By Geetanjali Krishna and Sally Howard, Photographs by Sandesh Kadur and others, bioGraphic | May 11, 2022
In northeastern India, taking care of a vulnerable species also means looking after the humans who live alongside it.
To read the original story and to enjoy beautiful photography by Sandesh Kadur and others, click here.
Along the banks of the Manas River in the Indian state of Assam, impenetrable undergrowth gives way to sandy banks and clear water. A slim man walks ahead, searching, sniffing, and scanning. Tall trees of silk cotton (Bombax ceiba) loom above him, laden with orchids and other epiphytes. In the dense vegetation below, the tracker hunts for signs—broken branches, a fresh pile of dung, a flash of silver-gray reflecting the morning sun. Finally, he sees what he’s looking for across a stream in the distance—a portly greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) grazing on tall elephant grass. “It’s looking good,” Maheshwar Basumatary whispers with paternal pride. “Look how well it is feeding!” He surveys the area behind the animal. “It usually moves in this territory with two other rhinos,” he says. “Where are they?” His concern is palpable—and understandable.
By 1905, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), only 12 rhinos remained in Kaziranga National Park, about 200 miles away from this spot. Their population across their range, which once extended across northern India and encompassed the Himalayan foothills from Pakistan to Burma, shrank to forests in Nepal, Assam, and West Bengal in eastern India, because of habitat conversion to farmlands, conflicts with people, and hunting. And though the overall population has climbed ever since governments began protecting those that held on, poaching has remained a serious threat.
Bamboo thickets characteristic of this lower Himalayan jungle obscure Basumatary’s view as the rhino ambles through the grass. Best done on foot because of the difficult terrain, rhino tracking can be dangerous and uncomfortable. The Dooars—fertile areas hemmed between the Manas and other tributaries of the River Brahmaputra in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas—are thick with creatures that bite and sting, including tigers, king cobras, and a variety of insects. And between dense stands of forest lie savannas, where wild elephants and famously aggressive Asian water buffalo also graze.
Few feel as much at home here as Basumatary, or Onthai to his friends, which means rock in the local language. As an animal keeper with Wildlife Trust of India, a conservation NGO, his present job is to keep an eye on this and the other two rhinos he’s currently seeking, as well as two others in Manas National Park, which encompasses the riparian landscape where he now walks. Basumatary watches patiently from a safe distance until the rhino settles down to wallow in the shallow steam under the climbing November sun. “Every morning, I walk miles into the forest to these rhinos’ known territories to observe them from a distance,” he says. “The days when I can’t locate them, I feel too anxious to do anything else.”
And little wonder. Basumatary and a handful of others have invested huge amounts of time and energy in these animals’ lives, from hand-rearing them as orphans to releasing them in different areas of Manas and ensuring they thrive. Paired with translocations of wild adults from the rhinos’ recovered stronghold in Kaziranga to Manas and other viable rhino habitats around the state, their efforts have yielded impressive results: From 2006, when rhinos numbered a little over 2,000 in Assam, their population had grown to more than 2,600 by 2018 and may be near 3,000 now. Thanks to efforts here and in Nepal, the greater one-horned rhino is the only large mammal in Asia that the IUCN has downlisted from Endangered to Vulnerable. And since 2018, the number of rhinos in Manas alone has climbed from 29 to 48, according to Dr. Samshul Ali, a veterinarian at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation.
But Basumatary’s job and his devotion to the rhinos are not the only reasons he knows this landscape so well. Until about 15 years ago, he was a poacher himself out of economic necessity—a sign of just how far rhino conservation here has had to come, and the challenges that remain for ensuring that both rhinos and people can thrive.
“Every morning I walk miles into the forest to these rhinos’ known territories to observe them from a distance. The days when I can’t locate them, I feel too anxious to do anything else.” — Maheshwar Basumatary, ex-poacher turned animal keeper with Wildlife Trust of India
The jungles that became Manas National Park have a troubled history. A transboundary landscape once filled with rhinos, elephants, tigers, bears, and clouded leopards, the region has long been the scene of political unrest among local communities, including the Bodo and Adivasi. The largest minority group in Assam, the Bodo are linguistically and culturally distinct. They speak several dialects of a Tibeto-Burman language, have an extensive pantheon of tribal gods and goddesses, and have long felt alienated from their home state as well as from the rest of the country. In the 1980s, some groups demanded a separate state of Bodoland; others demanded full secession from India. Different factions took up arms against the Indian government and set up camps inside the jungle that had sustained them for generations. “In front of our eyes, forest department check posts inside Manas were abandoned as the militants did not want any government presence inside,” Basumatary, a Bodo himself, recalls. The sustained unrest forced schools, markets and factories to shut down. All development activity around Manas ceased for more than two decades.
