By Amit Sharma and Somreet Bhattacharya
The Greater one-horned rhino is considered the most amphibious of all the rhino species. To count its numbers at home is no easy task. But the forest department of Assam and naturalists from WWF India, along with other partners, undertook this month-long exercise. While factors such as the weather or when the area is teaming other wild animal species made the task time-consuming, it was accomplished. Interestingly, drones were used for the verification count for the first time.
A rhino count requires boots on the ground throughout the process, during which the teams have to tread through the grasslands and forest counting individual rhinos carefully.
Counting rhino numbers is a massive exercise that is executed after detailed planning and arrangements.
Counting rhino numbers involves the entire Protected Area to be divided into enumeration blocks, and the ground conditions determine the sizes and shapes of the blocks. For analysing the performance of the population over the years, the blocks are uniformly kept. Each enumeration block is traversed in a forward-moving pattern, and each rhino individual encountered is recorded in a pre-designed format. It is done in a zig-zag path to maximise the coverage of the area in an attempt not to miss any individual and avoid a double count of a single individual.
The enumeration team is not only made up of people from the forest department, but an opportunity is also provided to people from conservation NGOs, researchers and naturalists to make the exercise an inclusive one.
For the WWF India team from the Brahmaputra Landscape, the estimation exercise began early after a series of meetings with the forest officials for planning the estimation exercise. While tracks were covered on the elephant's back, a part of it was negotiated on foot.
In a trial method for the year 2022, the double count method was successfully executed for Orang NP and Pobitora WLS to make the numbers more accurate. The numbers for Kaziranga NP and Manas NP were revealed based on the traditionally followed single count method.
Over the third weekend of March 2022, Orang NP became the first Protected Area where the count began. The process indicated that the entire PA was divided into 16 census blocks that were covered by the enumeration team. On the first day, the enumeration team covered the blocks from point A to B, and on the following day, the blocks were covered from point B to A to ensure a double count process. Two different enumerators ideally did this for the two days. The analysis revealed the existence of 125 rhino individuals to be distributed in almost the entire park as recorded during the count, which indicated the growth of 24 rhinos over four years, which is an indicator of a healthy sign for the park population.
Globally, the population of the Kaziranga National Park is the highest. For the process, the park area was divided into two distinct sections with 84 census blocks. The enumeration teams covered the census blocks mostly on elephant back for over two days. On the third day, a sample count covering 30% of the census blocks selected randomly over the park was completed as a verification exercise. A complete double count was not possible as the area of this PA is quite big. The terrain was challenging with the additional risk of the presence of wild animals, and the results were declared based on a single count. This park recorded 2613 individual rhinos. A healthy increase of 200 individuals over four years was distributed over the park.
Next, the count was executed in Pobitora. As the terrain is relatively friendly, the double count method was adopted. The entire area of 38. 81sq.km was divided into nine census blocks where counting occurred for over two days early in the morning. Here the new numbers obtained are 107, which is a marginal increase from the last count. These were located in all the census blocks of the PA.
The excitement rose while counting numbers in Manas NP as the rhino population was reintroduced under the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 and rehabilitation programs. This park offers a lot of challenges as it is large, and the terrain is very challenging. This time the challenges increased manifold due to inclement weather conditions and continuous rains, making enumerators negotiate even knee-deep water and leeches. The PA was divided into 71 census blocks, and the enumeration team could count 40 rhino individuals, only occupying 19 of the blocks. “The count in Manas was not quite satisfying as the exercise got highly affected by rains and waterlogging. In addition, the non-availability of sufficient elephants to cover all parts of the park was also a hindrance”, says Amit Sharma. However, as the park maintains regular monitoring for the rhinos, the estimated figures have been recorded to be 50.
The count was successfully concluded for the 14th time in the state, revealing a total population of 2895, with about 90% concentrated only within Kaziranga NP. The operation is relatively intensive and involves precise planning and careful execution. Dedicated efforts in the estimation exercise negotiating all challenges have led to this highly applauded success.
The efforts made by the Government and the Assam Forest Department in working with all its partners and providing the space to the local communities to contribute that has helped achieve this success in rhino conservation.
We understand that rhinos exist in numbers of six or more in a square kilometre in certain pockets. Some of its preferred habitats are getting deteriorated in quality, and there is an increase in the population of associated herbivores and livestock competing for space. The rising population also requires space management to be better planned and also maintain the food quality and water availability in the prime areas. There is minimal scope to increase space in the existing rhino bearing areas. As such, it will be necessary to find new areas and reintroduce rhinos both inside and outside of Assam to secure the future of the population.
We conclude after undertaking the estimated count that the future can be only brighter for the species if this collaborative and inclusive model of conservation is sustained and strengthened.