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Rhinoceros unicornis Archives - Rhino Review

The good, the bad and the ugly of the Indian Rhino Vision 2020

By Antipoaching, Archeology, Translocation No Comments
Mubina Akhtar, Opinion / Northeast Now | March 3, 2020

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On February 29, 2020, two more rhinos were moved out of the Kaziranga National Park to the Manas National Park –a distance of 280km–as part of the translocation programme under the Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020.

Both the rhinos–mother “Faguni” and her sub adult offspring “Asha” covered the distance overnight and were released in the Bansbari Range of Manas National Park in the wee hours of March 1. With their release, altogether 20 rhinos have now been shifted to Manas under the IRV programme scheduled to end by the middle of this year. Eighteen rhinos have already been translocated to Manas since 2008.

An ideal habitat for the breeding of the Great Indian One-Horned Rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis), Kaziranga has seen a rise in the number of the species. The animal shrugged off its ‘endangered’ tag once its population crossed the 2000 mark.

This fuelled an overweening strategy–the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 designed by the Rhino Task Force– that targeted 3,000 rhinos by the year 2020 in the rhino-bearing sanctuaries of Assam.

Manas National Park, another World Heritage Site and Laokhowa and Burhachapori Wildlife Sanctuaries remained preferred destinations for the translocation of rhinos under the IRV 2020 initiative. However, translocation to these wildlife areas remained a daunting task as these sites continue to be vulnerable to poaching activities.

Original photo as published by Northeast Now: Translocated rhino at Manas National Park. (Photo: Northeast Now)

The Setback for IRV 2020

Started on April 12, 2008, IRV’s translocation process came under the scanner after more than half of the trans-located rhinos to Manas fell prey to the bullets of poachers. Without adequate patrolling staff, it was a colossal task for a few people to constantly guard the animals against human rapacity.

The killing of these trans-located animals since 2011 in Manas World Heritage Site triggered the World Heritage Committee to send an alarm to the state that further deterioration of protection in Manas and subsequent damage caused to key attributes in Manas may lead to de-listing Manas from the World Heritage Site list.

The death of the rhinos in Manas had been a huge setback for the IRV 2020 programme.

Instead of dealing with the long-term conservation challenges and preservation of this unique site, the Indian Rhino Vision only went on pulling out rhinos from Kaziranga and Pobitora for translocation solely keeping in view the magic figure of 3,000 rhinos by 2020.

They even went on for a temporary band-aid effort of “trimming” horns on rhinos to be trans-located to Burhachapori and also on stray rhinos. The decision, taken at the IRV 2020 partners meeting on January 30, 2014 at the Assam State Zoo was met with strong opposition from conservationists and the State forest department was compelled to abandon the idea.

However, IRV continued with the translocation process and sent another mature female and her offspring to Burhachapori. An ex forest official of the Assam forest department, on conditions of anonymity, said, “Rhinos endure a certain amount of stress during the translocation process. It was a terrible sight– when after regaining consciousness– the mother rhino wounded itself with multiple injuries each time it stumbled on the thorny barrier in the effort to free itself from captivity. Further, the mother suffered a grave cut in the ear during notching, that turned septic and the animal died a slow and painful death. The orphaned calf suffered a great deal during the floods. The calf suffered serious stomach ailments that finally brought the end to the poor animal.”

With the death of the translocated rhinos in Burhachapori the whole IRV process became very controversial. There were allegations that the IRV stakeholders simply washed off their hands once translocation process was over; they were never bothered about the safety of the trans-located animals. This was indeed a grave allegation. The death of rhinos not only contradicts the conservation efforts but undoubtedly overshadowed the whole IRV process.

After the debacle at Burhachapori, many conservation NGOs of the state were seen protesting against the translocation programme of IRV. They held responsible the IRV stakeholders– Department of Environment and Forests, Assam; WWF-India; International Rhino Foundation (IRF); Bodoland Territorial Counci; US Fish and Wildlife Service and other organizations associated with the Project — for the death of at least 13 rhinos–those trans-located from Kaziranga and Pobitora.

Kaziranga Wildlife Society, Early Birds, Aranya Suraksha Samity, Green Guard, The Green Society and Centre for Conservation, Education and Research demanded the forest department to stop the translocation process at once. The NGOs alleged that translocation was carried out without prior and proper security arrangement of the targeted area. There were also severe allegations of negligence towards security and health monitoring of the animals. The NGOs also demanded the government to institute an inquiry into the death of all trans-located rhinos and make public the post mortem report of the female rhino died in the ‘Boma’ in Burhachapori.

Several student organizations including the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) also came out to voice their concern against killing of rhinos in the name of “translocation” under Indian Rhino Vision 2020.

Some Good Things

Once home to more than 80 rhinos, the entire rhino population in Manas National Park was wiped out during the ethnic unrest between 1988 and 2001.

The Government of Assam in collaboration with Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) started the process of re-introduction of rhinos in Manas. Rhino calves orphaned by flood in Kaziranga National Park and hand-reared in the CWRC –the rescue and rehabilitation centre stationed at Kaziranga—were sent to Manas National Park between the years 2006 and 2014.

From these calves and with those captured from the wild as part of IRV translocation between 2008 and 2012–rhino population in Manas National Park increased to 42 and the population now seemed to be well established.

Along with the growth of a viable Rhino population, Manas regained her (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

However, there have been more negatives than positives in the whole IRV story.

Grievances

A section of forest staff in the Manas and also rhino experts allege that more than 10 translocated rhinos had been killed since 2011 to 2016, but authorities failed to nab a single culprit. On the other hand, a female rhino remained untraceable for the last two years.

