, hunting and habitat loss spelled the eventual demise of two species in India. The Javan rhino, a smaller relative of its one-horned Indian cousin and once said to be common in the state of Bengal, was extirpated – wiped out – by about 1900. The Sumatran rhino, the smallest of the living species and more closely related to the extinct woolly rhinoceros than to any of the surviving forms, used to be found in the hill country of Assam until about 1935. Only the Indian rhino remains, with the largest populations found in the Brahmaputra River valley.
Somewhere around 3,300 wild Indian rhinos are believed to survive in northeastern India and neighboring Nepal. The largest population is found in Kaziranga National Park. The most recent survey estimates as many as 2,330 animals, which is an increase of about 40 individuals over the last year despite losses due to drowning during seasonal flooding, a number of recent poaching incidents, and the translocation of eight rhinos to Manas National Park as part of an ambitious reintroduction program – Indian Rhino Vision 2020. The program’s goal is to restore this threatened species throughout strategic portions of its former range. Objectives call for reaching a population of at least 3,000 rhinos in the state of Assam by the year 2020 by establishing secure populations in seven protected areas, including Manas National Park. Although rhinos were once common in Manas, violent civil conflict that began in 1989 caused massive damage to the park’s infrastructure, including the destruction of anti-poaching camps, roads and villages. The park’s original rhino population was extirpated in 1996.
The first coordinated round of Indian Rhino Vision 2020 translocations to Manas began in 2008, when two male rhinos were moved from the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. To date, 18 animals have been translocated from both Pobitora and Kaziranga. The program is a joint effort of the International Rhino Foundation, the Government of Assam, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Bodoland Territorial Council, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Last summer, the first rhino born in Manas since translocation efforts began was discovered by rhino monitoring units – a calf born to Rhino #10. Given that the female had been moved to Manas less than a year before, it’s clear that she was pregnant prior to the translocation. Only a few days ago, rangers discovered two more surprises. Both Rhino #8 and Rhino #12 were spotted with calves in tow. The latter female also must have been pregnant prior to the move, but Rhino #8 has been in Manas since January 2011, so it’s clear that she was impregnated by one of the translocated males. This represents the first successful breeding in the national park since Indian Rhino Vision 2020 was launched almost five years ago.
In the midst of the recent poaching pressure in northeastern India, these births are very encouraging. The high demand for rhino horn in the illegal wildlife trade continues to be the biggest threat to Indian rhinos, especially this new population. Two translocated rhinos have fallen prey to poachers in the past two years. The next major step in the program will be to return rhinos to Assam’s Laokhowa-Burachapori complex, a site where they were poached out in the 1980s.
If you’d like to help support these critical conservation efforts, go to: http://www.rhinos.org/donate.