Indian Rhinos on the Increase

At a time when poachers are killing record numbers of rhinoceroses in Africa, Indians in the Assam region on the eastern side of the country appear to be scoring a dramatic success at saving the ponderous animals.

The population of Greater One-Horned rhinos, also known as Nepalese rhinos, is on the increase. In a recent census the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary near the capital city of Guwahati recorded 93 of the animals, up from 84 in the last census in 2009. Another 100 have been counted in another reserve, the Rajiv Gandhi National Park in Orang, up from just 64 in the last census. Authorities are now taking a census in Kaziranga National Park, the home of another 2,048 of the animals in 2009 – two thirds of the world one-horned rhino population.

The rising numbers are due to an intensive effort by authorities to guard the animals from poachers and to involve villagers living around the reserves. The protected areas are surrounded by dense human populations who have been indoctrinated that it is vital to save the animals because they can benefit economically from their presence as tourists flock to the area.

The latest census started on March 15 in Assam and is expected to be completed by March 27. Suresh Chand, the chief of the Assam Forest Department, said the census has been conducted with support from wildlife NGOs like WWF-India, WTI, Aaranyak, and Green Guard Nature Organization.

Mukul Tamuly, a senior forest official engaged in Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, emphasized the community involvement in the conservation effort.

“We understand the importance of local people’s support on the endeavor. The villagers living around a forest reserve must be taken into confidence in the mission, because they can provide vital information about straying wild inmates into villages or any movement of poachers in their localities,” Tamuly said.

At one point in the 20th century, only 200 white rhinos remained in India. In the 19th century, the government offered bounties to kill the animals, which would eat their way through tea plantations, a factor that helped lead to their virtual extinction before conservation efforts took hold.

The danger to rhinos grew in 2007 and 2008 in the 430 sq. km Kaziranga Park as outnumbered park rangers began to be overwhelmed by poachers armed with high-powered rifles equipped with telescopic sights and silencers. Kaziranga was in crisis, a veritable paradise teeming with Asiatic elephants and buffalo, Bengal tigers, Indian bison, swamp and hog deer, sloth bears, leopards and other jungle cats, otters, gibbons, wild boar, jackals, pythons and monitor lizards. It is a refuge for nearly 500 species of birds, both domestic and migratory, including endangered species like the Bengal florican and the great Indian hornbill. The subtropical monsoon delivers 1,300 mm of average annual rainfall and summertime temperatures rise to 38° C, a combination that produces swamps and elephant grass that make it an ideal habitat for the rhinos, which are vegetarian.

In 2007, poachers took down10 rhinos within the first seven months of the year, the park’s highest toll in a decade. Two more were killed later in the year, bring the total to 12. The park normally loses 10 to 15 rhinos annually from natural causes and poaching. Rhinos live an average of 45 years. They are easy prey because they tend to defecate in the same place. Poachers find a patch of rhino dung and wait for the animals to make their way back to the same place.

Called “black ivory,” rhino horn is prized as an aphrodisiac and a cure for many ills in traditional Oriental medicine, selling for thousands of dollars per kilogram. As Chinese incomes have risen and more people have joined the upper-income economic classes, the price of a single horn has risen to as much as US$40,000. Sophisticated poachers are ranging farther and farther to fetch it although there is scant scientific evidence that powdered rhino horn has any medicinal or sexual value.

Having been in listed Chinese medicine texts for thousands of years, the horn is supposed to help cure maladies ranging from fever to gout to typhoid, carbuncles, food poisoning and more. Rhino horn is also believed by some to rouse desire, apparently because the hulking beasts are said to enjoy great sexual power, with a mating time that lasts at least 45 minutes. Many believe the powdered horn can deliver up that kind of sexual power, a kind of traditional Viagra. The horns, however, are nothing more than compact masses of agglutinated hair, according to Ranjan Talukder, a Guwahati-based veterinarian.

While India has been scoring its successes, however, news stories say the two-horned South African rhino could disappear as poachers have actually picked up their pace, hunting them ruthlessly for their horns. The southern rhino was nearly driven to extinction in the early 20th century but was protected on farms and preserves. But today, 1970, the world rhino population has declined by 90 percent, according to savingRHINOS.org, a global preservation organization. News stories this week quoted Karen Trendler, a veterinary nurse who has been working with the animals for nearly 20 years, as saying that if the poaching continues in Africa at the present rate, the animals will be extinct.

Apparently, Trendler told David DeFranza, a writer on science and endangered species, dealers have been working to stockpile reserves as a hedge against extinction, with poachers redoubling their efforts to kill the animals.

"There are some incredibly good guys in the business who are doing amazing things and who would give their lives for those rhino," she told DeFranza, "but unfortunately we do have an element of corruption. There have already been prosecutions and arrests, where government officials are complicit."