“The same sets of people do the security assessments before every rhino translocation to the Park,” they further alleged.

Protection measures continue to remain inadequate– so much so that–Park authorities and other organizations lost more than 20 camera traps from the Panbari and first addition areas of the Park since 2018.

Poaching simply has not stopped. Sources said a group of poachers had fired at a male rhino recently in Manas National Park. The injured rhino strayed out from the core area and it was detected near a village. Photos show bullet marks on the right shoulder and it was bleeding.

“More than five hand-reared rhinos died in Manas due to infighting as these rhinos were incapable to escape a wild bull. Mixing of hand-reared animals with those captured from the wild simply proved disastrous,” said a forest official.

The primordial wilderness of Manas has been plagued by other challenges like– shrinking of habitat, encroachment of the corridors around the Park, siltation of water bodies, rise in invasive weeds that have the capacity to kill native flora such as grasses and others that are important fodder plants for the rhino along with development activities.

Un-checked growth in tourism activities, road construction along the Indo-Bhutan border and a complete lack of protection of the watershed of Manas have raised more concerns over the future of this World Heritage site. Prime rhino habitat stretches continue to be under encroachment.

Large swathes of the species’ habitat have been lost over the years. More than 200 acres in the Bhuyanpara Range have been encroached (since 2012-2017) but there had been no action to evict the encroachers. Similarly, addition areas of some 350 sq km face the same fate. From the western bank of the river Beki to the critical Panbari range, the Park remains vulnerable without any protection. Important ranges like the Bansbari and Bhuynapara have no designated Range Officer for last couple of years.

The Way Forward

With the growth of wildlife population as well as the ever swelling human habitations in and around the Park, it has become a daunting task to meet these challenges without proper advisory and practice.

“Rhino-bearing areas need to be made encroachment free and scientific management of existing rhino-bearing areas must be taken up urgently,” said an expert on conditions of anonymity.

“Rather than Manas, the State Forest Department must search areas to broaden rhino range around Pobitora and Amchang Wildlife Sanctuaries. The Brahmaputra river channel from Kaziranga to Orang should also be declared as rhino zone.”

“What is lacking in rhino conservation in India is that we have no new research available on the species. We are dependent on other international organizations for all the data and information. The Government must encourage more research and declare a package without the support of any foreign agencies,” he added.

 

From 75 in 1905 to 3600 in 2020! India’s rhino population has increased by 35 times in 115 yrs

By Antipoaching, Conservation No Comments
Basit Aijaz, India Times | March 6, 2020

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While India’s efforts and struggles to conserve tiger population has been known, here is one of India’s most successful conservation stories: the population of one-horned rhinos has grown manifold over the years.

From a population of barely 75 in 1905, there were over 2,700 Indian rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) by 2012, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature–India (WWF-India), a global wildlife advocacy. The figure has now gone well past 3600 in 2020.

Greater one-horned, or Indian, rhinoceros once roamed from Pakistan to the Indo-Burmese border, and in parts of Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. But by the beginning of the 20th century, hunting and habitat loss had reduced the species to fewer than 200 individuals in northern India and Nepal. Thanks to strict protection implemented by Indian and Nepalese authorities, the population has rebounded to more than 3,600 today.

Original photo as published by India Times. (INHABITAT)

In 2012, more than 91 per cent of Indian rhinos lived in Assam, according to WWF-India data. Within Assam, rhinos are concentrated within

Kaziranga national park, with a few in Pobitara wildlife sanctuary. Kaziranga is home to more than 91 per cent of Assam’s rhinos – and more than 80 per cent of India’s count — with a 2015 population census by Kaziranga park authorities revealing 2,401 rhinos within the park.

The increase in population has also been because of the receding poaching. Although rhino poaching peaked in India in 2013, when 41 of the herbivores were killed, it has declined since, largely because of better policing and protection by the Assam government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), according to Tito Joseph, programme manager of the anti-poaching programme at the Wildlife Protection Society of India, an NGO.

With rhinos are mainly concentrated in Kaziranga, there is certain risk to it as well – the park may have reached its carrying capacity and might not be able to support any more rhinos; and the entire species’ population could be decimated by a disease outbreak, natural disaster, or other acute threat.

In order to address the threat, rhinos from overcrowded areas, like Kaziranga National Park and Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary, are being moved to other protected areas where they can breed. Along with continuing strict protection and community engagement, spreading Indian rhinos out among more protected areas will create a larger, safer, and more stable population.

So, rhinos need to move to ecologically similar but distant areas to ensure species survival, according to the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 programme (IRV2020), a collaborative effort between various organisations, including the International Rhino Foundation, Assam’s forest department, Bodoland Territorial Council, WWF-India, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

As many as 18 rhinos were translocated to Manas national park between 2008 and 2012 under IRV2020. The efforts to relocate rhinos has continue since. The growing population of rhinos is an indication of growing efforts to ensure the survival of the greater one-horned rhino.

 

One-horned rhino to be reintroduced in Corbett (State of Uttarakhand, India)

By Conservation No Comments
Shivani Azad, The Times of India | November 26, 2019

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DEHRADUN: The Uttarakhand State Wildlife Board has decided to reintroduce the one-horned rhinoceros in Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR), around a dozen of which will be brought from Kaziranga in Assam and West Bengal.

The decision was taken in the 14th meeting of the Uttarakhand Wildlife Board on Tuesday in the presence of chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat and state forest minister Harak Singh Rawat.

CTR, sprawling over an area of 1,200sqkm, used to have a rhinoceros population a few centuries ago. According to the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the rhinos became “locally extinct” due to “anthropogenic pressure”.

