World Rhino Day is observed every year on September 22 to raise awareness about the different species of rhinoceros around the world and the dangers they face. World Rhino Day creates an avenue for various stakeholders like governments, communities, NGOs, wildlife conservation centres, research centres and individuals concerned to unite and seek new ways to eliminate poaching practices and preserve certain extremely endangered rhinoceros species from extinction.
Assam is a state enriched with rich flora and fauna. The state has scripted a success story in the world's rhino conservation landscape as the Rhinoceros unicornis species or one-horned rhinoceros found in Assam's National Parks are well protected. This species was once a severe victim of poaching in the state as the rhino population started dwindling. Since 2016, the State government has been making concerted efforts to conserve the one-horned rhino which is strongly associated with Assam's identity while the beautiful creature also occupies a special place in Assamese people's hearts.
The one-horned rhino is a pride of Assam and apart from being the third largest animal, the species is one of the most unique and limited mammals in the world. The Kaziranga National Park accounts for about 85% of the total population of rhinos in the world while some of these are scattered in National Parks around India and Nepal. With 2,895 rhinos, Assam is home to the largest population of one-horned rhinos in India. Of these, 2,613 rhinos live in Kaziranga National Park (KNP) while Manas National Park has 50, Orang National Park has 125 and Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary has 107. A four-day rhino census, conducted between 25and 28 March 2022 in KNP, showed an increase of 200 rhinos in the park from 2018 despite 400 deaths, mainly due to natural causes.
Poaching of rhinoceros is a major threat to the species and was a big challenge for the Government of Assam. Poaching for their horns remains a serious threat where the one-horned rhinoceros are killed and their horns are then cut off and smuggled. Despite being illegal and without scientific basis, rhino horns are wrongly perceived to be containing medicinal values and are still used in some traditional Asian medicines for the treatment of a variety of illnesses.
The Government of Assam, since May 2016, has taken strong steps to stop rhino poaching in the state. Forest and police officers have been instructed to adopt a zero-tolerance approach against rhino poaching. Additional manpower has been provided to Kaziranga National Park and the necessary fund has been allocated for the management of the National Park and carrying out anti-poaching measures. Based on experts' opinions, actions have been taken for intelligence enforcement and technology induction, community participation in conservation and wildlife crime investigation and prosecution.
The Environment and Forest Department, Government of Assam is pursuing a strict policy against wildlife crime. All-out efforts have been made to stop the poaching of rhinoceros and other wild animals. Police, forest officials and Anti Rhino Poaching Special Task Force are working in close coordination and stern actions have been taken against poachers.
It is remarkable how a rhino conservation success story in Assam has been scripted since 2016 through collaborative efforts of the State Government, forest communities and various stakeholders. As a result of these determined steps, in 2021 and so far in 2022, Assam witnessed only a solitary case of rhino poaching. This is the lowest number of cases the state has seen in the last 21 years. It is a watershed moment in the efforts to eliminate the menace of poaching for which forest guards and officials of the department must be congratulated who made it possible with their dedicated service, even in some dire situations.
This achievement becomes more noteworthy if we compare it to the situation prevailing in 2016 when the new State Government assumed charge. That year, as many as 18 rhinos were poached in Kaziranga National Park (KNP) while 17 were killed the year before in 2015. Rhino poaching in Assam was rampant in 2013 and 2014 when 27 rhinos were killed in each of the two years in KNP.
Assam Government's relentless efforts to curb poaching in the state have borne fruit. In 2021, the State Government reconstituted the Anti-Rhino Poaching Task Force with a Special Director General of Police (Law & Order) as its head along with SPs of 11 districts and DFOs of various wildlife divisions, to keep a check on rhino poaching. The Task Force has been coordinating with all the stakeholders and conducting operational activities that have produced results in curbing the menace.