Unable to complete formal schooling and unemployed, Basumatary got married at 19, which brought new pressures and responsibilities. “Some neighbors asked me if I would like to help them track rhinos and other animals in the forest,” says Basumatary, who is now 46. “There were no other job opportunities available, so I joined their poaching gang to support my household.”
Basumatary was not alone. Many young men like him who did not flee the region began hunting animals and felling trees to support themselves. Even disclosing a rhino’s location to a poaching gang could earn in one day what it would take them more than two months to earn legally. Seven years after Manas became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, and two years after it became a national park, it became India’s only entry on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. By the end of the 1990s, all of Manas’s rhinos were gone. Basumatary’s marriage deteriorated, too. Basumatary says his wife, when she realized what he did for a living, left him to raise their two young children by himself.
In 2003, though, the Bodo community entered into a peace accord with the Indian government and formed the Bodoland Territorial Region, autonomous from the state of Assam and governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). Community leaders supported government and NGO initiatives to restore the biodiversity of Manas. “We felt humiliated and guilt-stricken that the entire world blamed Bodo people for the destruction of Manas,” recalls 54-year-old Kampa Borgoyary, the Bodoland Territorial Council’s first deputy chief and minister in charge of forests and education, who oversaw the conservation effort in Manas National Park from 2003 until he lost his seat in 2020. “The imperative of restoring Manas to its former glory became deeply linked with the resurgence of our own ethnic pride,” Borgoyary says.
Bringing back the rhino was a key part of that. The council urged tribal poachers like Basumatary to reform, and offered them a small monthly stipend to join anti-poaching operations—initially $40, now about $80, similar to Assam’s annual per capita income of about $665. “I also realized the error of my ways,” Basumatary says. “I gave up poaching and joined a local outfit working on wildlife conservation in 2005.”
An hour after leaving behind his first rhino of the day, Basumatary finds its two missing companions placidly wading in a marsh some distance from each other. Having tended to them for almost a year after they were translocated to Manas, he’s relieved to see them. His radio crackles, informing him that a black bear (Ursus thibetanus) has strayed into a village. Later, he will have to trap and then release the animal somewhere safe. He is particularly happy this morning, though. He has also received word that two rhinos he released into the wild a couple of years ago have had calves.
The rhinos before him faintly evoke armored trucks, the way their hides fold in sections. But each has long eyelashes and a quivering semi-prehensile upper lip that brings to mind a Bollywood diva. The animals use this protuberance to grasp long elephant grass, roots, and branches and place them into their mouths. When they are full-grown, they may weigh between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds each and eat, on average, 1 percent of their body weight daily.
When they’re not eating, the rhinos are usually soaking, spending as much as 60 percent of their waking hours in muddy water. This protects their skin from sun, dehydration, and insect bites. It’s also a social time. Although the males are territorial, it’s common to see two or more wallowing together. And unlike the rhinos’ African counterparts, they use their horns for digging up roots and foraging for food, not for fighting.
Clumps of lavender spider flower (Cleome hassleriana) bloom around them in the grasslands. Animal trackers say the plants proliferate where rhinos defecate regularly, making the flowery mounds an easy way to identify rhino territory in conjunction with other signs. This is exactly how the Bodo and other communities that live on the peripheries of Manas and Kaziranga used to track them in the past.
That poachers only recently cleared Manas of its rhinos is one of the reasons it made such a good candidate as a location for their recovery. It was “a strong indicator to suggest that the area was suitable for the species from a habitat perspective,” says Amit Sharma, who leads the rhino program at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) India. Plus, the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, part of the 280,000-hectare Manas Tiger Reserve, had a larger area to support a larger rhino population. In 2005, the Assam state government, Bodoland Territorial Council, the forest department, and conservation organizations like WWF India and Wildlife Trust of India, among others, initiated a project called India Rhino Vision 2020. Their goal was ambitious: to increase the rhino population in Assam to 3,000 by 2020 by translocating individuals from Kaziranga, where they were still numerous, to viable habitats like Manas, where they’d been extirpated.
As Rhino Vision 2020 got underway, adult wild rhinos in other forests of Assam were identified to be moved, to help repopulate Manas. Also, four rhino calves were being hand-reared in Kaziranga National Park’s Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation, established in 2002 by Wildlife Trust of India, the forest department and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Between 2006 to 2008, the rehabilitation center moved these orphans to a large enclosure within a solar-electric fence in Manas, where they familiarized themselves with their new habitat under animal keepers’ supervision before release into the wild.