The animals were all “hunted out” from the landscape as the grassland was open to agriculture back then and poachers exploited the species, eventually wiping them out, the WII explained.

A proposal was submitted on Tuesday by the WII before the State Wildlife Board, stating that the CTR could easily house up to 80 to 100 rhinoceros.

The ‘rhinoceros unicornis’, also called the great Indian rhinoceros, falls under vulnerable category in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and is in high demand globally due to its single horn.

Speaking with TOI, Dr YV Jhala, the senior scientist spearheading the project from WII, said, “The rhino population is severely threatened. It is critically endangered because of its horn. So now, we have to create a ‘safety net population’, as all our rhino population is concentrated in Assam and West Bengal. A research by the WII found CTR to be a perfectly conductive habitat for the rhino. With the Shivalik range on one side and the Himalayas on the other, CTR can act as a nice basin for the rhinos to stay in. This topography will also ensure that the animals don’t wander into human habitation to raid crops, minimizing chances of man-animal conflict.”

According to sources, voluntary village protection forces will also be formed by the state board in areas where man-animal conflict is frequent.

According to experts, the presence of rhinos in CTR will also help boost the population of small herbivores like the deer, ensuring more prey for carnivores. The tiger reserve currently has a “dwindled population” of 50 to 60 hog deer. Without the presence of a mega herbivore like the rhino, the Terai belt will be left with coarse grass, which cannot be digested by smaller animals.

“The rhino is known as ‘habitat architecture’, as they make a habitat suitable for smaller animals like the hog deer or the barking deer. Rhinos, like elephants and buffalos, are coarse feeders and can digest grass that other animals cannot. The move will help the entire nation in conserving the rhinoceros,” said Rajiv Bhartari, chief wildlife warden, Uttarakhand.

The country has around 2,500 rhinoceros left, most of which are in Kaziranga and the rest in West Bengal. Forest minister Harak Singh Rawat said, “We want CTR to be one of the best reserves in the country. Not just the rhino, sooner or later, we will introduce other animals too, as per the advice of scientists and forest department officers.”

At India’s Assam Zoo, decades of experience lead to rhino-breeding success

By Conservation, Rescue and rehab No Comments
Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya, Mongabay | October 16, 2019

See link for photos & 3-minute video

GUWAHATI, INDIA: One August afternoon in 1991, rangers at India’s Kaziranga National Park rescued a startled rhino calf. The young female, believed to be just a few months old, had just survived a tiger attack and was separated from her mother in the melee.

It was a tough start in life for the little calf, named Baghekhaiti by her rescuers, the local Assamese for “eaten or bitten by a tiger.” But she survived her injuries, and would go on to give birth to the first greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) calf born in the Indian state of Assam as part of an ambitious captive-breeding programme launched by India’s Central Zoo Authority (CZA) in 2011.

“Baghekhaiti, whose right leg still bears the scar of that tiger attack, was brought to the Assam State Zoo on 10 August, 1991,” says Govinda Sharma, a keeper at the Guwahati-based zoo and botanical garden, who has been looking after the rhino since 1993. “Now she’s around 28. Since her arrival at the zoo she’s delivered two calves … So, she’s very special.”

According to the CZA, the program’s objective is to build a stock of healthy captive rhinos to serve as insurance for the future, should the species face extinction in the wild again. Two zoos have been designated as part of the program: the Assam State Zoo, and Bihar state’s Patna Zoo, where six calves have been born since 2011.

The greater one-horned rhino has made a spectacular comeback once before, thanks to global conservation efforts in Kaziranga and in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, which together harbor about 85 percent of the species’ global population of around 3,500 individuals. But the IUCN still considers the species vulnerable, primarily due to the constant threat of poaching — a threat that underscores the importance of maintaining a genetically viable captive population.

Original photo as published by Mongabay: A greater one-horned rhino at the Assam State Zoo. (Manon Verchot/Mongabay)

A Long History of Breeding Rhinos

Assam state, where Kaziranga National Park is located, is home to some 2,500 greater one-horned rhinos, and the state zoo has held rhinos since its establishment in 1957.

The first successful birth of a greater one-horned rhinoceros in an Indian zoo dates back to April 7, 1960, when Geeta, a female from Kaziranga taken into captivity earlier that year, gave birth to Mohan Jr. The second zoo-born calf was delivered in 1963.

But these rhinos were born from mothers already impregnated in the wild.

The first real breakthrough came in July 1963, when a female calf was born as a result of mating between two wild-caught rhinos at the zoo premises. (This was just six years after Switzerland’s Basel Zoo recorded the first ever birth of a captive-bred greater one-horned rhino in a modern zoo.)

Between 1957 and the launch of the captive birth initiative in 2011, India’s National Studbook of One Horned Rhinoceros records 13 births (including two stillbirths) at Assam State Zoo. While some of these animals still live at the zoo, others have been transferred to zoos around the world. And one female, born in 1978 and known as Geeta or Laxmi, made history in 1987 by becoming Assam’s first zoo-born rhino to give birth.

In 1979, the Assam State Zoo sent two rhinos, known as Kancha and Kanchi, to the Patna Zoo, the first rhinos to be hosted at that facility. The Patna Zoo, in turn, marked its first captive birth in 1988, with a calf born to Kanchi and a wild-caught male named Raju.

Despite this track record, India, the primary home range of the greater one-horned rhinoceros, lacked concerted efforts to develop a sustainable captive-breeding program for the species. That changed in December 2011, when the CZA announced the launch of a captive-breeding program for 73 species, the rhino among them. The CZA named Assam State Zoo to lead the rhino breeding program, with Patna Zoo as a coordinating party.

