Asian Rhino Projectx

Indian Rhino Vision 2020 Project Update

By Susie Ellis, International Rhino Foundation, February 2011
The Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020 is a partnership among the government of Assam, the International Rhino Foundation, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Bodoland Territorial Council and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that aims to attain a population of 3,000 wild rhinos in seven of Assam's protected areas by the year 2020. Thanks to the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, ARP was able to forward $10,000AUD to this project to contribute to moving the first round of rhinos. 
 

Project Update July 2012

Two more female greater one-horned rhinos have been moved from Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary to Manas National Park by the IRV 2020 teams.

The rhinos have been closely watched by the highly-trained monitoring team as they adjust to their new home. 

Each rhino was fitted with a radio collar that allows the teams to determine where they are, how they are moving, and with which other rhinos they may be associating.  WWF-India will oversee long-term monitoring of the animals.

Together, India’s Kaziranga National Park and Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary currently hold about 75% of the world’s greater one-horned rhino population, and thus serve as a source of animals for repopulating other protected areas.  Poachers killed the last remaining rhinos in Manas National Park in the 1990s and it wasn’t until a few years ago that a return could be attempted. Recently Manas was restored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and since 2008, ten rhinos have been released into the area - four male and six female rhinos.   Four of those translocations were assisted with funding by ARP donors.

Ten more rhinos will be moved from Kaziranga National Park before the end of the year to create a founder population of 20 animals. Translocating rhinos from the two sites will help create a viable population of this threatened species that has recovered from fewer than 200 animals in the early 1900s to more than 2,850 today, approximately 80% of which are found in India and 20% in Nepal.

In addition to Manas, greater one-horned rhinos from Kaziranga will eventually be sent to Laokhawa Wildlife Sanctuary and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park to increase and disperse the number of wild populations as insurance against extinction.  For Indian Rhino Vision 2020 to meet its goal, Assam’s rhino population will have to increase by about 800 animals over the next eight years, representing a growth rate of approximately 4% per year.  This is certainly realistic if translocations and ongoing protection efforts continue to be successful. 

Indian Rhino Vision 2020 is a long-term project of the government of Assam, IRF, WWF-India, the Bodo Territorial Council, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The aim is to build the Indian rhino population up from approximately 2,320 that survive today in Assam to 3,000 spread among seven of its protected areas by the year 2020.

Story provided by the International Rhino Foundation

Two female Indian rhinos were translocated from Pobitora to Manas NP on Dec. 27, followed by four more rhinos on Jan. 17. (Photo by Dipankar Ghose, WWF)

Indian rhinos are a conservation success story

The species has recovered from about 200 animals in the early 1990s to more than 2,850 today.  Resembling living armored tanks, the species is a popular zoo animal – about 175 Indian rhinos live in 66 zoos around the world.  As a result of increasing commitment to conservation, zoos and NGOs from Europe, Australia and the United States have joined forces to support the Indian rhino translocations and have contributed more than half a million dollars to the program over the past three years.

Kaziringa National Park - Assam

Translocations are the backbone of the IRV 2020 program. More than 85 percent of the world’s Greater one-horned rhino population inhabits Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India.  Having most of the animals in one population puts it at risk from catastrophes such as floods or disease outbreaks, which could lead to a serious population decline.  Pobitora National Park holds about 90 rhinos -- the park’s carrying capacity has been exceeded, which leads to an increased risk of rhino-human conflict as animals move out of the park and into agricultural areas to forage for food.  The goal of Indian Rhino Vision 2020 is to reduce risks to India’s rhino population by ensuring that the animals are spread throughout multiple parks with enough habitat to encourage population growth.

Manas National Park

Manas National Park has been selected as the first site to receive translocated rhinos. Manas National Park, once an icon among India's many spectacular wildlife reserves, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.  (As of 2010, only 911 sites in the world have been named as a place with special cultural or physical significance.) Manas is home to the tiger, pygmy hog and golden langur as well as elephants, wild buffalo and Indian bison.  Rhinos were once common in the park, but violent civil conflict beginning in 1989 caused massive damage to the park’s infrastructure, including destruction of anti-poaching camps, roads and villages. Until recently, the last rhino seen in Manas was in 1996.