Buy-in from locals was critical to this program. Rhino Vision 2020 devised a series of projects to convert poachers like Basumatary around the state, not just in Manas, into conservationists, and to help their families with alternative livelihoods. “Rather than trying to protect the jungle here, or anywhere for that matter, with rules and guns,” says Rathin Barman, joint director of Wildlife Trust of India, “we discovered our most potent weapon was love.”
Meanwhile, as the forest department increased patrolling of the forest, poaching became more difficult. “When poaching no longer remained an easy way to make money, locals realized that helping restore Manas might enhance tourism in the area, which could in turn create much needed employment options for us,” says Rustom Basumatary (no relation to Onthai Basumatary), the former general secretary of Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society, a community organization working on conservation and ecotourism since 2003. Of the society’s 48 members today, 30 are ex-poachers. They offer a range of tourist activities—safaris, birdwatching tours, guide services, and more. Ex-poacher members also receive BTC’s monthly stipend, which Rustom Basumatary argues is too low. He and other locals would like it at least doubled, but with few other options for employment, the arrangement still appeals.
“Rather than trying to protect the jungle here, or anywhere for that matter, with rules and guns, we discovered our most potent weapon was love.” — Rathin Burman, joint director of Wildlife Trust of India
Over the past 15 years, BTC has inducted more than 100 poachers from Manas into anti-poaching squads and financially supported many others who have surrendered their arms. When 162 square miles of Raimona, a forest adjoining Manas, became a national park last summer, BTC provided about $665 each as well as livelihood alternatives to 57 poachers who had been working the region.
Some converts, like Onthai Basumatary, have become animal keepers. Like other ex-poachers, his income has dropped to a fraction of what he used to earn tracking and killing elephants for their tusks. But he cannot think of doing anything else: “I love my work and the animals in my care too much.” Since he got involved, Basumatary has seen 20 rehabilitated rhinos rewilded in Manas. And in 2017, the program marked a significant success—Ganga, one of the first three—had a grandson.
On a balmy November morning, Barman walks the grounds of the rehabilitation center to check on the five rhino calves, as well as the elephants, clouded leopards, and other species in residence. As he reviews their progress reports, he recalls his elation over the news of Ganga’s grandson: “Having seen her since she was rescued in infancy, I felt as if I myself had become a grandfather!” The center, which now has an operating room, pathology lab, and advanced rehabilitation equipment for all species found in the region, has grown substantially since Ganga’s time here. The first wild animal rescue and rehabilitation hospital in India, it has the same end goal for all its wards: successful translocation and breeding in the wild.
At the end of the day, “rehabilitated rhinos will never be 100 percent wild,” says Barman, who is based in Guwahati, Assam’s capital. “But their progeny born in the wild will be.”
Outside the center, in an enclosed boma, a fenced-in microcosm of their natural habitat, the rhinos huddle together for warmth in the grass. Dr. Ali, the veterinarian who heads the rehabilitation project, watches from a distance, partially hidden behind tall green screens that block the animals’ view of the center’s buildings and human activity. “Treating injured and orphaned wild animals is hard as there are few protocols to follow,” he says. “In fact, for rhinos, the best practices and protocols are being created right here.”
Those include ensuring that the rhinos don’t habituate to humans. Keepers undergo significant training before being allowed to interact with the animals. One of the keepers, Amal Das, has the crucial job of making milk for all of the center’s infant tenants, mixing vitamins, minerals, and high-calorie additives in a base of human infant formula. The important thing, he says, is to keep the bottles and milk-processing area completely sterile to avoid sickening the animals.
The baby of the center is three-month-old Krishna. The rhino was found wandering alone in a tea plantation when he was barely two days old, but today he’s thriving—so playful and inquisitive that the older rhinos constantly swat him away. “We refer to him as Krishna among ourselves, as he was rescued on the day we observe the birthday of Hindu deity Krishna,” Das explains. (Krishna is one of the most beloved incarnations of Vishnu, the godhead of the Hindu trinity of deities.) But the staff never say such names to the rhinos themselves, “as it makes it harder for them to rewild.”
Once the rehabilitated rhinos are about two years old, they will be shifted to another boma in Manas, as their predecessors have been before. They will spend another two years there, learning the lay of the land and developing loyalty to their release site, which research shows is crucial for their survival.
Onthai Basumatary and his colleague Debojit Saikia look after the rhinos that make it to Manas. For the first month, they feed them high-energy food like horse gram and unrefined cane sugar. Then they leave the animals to graze naturally. “It’s never easy to do this—whenever any of the rhinos spot me or Debojit, they mewl, begging to be fed,” Basumatary says. Once they’ve adjusted, though, “it feels good to see them thriving. It gives us all motivation to do more.”
Basumatary’s present charges have been roaming for more than a year and a half now. None seem to recognize him anymore. Their radio collars have fallen off on their own, as intended. Now, he says, “I have to treat them as wild animals.”