A National, Coordinated Captive-Breeding Program

While Assam State Zoo has managed to breed rhinos in captivity since the 1960s, India’s existing ex-situ breeding efforts and facilities were deemed insufficient to maintain a viable pool of captive rhinos, triggering the formal launch of the special captive-breeding program, according to Bibhab Talukdar, an Assam-based Asian rhino expert.

With the onset of the program, the captive-breeding efforts have become much more streamlined, says Tejas Mariswamy, the director of Assam State Zoo. “We now have off-display enclosures to keep the rhinos free of stress from the contact with visitors, and more staffs attending to them. The record keeping and maintenance have improved. We are better equipped now,” he says.

There are eight rhinos under this program at the zoo. Of these, two females and one male are at prime reproductive age, while the rest are still juveniles being kept for future use in the program.

A Success and a Setback

The CZA initiative bore fruit within two years of its launch, rapid progress for a species whose pregnancies last about a year and a half. On May 11, 2013, a female calf named Dolly was born at the Patna Zoo. Then, on Sept. 1, 2013, Baghekhaiti gave birth to a male calf named Sanatan in Assam. The calf was Baghekhaiti’s second offspring, and like its older sibling it was fathered by a male named Bishnu, the first zoo-born male rhino to produce offspring in a zoo in India.

“Baghekhaiti appeared to be restless since morning on that day,” Sharma recalls of the day Baghekhaiti gave birth to Sanatan. “She didn’t eat the stack of hay and grass I’d given to her that she usually loves to munch on. We knew the day was coming, but didn’t expect that it would be that very day. In the evening at 6:43 she gave birth to a male calf … It was an overwhelming moment for us.”

“The birth of Sanatan effectively kicked off the captive breeding program,” Chandan Bora, then the divisional forest officer at Assam State Zoo, tells Mongabay. “That we were able to breed the first calf within less than two years of the launch of the programme was really inspiring.”

Sanatan is now 6 years old and thriving.

The zoo is now expecting the birth of its second calf under the program — and a first grandchild for Baghekhaiti. Her first calf, Pori, who was born in 2002, was observed last year mating with a wild-born male. “Now she is pregnant and expected to deliver in May next year,” Mariswamy says of Pori.

Patna, meanwhile, has seen the delivery of six calves: three in 2013 (including one that died shortly before turning two), one in 2015 and two in 2017.

In early 2018, however, the captive breeding program suffered a setback when a female calf at the Assam State Zoo sustained injuries from a male that later led to her death. Shanti, a rather small one-and-half-year-old female, shared an enclosure with two other rhinos: another young female named Bagori, and Gaonburha, a 2-year-old male. All of them were brought to the zoo in September 2017 from the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), based outside Kaziranga National Park.

“On 12 January, 2018, Gaonburha forcibly tried to mount Shanti and in the process injured her backbone and she got several bruises. We saw her grovelling in pain. She was treated with pain-killers and other drugs. Unfortunately she did not recover,” says zoo director Mariswamy, adding that Gaonburha and Bagori were separated immediately after the incident.

While local media reported the incident to be the result of a mating attempt, Arindam Kishore Pachoni, a veterinarian at the zoo, insists that it was an act of non-breeding playful behavior and not a mating attempt. “Mating of rhinos is often a violent and raucous affair. Male rhinos do behave violently with females during mating in the wild. But this wasn’t a case of mating aggression,” he says.

He adds that they’ve been far more careful about putting rhinos together after this incident.

The Infant Mortality Puzzle

Global efforts at ex-situ breeding of the greater one-horned rhinoceros have also faced another problem: infant mortality.

Despite being shielded from dangers like floods or the tiger attack suffered by Baghekhaiti, captive-born one-horned rhinos have a considerably higher infant mortality rate than their kin in the wild, research shows. While a study reported an infant mortality rate of 11.1 percent for the wild rhino population in Chitwan, Nepal, the infant mortality rate in the captive one-horned rhino population has been recorded to be a steep 20 percent. Two of the 14 calves born at the Assam zoo were stillborn, a mortality rate of around 14 percent.

In a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, conservation biologists Samuel Zschokke and Bruno Baur offer three possible explanations. First, they say the infant mortality rate in the wild could be underestimated; second, the zoo environment is stressful for both laboring mothers and newborn calves; third, the wild population in Chitwan National Park is likely genetically distinct from the captive rhinos in zoos across the world, most of which are descended from the Kaziranga population.

Intriguingly, Zschokke and Baur found that the infant mortality rate was lower in inbred Indian rhino calves than in non-inbred ones. They observed that inbreeding depression, which has been observed to increase juvenile mortality rates in several other captive mammal populations, does not seem to be a particular concern for greater one-horned rhinos.

Zschokke and Baur also observed that inbreeding in Indian rhinoceros doesn’t appear to influence either gestation period or birth mass, suggesting that “inbreeding avoidance in Indian rhinoceros may not be as important as it is in other species.”

‘Knowing Your Animals is the Key to Success’

The core strength of the rhino captive-breeding program at Assam State Zoo, according to Mariswamy, is the strong bond that the keepers share with the rhinos. This, he says, evolves from “deep knowledge derived from keen and consistent observation of the animals as well as long-term association with them.”

The three keepers currently looking after the rhinos at the captive-breeding centre — Govinda Sharma, Anandi Rabha and Umesh Rajbongshi — each have more than two decades of experience in caring for the animals.

“I’ve been looking after rhinos since 1993. Building on my daily lived experience with them for so long, I know how they behave just the way I know how my pet does. I give them care accordingly, drawing on my practical knowledge,” Sharma says.

