Manas, INDIA — The female rhino and her calf were greeted with cheers and applause from the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020) team of conservationists, local representatives, veterinarians and forest department officials as the two made an impatient entry into their new home at Manas National Park in India’s northeastern state of Assam on December 29.
It takes a carefully choreographed ballet to safely and successfully translocate rhinos. This second translocation—the first took place in 2008 with two males—marks an important milestone for IRV 2020, which aims to increase the population of India’s rhinos from around 2,000 to 3,000 by the year 2020, distributed over at least seven protected areas in Assam.
“The present rhino translocation is very important to initiate the next round of translocations in Assam, which has strengthened the confidence of all teams involved,” said Dr. Dipankar Ghose of WWF-India. “Given the excellent support received from the state Forest Department and the administration, this is also a landmark achievement for active management of species involving different stakeholders."
How to translocate a rhino
What is translocation?
Translocation is a conservation tool that can boost the overall population of a species by establishing viable populations spread out in more than one area. This helps increase genetic diversity and safeguards populations from being wiped out by poachers, diseases or natural disasters like fire and floods.
It is no mean feat to move several thousand pounds of armor-plated animal that has a fearsome temper and surprisingly delicate constitution. The entire operation was the culmination of a year of preparations by the IRV 2020 team led by a task force under the Department of Environment and Forests, Government of Assam.
The rhinos were translocated from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary to the World Heritage Site bordering Bhutan. Their journey began a day earlier when the carefully selected rhinos were darted and tranquilized before being moved into individual crates loaded onto two separate trucks. Under the careful supervision of veterinarians who monitored their health and under tight security, the rhinos were driven through the night to the release site. At dawn the next day, the crate doors were lifted and the rhinos made their first foray into Manas. The adult was fitted with a radio collar, and along with the juvenile, will be monitored continuously through the next year by park staff, with support from WWF.
Along with the four rhinos released there in the past two years, Manas has also received increased anti-poaching protection from IRV 2020 partners that includes 12 new camps, a new wireless network, and two additional vehicles for monitoring and patrolling. More protection staff were hired, with 100 from the local community and members of India’s civil defense organization, Home Guards.
The reintroduction of rhinos back to Manas National Park has been welcomed by local communities and entrepreneurs who see it as a valuable complement to other natural and cultural assets. The area is experiencing a tourism revival after years of political and social instability because of an armed insurgency.
A vision for the future
The greater-one horned rhinoceros is currently listed as a vulnerable species in the IUCN Red List. In the early 20th century, they were hunted close to extinction in the Eastern Himalayas and recovered thanks to strict protection measures. Over 90 percent of India’s rhinos are concentrated in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, putting them at risk of an outbreak of disease, natural calamities like flooding and poaching.
IRV 2020 aims to secure the long-term survival of wild rhinos in Assam by increasing the population to 3,000 by 2020 and expanding their distribution across seven protected areas to reduce risks like disease, in-breeding depression and mass mortality. It is a joint program of the Department of Environment and Forests-Government of Assam, WWF-India and the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), with support from the Bodoland Territorial Council, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the local communities. The program was launched with active technical and financial support from WWF International’s AREAS Program and WWF-India.
"It is a progressive sign that the Government of Assam in India is leading by example to restore lost large mammals like the Indian rhino, through translocations, back to its historic ranges,” said Dr. A. Christy Williams of WWF’s Asian Elephant and Rhino Program. “We hope other governments in Asia will follow this example and show the political will required to restore large mammals such as tigers and rhinos to habitats that once harbored them.”
WWF recognizes the greater one-horned rhino as a critical species to the grassland ecosystem and prioritizes its long-term conservation by designating it as a global flagship species. Through landscape-level conservation in the Eastern Himalayas and the AREAS program, WWF continues to secure a future for rhinos by working with grassroots, governments and a wide array of partners.