To intensify the protection measures of rhinoceros, a Special Rhino Protection Force has been created with 112 personnel in KNP. 90 members of the Force in the rank of Constables were recruited in 2018 from the local youths of the districts adjoining KNP. The personnel of the Force have been trained in the Police Training College, Dergaon. In addition to the existing electronic eye surveillance, unmanned aerial aircraft (Drones) are used in KNP to monitor intruders into the Park and the straying of rhinos outside the park.
Forest Department has been endeavouring to upgrade the arms used by the forest guards to efficiently fight the poachers. The frontline forest officials have been trained for using advanced and sophisticated arms. To equip the frontline staff and Assam Forest Protection Force engaged in wildlife protection, the Forest Department has purchased 954 SLRs, 272 INSAS Rifles and 91 Ghatak assault Rifles with ammunition during 2016-17 at the cost of Rs 10 crore. Additionally, another purchase of Rs 10 crore was made of modern weapons, bulletproof jackets, night vision binoculars etc. for the forest personnel in 2017-18 for increasing their capability.
The poaching of rhinos, over the years, has primarily been driven by demands generated from unfound beliefs in a few Asian countries about rhino horns' medicinal values. To dispel such myths and misconceptions, the Environment and Forest Department decided to destroy rhino horn stockpiles stored in various Government Treasuries of the state. Accordingly, a programme was organized at Bokakhat Stadium playground, Golaghat on 22nd September 2021 synchronizing with "World Rhino Day" where 2479 rhinoceros horns weighing 1305.25 kg were burnt to ashes under the provision of Section 39 (3) (c) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act. The exercise aimed to send out a strong message to those involved in the illegal wildlife trade.
The population of rhinoceros, along with other important associate species, has considerably increased in all the Rhino Bearing Protected Areas, particularly in Kaziranga NP, Manas NP, Orang NP and Pabitora Wild Life Sanctuary. To ensure an increase in the number of all such species, expansion of habitat is essential. In this regard, notifications of 7,8 and 9 additions to the KNP issued in 2021 expanded the park by a total of 915.01 square kilometres while 2nd addition to Orang National Park in the same year resulted in an increase of 200.32 square kilometres in the park.
Apart from poaching, recurring flood in the State is another major concern for the population of rhinos. As floods devastate Assam every year, KNP is also inundated by floodwaters when the hapless animals lose their lives either by getting washed away or moving to neighbouring districts in search of higher grounds, making them vulnerable to poaching. To tackle this menace, 33 highlands were constructed in KNP during 2017-18 with an expenditure of more than Rs 18 crore to provide shelter to animals during floods. Moreover, 7 Animal Sensor Barriers have been installed to regulate the speed of vehicles at 9 Animal Corridors along NH-37 to provide safe passage to the animals of Kaziranga National Park.
For any wildlife conservation effort to be a success, the support and cooperation of local communities residing near the forests are very important. In Assam, rhino conservation has been so successful because of the constant support of forest village dwellers towards the government machinery. Assam Government has also been endeavouring to uplift the communities near the forests and protected areas by imparting skills for economic empowerment. A scheme is being implemented for the management of the ecosystem of Kaziranga National Park by creating climate resilient livelihood for vulnerable communities through organic farming and pond-based pisciculture for which the Ministry of Environment & Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, had sanctioned Rs 24.56 crore.
The Rhino conservation success story of Assam is not the solitary achievement of the State Government. It is the combined effort of various stakeholders like civil society members, NGOs like the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) etc., which has made it possible. During the floods, the CWRC helps rescue stranded rhinos and takes care of them.
Forest guards and officials have been toiling hard while overcoming various obstacles, even in the face of extreme danger to their lives, to safeguard the rhinos and other wildlife. They must be applauded for such exemplary service in trying conditions. Today the world is looking at Assam for learning from its great rhino conservation success story. On this World Rhino Day, parents and teachers must take up the responsibility to educate the young generation about this magnificent creature, which symbolizes Assam's pride and identity, so that they come forward with the same zeal to sustain the state's legacy as the beautiful abode one-horned rhinoceros.