Last week, a rhino was found dead in Assam’s Manas national park. It bore marks of 12 bullets from an AK-47. It was gunned down in apparently the best protected part of the park close to three anti-poaching camps. Its horn, nails and tail were missing. The rhino was not born in Manas. It was shifted here from Pobitora sanctuary in 2008 to give Manas a second chance.
Long before Rajasthan’s Sariska lost all its tigers to poachers in 2004, Manas in Assam witnessed the local extinction of the rhino. At the peak of Bodo militancy, the national park lost 75-odd rhinos between 1987 and 1996. When it was clear that not a single horn was spared, Manas lost its World Heritage Site status too.
Sariska got its second chance with the tiger soon after the wipeout. But Manas had to wait for over a decade for rhinos till a semblance of law and order and political stability returned to the Bodo areas. In 2005, Indian Rhino Vision 2020 – a programme to increase Assam’s rhino population from 2000 to 3000 by 2020 – was launched by the state government in partnership with the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The first rhino to walk in Manas in 10 years was a rescued animal released by Centre of Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation in 2006. The first translocation took another two years when a rhino was shifted from Pobitora sanctuary in April 2008. Since then, Manas has received 18 translocated and six rescued rhinos from Kaziranga and Pobitora. It also regained the lost World Heritage Site tag.
A tiger was airlifted to Sariska barely two months after Manas received its first translocated rhino. Since June 2008, a total of eight Ranthambhore tigers have been moved in Sariska to build a new population. In November 2010, the first tiger that was translocated to Sariska was found dead. It was poached very close to a forest post. Poachers claimed the first translocated rhino in Manas in October 2011. The second poaching was reported in May last year, and the third last week.
If the authorities were in a hurry to create history at Sariska, the Manas rhino re-population programme had the support of the state, the BTC, two international organisations and a wing of the US government. After the second rhino poaching in Manas last year, an expert assessment report underlined the need for intensive patrolling, creation and maintenance of patrolling tracks, setting up an intelligence network, procurement of arms and communication equipment, checking unauthorised entries and regular coordination with local communities. But nothing moved on the ground.
Instead, the park authorities blame former Bodo militants for poaching and complain of police inaction in the face of protection provided by certain Bodo MLAs to their former comrades. But if the state forest authority and personnel were in the first place unable to perform their duties in Bodo areas, they should not have gone ahead with the translocation programme till they felt confident about protecting the animals.
WWF-India, a key partner of the IRV 2020 project, issued a strongly-worded statement after last week’s poaching, expressing concern “about the level of commitment of the Assam State Forest Department and the Bodoland Territorial Council in providing protection to the translocated rhinos in Manas”. It urged the state and the BTC to take exemplary action against the poachers and immediately enhance protection by ensuring effective, round-the-clock patrolling.
All rhinos are radio-collared during translocation and remotely monitored till the collars drop off. The rhino that was poached last week was being monitored till last month when it lost its collar. But lack of field patrolling by ground staff in Manas meant that the animal fell off the radar and its carcass could only be traced about a week after the poaching. Incidentally, the presence of a radio collar was of little use in Sariska when the stationary signal from the dead tiger escaped attention for three days in 2010.
However, lack of monitoring is not the only factor that is endangering the translocated animals. Even two years after the poaching, Sariska continues to have villages inside the reserve. Pilgrim traffic to the Hanuman temple deep inside the reserve still flows unregulated. Free entry and unrestricted vehicular movement makes forest roads a free-for-all every Tuesday and Saturday. There is no effective compensation scheme for livestock losses to mitigate conflict. Rationalisation of reserve boundaries has not taken place after repeated recommendations by expert groups appointed by the government.
Given the advancement in biological sciences, it is not really difficult to shift a few animals from one forest to another. Everyone involved with the IRV 2020 or the Sariska repopulation project knew that shunting animals was not half as challenging as securing their future would be. Sariska and Manas share a dark past. For conservation to triumph over that past, a few animals had to be put at risk. But why hurry the experiment before securing the forests? Why refuse to learn and change course when the experiment itself throws up early warnings?
Today, Sariska has a new tiger population of seven while Manas has 21 rhinos. Poaching has made a comeback at both places but there is good news as well. Last year, tiger cubs were finally spotted in Sariska and Manas had its first rhino calf. The wait for the second generation – the first benchmark of success of any new population -- was over.
While the repopulation process will continue, let us be candid about what we owe these majestic animals that are powerless before our grand designs. When we squander the second chance to reclaim our forests, it means more than the loss of our intent. It costs the translocated animals their lives.