Mariswamy says while the zoo doesn’t have a formalized training program for its rhino keepers, the institution benefits from its experience of hosting rhinos for more than half a century. “What helps us is the intergenerational knowledge transfer about animal husbandry. The new keepers learn the tricks of the trade working with the seasoned hands. That’s how the knowledge is passed on. Moreover, our vets and biologists regularly update the keepers on the recent scientific knowledge about the animals.”

Though researchers at zoos elsewhere in the world have been experimenting with assisted reproductive technology (ART) in rhino breeding, Assam State Zoo hasn’t yet considered it and instead prefers natural breeding.

“In natural breeding the first critical step is choosing a correct pair,” says senior zoo veterinarian Bijoy Gogoi. “While carrying out the pairings we assess the mating suitability of the animals that takes into consideration various factors such as genetic diversity and kinship difference between the animals to be paired so that inbreeding could be avoided.

“So knowing your animals is, to a large extent, the key to success,” he adds.

“This is why we focus on developing a strong bond between the keepers and the rhinos,” Mariswamy says. “Isn’t it the best possible way to learn about the animals?”

For India’s flood-hit rhinos, refuge depends increasingly on humans

By Conservation, Rescue and rehab No Comments
Manon Verchot, Mongabay | October 9, 2019

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When the flood waters began to rise in India’s Kaziranga National Park in July, five greater one-horned rhino calves found themselves separated from their mothers and stranded in deep water.

Wildlife rescuers usually try to reunite calves with their mothers. But during the peak of the floods, with most of the park submerged under water and with hundreds of animals needing rescue, they often fail.

“Looking for a mother during floods is near to impossible,” says Rathin Barman, joint director of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

The five lost calves were brought to a rescue center run by the WTI, the Assam Forest Department and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. They will stay in the center until they are two-and-a-half years old, according to Barman, who also heads the center. They will be hand-reared by a team of carers on human infant formula. It will be years before they’re re-released into the wild — if at all.

Kaziranga is famous for having the world’s largest population of greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis), with more than 2,400 individuals out of the estimated 3,500 globally. It’s also known for its annual floods during the monsoon season.

“Kaziranga is a flood plain ecosystem and we need floods,” Barman says. “If tomorrow God decides there will be no floods in Kaziranga, then there will be no Kaziranga.”

The park usually has multiple cycles of flooding between June and October, as rainwaters swell the Brahmaputra River, causing it to spill over. But this natural phenomenon is becoming a lot worse, in part because of unnatural factors around the park.

In recent decades, the floodwaters have reached record levels, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of animals. The highest recorded flood in Kaziranga was in 1998, and the park has started regularly seeing major inundations.

“This year was again a big flood,” Barman says. “Last year we didn’t have floods, but in ’16-’17 we had big floods, so almost three years consecutively we’re getting big floods in Kaziranga.”

In 2017, around 400 animals died, including more than 30 rhinos. By comparison, only seven rhinos were killed by poachers between 2017 and 2018, according to Kaziranga National Park records.

This year, around 200 animals have died during floods so far, including more than a dozen rhinos, according to park officials. They attribute this year’s relatively low death toll to improved management methods in the area. But it’s hard to say if the numbers will continue to improve.

Communities report the floods are gradually getting worse — and harder to predict.

“This time, 80 to 90 percent of the park was inundated,” says Rohini Ballab Saikia, divisional forest officer of Kaziranga National Park. “And this was the third-highest flood we ever had in Kaziranga, as per our records. During this period, the peak flood season was for about seven to 10 days.”

Though the waters have mostly receded, some areas in and around the park were still flooded when Mongabay visited in September.

Original photo as published by Mongabay.

No safe passage
Historically, animals facing floods in the park could easily flee to the higher ground of the nearby Karbi Anglong hills. Now, their passage is blocked by a highway and a growing number of hotels and resorts.

It’s a dangerous route to safety. Thousands of vehicles use the highway every day. And while park authorities limit vehicle speeds in areas where animals cross, especially during the floods, many animals are still hit by vehicles. This year more than a dozen animals, including hog deer and sambar deer, reportedly died along the highway during the floods.

It’s not just the highway making it difficult for animals to reach higher ground. The tourism industry is increasingly blocking animals’ paths along both sides of the national highway. Resorts are building walls around their premises, some of which encroach upon known animal corridors. Even though greater one-horned rhinos are fairly strong swimmers, the floods are often too severe for them to survive.

The resorts don’t just block animals when waters rise. Residents say construction has increased sedimentation in the river. A report from UNESCO also found that embankments around the Brahmaputra River were making the situation in Assam worse.

“The deforestation and flood control methods, such as the construction of embankments, have also altered the riverine ecosystem,” the study found. “This has resulted in the river becoming heavily silted. In Upper Assam the river bed has been raised to such an extent that only a few days of rain can result in major floods.”

Residents like Manoj Gogoi, a wildlife rescuer, have also observed flooding on the other side of the highway near the Karbi Anglong hills. “If it rains heavily in Karbi Anglong, it floods on that side of the road, which was not previously seen,” he adds in Assamese.

According to Gogoi, there hasn’t been proper planning for drainage in the area, and water is being blocked. “Unless we clear the animal corridor, we are in deep trouble,” he says.

An artificial solution?
As construction along the outside of the park continues, park officials are looking inside the park for solutions to protect animals. In the last few years, they’ve built dozens of artificial highlands within the park to give animals somewhere to go when the water rises. But these artificial highlands have been very controversial.

Environmentalists say the priority should be maintaining safe passage to natural highlands, rather than constructing artificial ones in the park. Experts have also raised concerns that highland construction in the park could add to the problem of siltation in the river.

