Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

INDIA: Rhinos Turn Kaziranga Park Into Maternity Ward

Subir Bhaumik

KAZIRANGA, India, May 10 1999 (IPS) - Assamese pride and better security have come to the rescue of the rare Great Indian Rhinoceros in its last major home in South Asia.

A census in Assam state’s sprawling Kaziranga Wildlife Reserve has shown a nearly 30 percent increase in the rhino population after poachers in quest of the rhino’s prized horn had brought down their numbers to 1,164 in one decade from 1,184 in 1984.

Claiming credit for the conservation success are wildlife officials, the army and the chauvinist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a rebel group that has been carrying out a bloody campaign to throw out non-Assamese from the northeastern Indian state.

In the last eight years, claims the state’s Forest Commissioner A. Jain, park guards killed 58 poachers as wildlife authorities tightened security at Kaziranga against rampant poaching because of the political turmoil in the state. Rhinos are killed for their horn that fetches nearly 25,000 dollars in the clandestine markets of East Asia and the Middle East for use in traditional medicines and as an aphrodisiac.

ULFA rebels who claim the animal as a symbol of Assamese pride, also cracked down on poachers, trying them in the “people’s court” and shooting at least six. “The rhino is our national property and we will protect it at all cost,” declares Paresh Barua, chief of the ULFA’s military wing.

The Indian army tracking down ULFA rebels, followed them to Kaziranga. As they patrolled areas around the 430-sq km park, anybody seen with a gun was taken to be a rebel and attacked.

Two years ago, the army even offered to patrol the park — an offer that was politely turned down by the forest department. “That would have affected conservation,” says Jain.

Wildlife authorities say the census revealed a “baby boom” among rhinos. “Nearly 12 percent of the rhinos are new-born calves, aged below three. There is clearly a baby boom in the park,” said B.S. Bonal, director of the Kaziranga park.

“At one compartment of the park, I was witness to the birth of a rhino calf. I found at least 17 pregnant female rhinos in that area. The whole place looked like a maternity ward,” said forest ranger C.S. Karmakar.

Forest officials categorise the rhinos into three age groups – – those below three are considered calves, those between three and eight years are sub-adults and those above eight are adults.

Of the 454 rhinos added to Kaziranga’s population since 1993, 251 were calves and the remaining 203 were sub-adults. “In six years, despite huge poaching and death during floods, the rise in the rhino population in Kaziranga is almost 30 percent,” says Jain. “That’s remarkable,” he adds.

“But that’s due to an abnormal rise in the rhino population, rather than successful conservation,” counters Anwar-ud-din of the Rhino Foundation of Assam. “If we could save all the rhinos which were born during this period and lost to poachers or floods, Kaziranga’s rhino population would have risen much more sharply than now.”

He argues that the rise in numbers in the last six years has been heavily marginalised by continuing poaching and floods.

But the state forest commissioner, Jain, argues that the “abnormally high rate of pregnancies” was the result of successful “habitat management”.

He says the rhino population has grown not just in Kaziranga, where conservation is more organised, but also in Assam’s two smaller rhino parks — Pobitara (16 sq kms) and Orang (85 sq kms), the rhino population has almost gone up by 80 percent (up to a total of 120 rhinos in the two sanctuaries).

Wildlife experts say more research is needed to ascertain the “high mating-pregnancy frequency” of Assam’s rhino population, India’s and Asia’s largest.

But the sharp rise is not making forest officials happy.

The growing numbers will reduce space per animal in Kaziranga — parts of which have been eroded by the Difalu river — at times of the seasonal flooding. Last year alone, 39 rhinos are said to have died during the floods.

“Our strength and resources are also limited. We have no modernisation budgets, our rifles and walkie-talkies are still out of the 1960s. How can we manage a sharply increasing rhino population with such meagre resources,” said a forest ranger at Kaziranga, unwilling to be named.

And more numbers in less space might also turn the rhinos irritable and more violent — something that would affect the tourism potential of Kaziranga and bring down its income. In fact, last month’s animal census in the park had to be stopped for a week after a rhino attacked a group of enumerators at Nameri, in the edge of the park.

Until the late 1980s, elephants were protected in Assam. But as their numbers spiralled, so did the problems and threat to human habitats, wildlife officials point out. Now, the state government permits the culling or taming of a certain number of elephants every year. It could well be the one-horned rhino’s turn next in Assam.

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