by Amit Sharma, Lead, Rhino Conservation Programme, WWF India
India is home to over 2900 Indian rhinoceros, with a lot of their habitat range overlapping with those of Asian elephants and tigers. Today, only five sub species of the rhino survive in the world. The Greater One-horned Rhino or simply the Indian Rhinoceros is scientifically identified as Rhinoceros unicornis (Linnaeus, 1758) and is found only in the Indian subcontinent.
An Indian rhinoceros can run up to 55 km per hour.
Earlier, the Indian rhino could be found all along the Indus-Ganges-Brahmaputra valley. It occupied an area stretching from the borders of Myanmar in the east, across northern India and southern Nepal, as far as the Indus Valley in Pakistan in the west. It is now found in a few pockets of the Brahmaputra valley in Assam and in the Terai grassland region of India and Nepal in the foothill of the Himalayas, the two main hubs being India’s Kaziranga National Park and Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.
The greater one-horned rhinoceros is showing a gradually increasing population trend in India and Nepal.
It is the only large mammal species in Asia to be down-listed from endangered to vulnerable in the IUCN Red list in 2008.
However, the species still faces tremendous risks as their distribution is limited and are found in significant numbers in 10 protected areas distributed between Nepal and India occupying a total area of around 4000 km2. Moreover, around 67% of the entire global population (approx. 3624) is limited to Kaziranga National Park in Assam and are prone to high risks on account of any stochastic event and natural calamity. However, the biggest threat faced by the species is poaching.
The Indian rhinos thrive in the grasslands, and changes in these habitats is posing as an inevitable threat. Loss in grassland quality mainly due to growth of invasive and natural succession in addition to changes in the water regimes are the main components posing a threat to the habitats of the rhinos.
A lot of effort was put in by the Governments both in India and Nepal to conserve the species. In India, led by Assam, efforts were put in to revive the population of the species within its declared rhino Protected Areas. Legal provisions were enacted for protection of the species in India and this helped the case.
The Indian rhinoceros helps maintain the health and balance of the ecosystem. They are an integral part of the food chain and they engineer the grasslands and wetlands they range upon. Rhinos are the mega herbivores grazing in both short as well as the tall dense grasslands, opening them for other herbivore species. They actively use the wetlands and waterbodies helping towards the natural rejuvenation of the aquatic systems.
The rhino bearing states took initiatives to work for the conservation of the species. Assam has played a leading role here as the people of Assam take pride in conserving the species and it is the state animal of Assam. In 2005, the Forest Department, Government of Assam adopted the ambitious Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020 program in partnership with WWF India and the International Rhino Foundation. This has been recognized as a success globally as this program helped re-introduce rhinos to one of its historical range area, Manas National Park, the first Protected Area (PA) under the IRV2020 program where rhinos were reintroduced.
WWF India has also played a leading part in establishing a second rhino population within the Dudhwa TR. Thanks to the Forest Department, Government of Uttar Pradesh to take this much needed decision to provide more space to the rhino population in the PA and for providing us the opportunity to provide our assistance and support to undertake the translocations during 2018.
The local communities residing around the rhino PA’s have a great role to play in the conservation of the species and its protection. WWF-India is working towards strengthening community participation in rhino bearing areas through various interventions that raise awareness on rhino conservation, promote income augmentation opportunities for local villagers, and minimise the loss due to human wildlife interaction.
To further augment the rhino conservation movement in India, a positive move was made by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India in adopting a National Conservation Strategy for Rhinos during 2019. This is a first of its kind for the species in India which aims to work for the conservation of the species under five objectives viz. – strengthen protection; expand the distribution range; research and monitoring; trans-boundary engagement and adequate and sustained funding. I am highly hopeful for a better future for the rhinos in India with this development where I see the opportunity of a co-ordinated action for the conservation of the species in India.