Now, the IRV 2020 team has been able to radiocollar the translocated rhinos so that the released animals can be adequately monitored.  Their work over the past few years has focused on rebuilding the park’s anti-poaching camps and repair roads and bridges in preparation for the park’s repopulation of rhinos. They have also hired, trained and equipped guards from the local communities, some of whom are former poachers now committed to saving wildlife. The arrival of the new rhinos is heralded by local communities, who had been blamed for the demise of the park. But now, local people, under the leadership of the Bodoland Territorial Council, are committed to bringing Manas back to its former glory, and increasing and protecting the rhino population. 

The translocation team immobilizes and radio-collars each rhino before they are loaded into crates.

The first round of IRV 2020 translocations occurred in April 2008, when two male rhinos were moved from Pobitora to Manas. (The two males joined three rescued females that had previously been released into the park.) Getting a rhino ready for translocation is no easy feat, and it must be carried out in a way that provides maximum safety for the animals as well as the people involved.  Planned rhino translocations were delayed in 2009 because of difficulties in importing the highly-controlled tranquilization drug of choice, etorphine.

The drugs finally reached Assam in May 2010, at the start of the monsoon season, and so translocations had to be postponed until the weather improved.  The dry season commenced in earnest in December, and so, after months of meticulous planning, the IRV 2020 Translocation Core Committee decided to begin translocations from Pobitora to Manas.  Pobitora has been chosen as a high-priority translocation site because it boasts the highest density of rhinos in the world, with more than 90 rhinos in less than 18 square kilometers (4,450 acres) of rhino habitat. Translocations will lessen pressure on Pobitora’s rhinos for food and space, and hopefully reduce the number of rhinos straying into nearby villages.  The Translocation Core Committee also recommended that female rhinos be captured for this round of tranlocations, as the last round included only males.

 

Pabitora

On December 28th, the translocation team, comprised of officials from the Forest Department, veterinarians from the College of Veterinary Science, the Assam State Zoo and local NGO Aaranyak, staff from WWF-India and IRF, and other related technical experts, set out on elephant-back at 5:30 am to begin the first translocation operation in Pabitora. It was an extremely foggy morning with low visibility, but the capture team was able to dart a mother and her juvenile calf, also female, around 11:45 am. Both animals were radio-collared and loaded into specially designed crates which were then lifted onto trucks for transport by around 3:00pm. (Although the IRV 2020 general protocols call for four animals to be translocated at once, because it was getting so late in the day, further captures were called off to enable to the females already tranquilized to be transferred to Manas NP and released within 24 hours of darting.)

The rhinos started their 250 kilometer journey towards Manas from Pabitora in the evening and reached Manas in the early morning of December 29th.  They were released in the Bansbari range in the central part of the park around 6:30 am.

On January 17th, the translocation team began another operation in Pabitora. They successfully darted four rhinos in that operation – one single female, one single male, and one mother with a male juvenile calf. Again, all four were immobilized, radio-collared, transferred into crates and lifted onto the trucks. The Assam police escorted the trucks during the journey to Manas to provide additional security. The four rhinos were released in the Bansbari range of Manas early the next morning, again within 24 hours of being darted.

Along with the rhinos previously translocated to Manas, the six newly translocated rhinos are continuously monitored by WWF and park staff, using radio tracking.  All six rhinos are doing well; they seem calm and are adjusting well to their new environment. Four have stayed in the central Bansbari range, while two are moving towards the eastern Bhuyanpara range of Manas National Park.

Current plans call for the translocation of another 10 rhinos to Manas National Park in 2011.  The translocation committee hopes to hold the next operation in Kaziranga National Park in late February.  Exact timing will depend on government approval and weather-related issues. Road conditions in Kaziranga are still very poor after the heavy monsoons this past year, and so the translocations cannot be scheduled until the roads are dry enough to support large trucks and heavy crates. Our team is currently repairing crates and making other logistical arrangements in anticipation of the next rounds of translocations.