Rhino population rising across world, but climate change a huge concern: Report
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After a year-long lull, poachers have struck again inside the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve. The forest department found the carcass of a fully grown one-horned rhinoceros inside the reserve on 26 March 2023. As the precious horn was missing, it’s assumed to be a case of poaching. The rhino is understood to have been killed a few days earlier and its decomposed body was recovered from the Bagori range.

Not just Kaziranga, the incident of poaching of rhinos also was not reported from other forest reserves of the state since December 2021 as well. Brutal laws against the poachers, strengthening of ground staff inside the protected forest areas and increasing public awareness in the fringe localities of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the state have positively impacted the mission to save the rhinos. Moreover, unlike people from other parts of the globe, Assam residents (irrespective of their political, ethnic or religious affiliations) maintain a strong will to protect the giant animal.

From 1 January 2021 till the middle of March this year, only two rhinos were poached in Kaziranga. Before the latest one, a similar incident occurred in the last week of 2021, where a decomposed carcass of a 30-year-old female rhino was recovered inside the reserve on the south bank of the Brahmaputra. As the horn was not attached to the carcass, it was not considered a natural death. Recovered in the second week of January 2022, the rhino was apprehended to be killed around two weeks ago.

Assam’s anti-rhino poaching task force chief GP Singh (now promoted as the DGP of Assam) asserted on 15 January last year that to date, only one rhino poaching incident had taken place at Kaziranga (in April 2021). Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, on 1 January 2023, claimed Kaziranga recorded zero rhino poaching cases throughout 2022. He also added that it was the first time in two decades that no rhino poaching was reported across the state for a full year. 

Supporting his stand, the state forest department also clarified that the rhino (whose carcass was recovered near Silekhunda camp under the Kohora range in January 2022) was killed on 28 December 2021. So Sarma’s statement justifying ‘not a single rhino was poached in 2022’ across Assam was correct. But it may be difficult for wildlife lovers to accept that no responsible state agency had the information about the incident till 15 January. Moreover, the Kaziranga authority was silent when many media outlets reported it as the first rhino poaching case in 2022.

Native to the Indian subcontinent, the one-horned rhino (also known as rhinoceros unicorns) is one of the worst-affected rhino species. The reason behind the poaching of rhinos is the high demand for horns in a number of countries (including China) where people term it as black ivory. A matured horn may fetch a huge sum of money in the international market. The animal enjoys great sexual power, as its mating time may continue for 45 minutes. So many people unscientifically believe that one can achieve unusual power with the help of rhino horns (using it as a traditional Viagra).

The rhino horns are also believed to have other medicinal values supposed to cure high fever, stomach ailment and cancer. Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East are also known to be huge markets for horns, where the use of horns for medical purposes and scientific research is legalised.

Rhinos are recognised as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and India’s wildlife protection act gives enormous power to the rangers for protecting the grass-eating pachyderm. The veterinarians argue that rhino horns comprise the same protein that constitutes the formation of hair.

Rhinos are recognised as a pride to the people of Assam and the 800 square kilometre Kaziranga reserve supports around 2,613 priced animals (whereas the global population of one-horned rhinos is around 3,700). The KNP also gives shelter to over 150 Royal Bengal Tigers and around 250 leopards, over 5500 asiatic elephants, a sizable number of buffalos, different species of deer, birds, fishes, etc.

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Besides Kaziranga, other forest reserves of Assam: namely the Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary (around 107 rhinos), Orang National Park (125) and Manas National Park (50) also support the rhino population to make a total count for Assam of around 2650 individuals.

Every year, over 100 rhinos die because of natural causes in those forest reserves. Assam expects to increase the rhino population to 3,000 as the incidents of poaching have reduced following the deployment of ground forces with sophisticated weapons and other modern gadgets.

There was a time when Assam used to lose 27 rhinos to poachers in 2013 and 2014. Next year, the count fell to 17, and 18 cases were reported in 2016. With the declining trend, 2017 witnessed only seven incidents of rhino poaching, followed by seven in 2018, three in 2019, and two cases in 2020 and 2021. Meanwhile, over 55 poachers were arrested last year, and four criminals were killed in encounters. The captured poachers and their associates admitted that they took the risk of killing rhinos inside the restricted forest reserves following their greed for ‘enormous benefits’.

Also Read | Human-elephant conflict leads to near-death experience for Assam man

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