Environmentalists also point out that animals can’t survive for long on the man-made highlands, especially since there is no food supply on the elevated mounds of earth. “No matter how many man-made highlands they make, it cannot be as useful as the natural highlands,” Gogoi says.

Still, Gogoi attributes the comparatively few animal deaths during the floods this year to the recent installation of another 33 artificial highlands. Viral photos showed dozens of rhinos taking shelter on the highlands during the July floods.

Saikia, Kaziranga’s divisional forest officer, agrees the highlands played an instrumental role in saving rhinos and other animals this year.

“While the construction of these highlands was going on, there were two schools of thought,” he says. “There was one that it was not good to intervene so much into a wildlife area. However, we went with the construction of the highlands because we had reasons for it.”

According to Saikia, the artificial highlands were constructed after a team of experts evaluated the landscape. Gaps were left in between to avoid blocking water, and each highland was constructed with careful attention to the direction the water flows.

For Saikia, the conditions outside the Kaziranga National Park are reason enough to build the artificial highlands inside.

“If, suppose, we had given safe passage to the animals to move towards the Karbi Anglong hills without human intervention, then we wouldn’t need to intervene so much inside the park,” he says.

Community relations
The forest department says it’s working with the police, local communities, tourism agencies and NGOs to prepare for the flooding every year. But the relationship between local communities and the park hasn’t always been good.

For decades, Kaziranga National Park has expanded, and in the process hundreds of villagers have been displaced. Since 1984, there have been six additions to the national park.

“Our grandparents would talk about how they were living inside Kaziranga — the present boundary of Kaziranga — and they talk about how they were herded off from there,” says Pranab Doley, an indigenous activist from Kaziranga. “Like, a sahib came with a horse and they said, ‘You have to go out because we have to protect the rhinos,’ and it’s historically documented that the hunting of rhinos was not a regular practice of the communities here.”

Even now, there is talk of expanding the park to cover the animal corridors that lead to the Karbi Anglong hills. There are concerns that this potential expansion could displace more communities.

Construction around the park has also made the flooding worse for nearby communities.

“The more elevated we make our houses, the more flooding is taking place day by day,” says Kulendra Deka, a farmer from Difolupothar Rongalu village, in Assamese.

Doley says he feels communities should be part of the decision-making process for development around the park. He says communities have historical knowledge of how to deal with the floods, but that the government won’t listen.

“Every year we have to shout, scream, suffer this trauma of losing again and again,” he says. “It’s a constant process of only losing. So we’ve become only relief seekers. One month, to three months in a year we’ll go to relief camps and we’ll be herded like cattle. And there we have to wait for someone to give us rice, dal, or some torn clothes — like charity. This is not what people want.”

Still, some community members say their relationship with the government, especially the forest department has gotten better.

“Earlier there was a gap between the local community and the department,” says Gogoi, the wildlife rescuer. “And slowly the gap is reducing. I don’t blame the forest department, everyone is to be blamed.”

Gogoi’s animal rescue efforts means he works regularly with government bodies involved in the conservation of Kaziranga National Park. Both he and the forest department are involved in efforts to educate communities about animal rescues and floods. These days, many of the alerts about stranded animals come directly from communities themselves. More villagers know to call the forest department if they see a deer or rhino in trouble.

With the rapid development outside the park boundaries, rescue efforts are intensifying, and it’s difficult to know how bad it’s going to be from one year to the next.

For the five rhino calves rescued this year, it could take around four years before they’re released. First they’ll be hand-reared for a few years, then they’ll be sent to a pre-release enclosure for a year or two, where they’ll adapt to reduced human contact and finding their own food and water. Some may even be sent to the Assam State Zoo as part of the zoo’s rhino-breeding program.

In the meantime, Kaziranga is still recovering from this year’s floods.

“Because it’s an annually flooded park, all our infrastructures are every year damaged,” Saikia says. “So we need to rebuild everything.”

Additional reporting by Bikash Kumar Battacharya and Sumit Das.

For India’s flood-hit rhinos, refuge depends increasingly on humans

By Conservation, News, Rescue and rehab No Comments

Manon Verchot, Mongabay | October 10, 2019

Read the original story here

When the flood waters began to rise in India’s Kaziranga National Park in July, five greater one-horned rhino calves found themselves separated from their mothers and stranded in deep water.

Wildlife rescuers usually try to reunite calves with their mothers. But during the peak of the floods, with most of the park submerged under water and with hundreds of animals needing rescue, they often fail.

“Looking for a mother during floods is near to impossible,” says Rathin Barman, joint director of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

The five lost calves were brought to a rescue center run by the WTI, the Assam Forest Department and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. They will stay in the center until they are two-and-a-half years old, according to Barman, who also heads the center. They will be hand-reared by a team of carers on human infant formula. It will be years before they’re re-released into the wild — if at all.

Original photo as published by Mongabay: Two of the baby rhinos rescued in the 2019 floods in Kaziranga National Park. Image courtesy Wildlife Trust of India.

Kaziranga is famous for having the world’s largest population of greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis), with more than 2,400 individuals out of the estimated 3,500 globally. It’s also known for its annual floods during the monsoon season.

“Kaziranga is a flood plain ecosystem and we need floods,” Barman says. “If tomorrow God decides there will be no floods in Kaziranga, then there will be no Kaziranga.”

The park usually has multiple cycles of flooding between June and October, as rainwaters swell the Brahmaputra River, causing it to spill over. But this natural phenomenon is becoming a lot worse, in part because of unnatural factors around the park.

