A painstaking effort is on to bring the one-horned rhino back to Assam's Manas National Park, the place it once inhabited
Once upon a time in the Northeast, there was a vast forest next to a river. Its grasslands were home to the one-horned rhinoceros and the pygmy hog, while giant hornbills nested on its treetops. Till the mid-1980s, the Manas National Park in Assam was known for its excellent biodiversity and the multitude of rare fauna it housed. The Bodoland agitation and the socio-political conflict in the area took attention away from forest management. Consequently, by 2000, Manas was almost completely stripped of its rich flora and fauna, including all its 100 rhinos.
It was at this time that the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) along with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) decided to intervene. "While there were no rhinos left in Manas National Park, our assessment was that it was still capable of being a healthy habitat for rhinos," says Vivek Menon, executive director, WTI. In conjunction with the Bodoland Territorial Council and the forest department of Assam, WTI-IFAW created a unique programme in 2002 to revive Manas and its biodiversity, embodied by the one-horned rhino.
"We set up India's first rescue and rehabilitation centre, Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation, near a protected area -- in this case, Kaziranga," says Menon. Here, orphaned rhino calves are hand-reared (some even bottle-fed) for up to three years. "Then we transport them to Manas, allow a one-year period for acclimatisation in controlled but wild conditions and then release them into the jungle," he says.
That seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a handful of rhinos, but Menon says it is worth it. The presence of the one-horned rhino, the largest herbivore of the grasslands, is a sign that the habitat is in good ecological health. "This augurs well for smaller, lesser-known grassland animals such as the pygmy hog," he says. Also, the rhino is an evolutionary marvel that can do with some human intervention for its continued survival in the wild. "Unlike other species that have adapted to diverse habitats, rhinos can only survive in grasslands, that too on very specific grasses," Menon explains.
Crew that executed rehabilitation, transportation and release of rhinos from CWRC to Manas National Park Moreover, its breeding habits are so slow that it's a wonder that rhinos reproduce at all. Males attain sexual maturity at nine years while the notoriously choosy females become mature at four. Mothers rear their calves for three years before they literally push them away. To make mating matters harder, the sex ratio of one-horned rhinos is skewed in favour of females. "This makes it incredibly tragic when we lose a couple of them to poaching, accidents or illness," says Menon. "Also, if the dead rhino has a calf with her, it stands little chance of surviving on their own in the wild."
In the last four years, three of the eight rhinos that WTI-IFAW bred in captivity and relocated to Manas have given birth in the wild. "We are thrilled," says Menon. "This shows they've completely adapted despite being hand-reared. Also, their age of calving has ranged from nine to eleven years, which is similar to free-ranging one-horned rhinos." The first to give birth was Jamuna, rescued as a three-month-old calf during the annual floods in Kaziranga in 2004 and relocated to Manas in 2007. The other two proud mothers are Ganga and Mainao. Last year, three male calves were released from their temporary enclosure in Manas, taking the total number of calves rescued, reared and relocated to 10. "We plan to scale up as far as possible, but our programme depends on how many calves we are able to rescue and nurse back to health in a year," says Menon.
The ghar wapsi, so to speak, of rhinos to Manas has had positive connotations not only for wildlife conservation but also for the communities around the protected areas. For the Bodos, rhinos in Manas have come to symbolise a resurgence of their ethnic pride, which has taken a battering in the last few decades. In many ways, the Bodos' fight for their ethnic identity echoes the rhino's fight for survival in a rapidly shrinking habitat.
In 2011, Manas National Park was removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger and was commended for its efforts in preservation. To lay people, the idea that an entire forest can be regenerated and even repopulated with its lost endemic species, is incredible. But Menon has always believed otherwise.
"When we began this project, I never doubted nature's resilience for a minute," he says. Today, Manas represents hope -- hope that it is possible to reverse some of the depredations of poaching, social unrest and climate change on nature; hope that in spite of, and with some help from, mankind, the law of the jungle can prevail once more.