Challenges in saving the one-horned rhino in the Manas landscape
‘Lost’ rhino retraced after 27 days
Inching back towards being a nature lover’s dream againWith the Himalayan foothills in Bhutan forming a scenic backdrop, along that mountainous nation’s border with India, the Manas Tiger Reserve (MTR) has been renowned for a long time, both for its scenic beauty as well as its rich array of wildlife.
In 1973, MTR became one of the first nine such forests to be brought under the Project Tiger and covered 2,837 sq. km, with the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary (MWS), formed in 1928, being declared its core. The sanctuary area, covering 391 sq. km, was nominated a World Heritage Site under UNESCO in 1985. Though in 1989 a Biosphere Reserve was created around the MWS and in 1990 the sanctuary itself was upgraded to a National Park by increasing its area to 500 sq. km, political violence ravaged the area and the sanctuary’s World Heritage Site status was downgraded to ‘in danger’ in 1992. The park was a scene of great destruction and the one-horned rhinos particularly paid a heavy price as every single individual of the species was eliminated by poachers in the park.
Bringing back the rhinoSince 2000 strong political will has helped improve the situation with local communities and NGOs chipping in their bits. In 2003, Manas National Park became a part of the Ripu-Chirang Elephant Reserve (CRER), and in 2004 it was declared an Important Bird Area.
Under the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020), in April 2008, two male rhinos were reintroduced into the park from the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary and another six between December 2010 and January 2011, also from Pobitora. In 2011, the ‘in danger’ tag was removed off the heritage site and it is slowly but surely reverting back to its heyday. To ensure the safety of the released rhinos, a trained team is monitoring the rhinos on a daily basis. Attempts are also being made to document their behaviour and habitat use in the park.
Chasing a wandering pachydermRhino3 is one of the rhinos currently being monitored in Manas. In a turn of events, the monitoring teams lost contact of Rhino3 on 29 October 2011. The antennas were unable to pick up the radio signals from the radio collar fitted round its neck. The monitoring team of Bhuyapara (eastern) Range near Kanchanbari camp had last confirmed its presence on the basis of the notch in its left ear. Its absence set off a big search operation lasting nearly a month.
The Manas National Park machinery was put into gear and searches were launched on foot, elephant back, vehicles as well as on boats. It was suspected that the rhino had probably moved westwards crossing the river systems into the Panbari forest range.
On 8 November, seventh day into the tireless efforts, some limited success was met when Deba Kumar Dutta, WWF-India’s Senior Project Officer, along with a team of the Forest Department got very faint signals from its collar from the Gabharukhunda area of the Panbari (western) range. They were lost, only to be found again in the same area on 16 November. The signal quality was probably affected by the hilly terrain as the area is very close to Bhutan. It was even suspected that the rhinos might have crossed over to Bhutan. The problem of the search teams was compounded by the locations being very difficult to reach as there are no roads and there are no permanent camps in that area - a challenging situation for the monitoring team.
Some faint signals were again picked up on 22 November from the eastern bank of the River Beki, boosting the team’s spirits. This was a small consolation for Manas Park’s Monitoring team as well as the WWF-India team, whose hard work in the preceding days covering all the three ranges had seen little success. The area in-between the river systems was searched by three teams. The area is difficult to survey as sand bars in the river channel on the one hand do not allow the movement of the boats from one bank to the other and on the other hand the limited water volume in the channels does not support the use of motorized boats.
Thereafter, weak signals were received from some locations along the River Beki confusing the search teams. It was believed that some portion of radio-collar had dropped off into the water leading to the confusing signals. It was then decided not to depend on radio signals and search for it in probable areas of the park by looking into its habitat use pattern over the previous six months. Mr. Fakaruddin Ahmed, Deputy Ranger, Basbari said ‘Despite our team being ill equipped to negotiate the tough terrain and vegetation and the low numbers of binoculars being a major limitation, we were determined to track this rhino.’
After putting in over 100 elephant hours (no: of hours for which elephants were used in the activity), searching on foot for about 150 km, burning 500 litres of fuel and camping in deep wilderness for about 12 days, on 29 November, eleven members of the monitoring team of Basbari Range gathered in the premises of the range office and decided to launch a combing operation of all the three ranges of Manas. Three lead and seven support teams were formed as a result. 10 elephants, four vehicles were put into action. The intense search operation that started at 7 AM involving 40 staff covered every corner of the Basbari range and around noon one Kuribeel camp support team finally located Rhino-3 at one of the ponds in the Charpuli area.
Analysing the reasons for the rhino being ‘lost’, Amit, Sharma, Coordinator, Rhino Conservation, WWF-India said “The collar is probably malfunctioning due to which the radio receivers are receiving the signals irregularly.” Amit was of great help to the monitoring teams through out these tense 27 days as he analysed each day’s search efforts on a GIS platform and provided inputs to plan the next day’s search operation. He added “From the signs recovered in the Gabharukhunda area, it seems that this rhino moved up to the area occupied by Rhino4 by crossing the Beki-Manas Rivers. During our observation all activity of Rhino-3 was found normal. Radio-collar belt remained around her neck but it stopped transmitting the signals.”
As a stakeholder in the rhino’s well being Mr Khampa Borgoyary, Deputy Chief of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) said ‘We are taking seriously and all efforts will be taken to see that the rhinos are safe in Manas.’
Mr Anindya Swargowary, Field Director, Manas Tiger Project, who is working hard to help the rhinos regain their lost ground in Manas, said ‘I was confident that the dedicated efforts by my field staff as well as the WWF team in Manas would yield positive results to locate the missing rhino.’
With such dedicated people working to bring back the past glory of Manas, there is little doubt the Rhino3 will soon find more of its kind in the park’s confines.
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