In recent decades, the floodwaters have reached record levels, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of animals. The highest recorded flood in Kaziranga was in 1998, and the park has started regularly seeing major inundations.

“This year was again a big flood,” Barman says. “Last year we didn’t have floods, but in ’16-’17 we had big floods, so almost three years consecutively we’re getting big floods in Kaziranga.”

In 2017, around 400 animals died, including more than 30 rhinos. By comparison, only seven rhinos were killed by poachers between 2017 and 2018, according to Kaziranga National Park records.

This year, around 200 animals have died during floods so far, including more than a dozen rhinos, according to park officials. They attribute this year’s relatively low death toll to improved management methods in the area. But it’s hard to say if the numbers will continue to improve.

Communities report the floods are gradually getting worse — and harder to predict.

“This time, 80 to 90 percent of the park was inundated,” says Rohini Ballab Saikia, divisional forest officer of Kaziranga National Park. “And this was the third-highest flood we ever had in Kaziranga, as per our records. During this period, the peak flood season was for about seven to 10 days.”

Though the waters have mostly receded, some areas in and around the park were still flooded when Mongabay visited in September.

No Safe Passage

Historically, animals facing floods in the park could easily flee to the higher ground of the nearby Karbi Anglong hills. Now, their passage is blocked by a highway and a growing number of hotels and resorts.

It’s a dangerous route to safety. Thousands of vehicles use the highway every day. And while park authorities limit vehicle speeds in areas where animals cross, especially during the floods, many animals are still hit by vehicles. This year more than a dozen animals, including hog deer and sambar deer, reportedly died along the highway during the floods.

It’s not just the highway making it difficult for animals to reach higher ground. The tourism industry is increasingly blocking animals’ paths along both sides of the national highway. Resorts are building walls around their premises, some of which encroach upon known animal corridors. Even though greater one-horned rhinos are fairly strong swimmers, the floods are often too severe for them to survive.

The resorts don’t just block animals when waters rise. Residents say construction has increased sedimentation in the river. A report from UNESCO also found that embankments around the Brahmaputra River were making the situation in Assam worse.

“The deforestation and flood control methods, such as the construction of embankments, have also altered the riverine ecosystem,” the study found. “This has resulted in the river becoming heavily silted. In Upper Assam the river bed has been raised to such an extent that only a few days of rain can result in major floods.”

Residents like Manoj Gogoi, a wildlife rescuer, have also observed flooding on the other side of the highway near the Karbi Anglong hills. “If it rains heavily in Karbi Anglong, it floods on that side of the road, which was not previously seen,” he adds in Assamese.

According to Gogoi, there hasn’t been proper planning for drainage in the area, and water is being blocked. “Unless we clear the animal corridor, we are in deep trouble,” he says.

An Artificial Solution?

As construction along the outside of the park continues, park officials are looking inside the park for solutions to protect animals. In the last few years, they’ve built dozens of artificial highlands within the park to give animals somewhere to go when the water rises. But these artificial highlands have been very controversial.

Environmentalists say the priority should be maintaining safe passage to natural highlands, rather than constructing artificial ones in the park. Experts have also raised concerns that highland construction in the park could add to the problem of siltation in the river.

Environmentalists also point out that animals can’t survive for long on the man-made highlands, especially since there is no food supply on the elevated mounds of earth. “No matter how many man-made highlands they make, it cannot be as useful as the natural highlands,” Gogoi says.

Still, Gogoi attributes the comparatively few animal deaths during the floods this year to the recent installation of another 33 artificial highlands. Viral photos showed dozens of rhinos taking shelter on the highlands during the July floods.

Saikia, Kaziranga’s divisional forest officer, agrees the highlands played an instrumental role in saving rhinos and other animals this year.

“While the construction of these highlands was going on, there were two schools of thought,” he says. “There was one that it was not good to intervene so much into a wildlife area. However, we went with the construction of the highlands because we had reasons for it.”

According to Saikia, the artificial highlands were constructed after a team of experts evaluated the landscape. Gaps were left in between to avoid blocking water, and each highland was constructed with careful attention to the direction the water flows.

For Saikia, the conditions outside the Kaziranga National Park are reason enough to build the artificial highlands inside.

“If, suppose, we had given safe passage to the animals to move towards the Karbi Anglong hills without human intervention, then we wouldn’t need to intervene so much inside the park,” he says.

Community Relations

The forest department says it’s working with the police, local communities, tourism agencies and NGOs to prepare for the flooding every year. But the relationship between local communities and the park hasn’t always been good.

For decades, Kaziranga National Park has expanded, and in the process hundreds of villagers have been displaced. Since 1984, there have been six additions to the national park.

“Our grandparents would talk about how they were living inside Kaziranga — the present boundary of Kaziranga — and they talk about how they were herded off from there,” says Pranab Doley, an indigenous activist from Kaziranga. “Like, a sahib came with a horse and they said, ‘You have to go out because we have to protect the rhinos,’ and it’s historically documented that the hunting of rhinos was not a regular practice of the communities here.”

Even now, there is talk of expanding the park to cover the animal corridors that lead to the Karbi Anglong hills. There are concerns that this potential expansion could displace more communities.

Construction around the park has also made the flooding worse for nearby communities.

“The more elevated we make our houses, the more flooding is taking place day by day,” says Kulendra Deka, a farmer from Difolupothar Rongalu village, in Assamese.

Doley says he feels communities should be part of the decision-making process for development around the park. He says communities have historical knowledge of how to deal with the floods, but that the government won’t listen.

“Every year we have to shout, scream, suffer this trauma of losing again and again,” he says. “It’s a constant process of only losing. So we’ve become only relief seekers. One month, to three months in a year we’ll go to relief camps and we’ll be herded like cattle. And there we have to wait for someone to give us rice, dal, or some torn clothes — like charity. This is not what people want.”

Still, some community members say their relationship with the government, especially the forest department has gotten better.

“Earlier there was a gap between the local community and the department,” says Gogoi, the wildlife rescuer. “And slowly the gap is reducing. I don’t blame the forest department, everyone is to be blamed.”

Gogoi’s animal rescue efforts means he works regularly with government bodies involved in the conservation of Kaziranga National Park. Both he and the forest department are involved in efforts to educate communities about animal rescues and floods. These days, many of the alerts about stranded animals come directly from communities themselves. More villagers know to call the forest department if they see a deer or rhino in trouble.

With the rapid development outside the park boundaries, rescue efforts are intensifying, and it’s difficult to know how bad it’s going to be from one year to the next.

For the five rhino calves rescued this year, it could take around four years before they’re released. First they’ll be hand-reared for a few years, then they’ll be sent to a pre-release enclosure for a year or two, where they’ll adapt to reduced human contact and finding their own food and water. Some may even be sent to the Assam State Zoo as part of the zoo’s rhino-breeding program.

In the meantime, Kaziranga is still recovering from this year’s floods.

“Because it’s an annually flooded park, all our infrastructures are every year damaged,” Saikia says. “So we need to rebuild everything.”

Nepal to conduct, self-fund, rhino census in March 2020

By Conservation No Comments
Abhaya Raj Joshi, Mongabay | September 11, 2019

Read the original story here

KATHMANDU, NEPAL: Nepal’s government plans to conduct a census of greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) in March 2020, a year after postponing the count due to lack of funds.

The count will be funded by the government, unlike previous years when authorities relied on donors to fund the census, which is expected to cost around 16 million rupees ($140,000).

The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation lobbied for the government to allocate money for the count after it failed to raise the funds necessary to conduct a planned count earlier this year. As a result, during the recent budget speech for the new fiscal year, Finance Minister Yubraj Khatiwada announced, “A conservation action plan will be prepared, and a census of rare wildlife species and those on the verge of extinction will be carried out.”

Original photo as published by Mongabay.com.

The government has allocated 11 million rupees ($96,400) for the count and will request that NGOs contribute the remaining 5 million rupees, Ram Chandra Kandel, assistant director general of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, told Mongabay.

The government announcement comes as significant numbers of Nepal’s rhinos have been dying due to unknown or natural causes. Since mid-July 2018, 45 rhinos have been found dead in and around Chitwan National Park, the country’s main rhino sanctuary.

The deaths have prompted calls to assess whether Chitwan is hosting more rhinos than its ecosystem is able to support. Officials say the new census is important as it will provide a clear picture of the population and its habitat and an indication of the park’s carrying capacity.

Until recently, department officials relied entirely on various conservation-related NGOs to finance the census. Although Chitwan National Park brought in 290 million rupees ($2.5 million) in revenue last fiscal year, park authorities do not have control over those funds. Half of the park’s revenue is allocated to support local communities, while the other half goes into the central government’s general budget.

The planned census of Nepal’s greater one-horned rhinoceroses had to be called off last year as only 60 percent of the 10 million rupees ($87,600) necessary were raised with support from donors.

The wildlife department tries to conduct a rhino census every four to five years to take stock of the population and devise conservation strategies. The last census was conducted between April 11 and May 2, 2015, and counted 605 rhinos in Chitwan National Park, 29 in Bardia National Park, eight in Suklaphanta National Park and three in Parsa National Park.

Rhino Nationalism

The government’s decision to conduct the rhino census with its own money fits in with a broader trend of the government attempting to strike a populist, nationalist chord with the people. It comes as Nepali surveyors are on the verge of completing the re-measurement of Everest, another nationalist favorite.

Recent remarks by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, who came to power in 2018 riding a popular nationalist wave, suggest that the rhino count is part of this push. Despite the apparent problems in Chitwan, expectations are high, as the prime minister has already announced that the country has doubled the population of rhinos in the past decade, a feat last achieved between 1978 and 2000, when the population rose to 612 from 310.

At a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization in Kathmandu, Oli told participants from around the world how he felt about rhinos and Everest. “In the past ten years, we’ve doubled tigers,” he said (Nepal has indeed doubled its tiger population in the past decade). “We have similarly doubled gaidas. Do you know what gaida is? You people know gaida as rhino. But rhinos are not rhinos, they are gaida. I request you to remember this word, gaida.” The prime minister also urged the delegates to call Everest by its Nepali name, Sagarmatha.

‘Nepali Conservationists Are Now More Capable’

But nationalism may not be the only reason Nepal’s government decided to self-fund the census for the first time since systematic counting began. Zoologist Mukesh Chalise, who has been actively involved in conservation for more than three decades, says that Nepali conservationists now have the experience and training necessary to manage the census. “In the past, we did not have the expertise to conduct the count, now we can do it on our own,” he says.

Chalise says he was skeptical about donors funding the census: “When donors finance the census, they want to show that the population has increased and this raises questions about the whole counting process.” That is why it is important for the government funded the census, he says. But members of the conservation community also point their fingers at government officials who fear any reduction in numbers would make them look bad.

When field work for the count is completed in April next year, officials are certain to work under pressure to make the number public.

Chalise also cautions that the funds should be used properly. “The department should use the funds not only to count heads, but to promote the scientific understanding of the species,” he says. “We don’t want the money to be spent on housing dignitaries who come to witness the count, nor do we want the money to be spent on paying incentives to park staffers.”