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Dudhwa National Park: Bringing rhinos back into their old habitat
| September 22, 2018
On this World Rhino Day, a little positive hope for the Rhinos in India
© Kalyan Varma
Once upon a time, the Great One-horned Indian Rhinoceros proudly roamed all the way from Pakistan to the Indo- Burmese border. By the starting of the 20th century though, hunting and poaching had reduced their number to just about 200 across India and Nepal. With the help of stricter laws and intensified protection, the numbers stand roughly around 3400 today.
Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh, a mix landscape of Terai and wet grasslands resemble the landscape of Kaziranga National Park. Hence, in 1984 it was decided to rehabilitate Rhinos in Dudhwa and have them teeming the landscape as before. In 1984, two male and three female rhinos were transported from Pobitara Wildlife Sanctuary, Assam to Dudhwa National Park. Sadly, two of the rhinos couldn’t survive the journey and died. In 1985, four more female rhinos were translocated from Nepal. An enclosure of roughly 27 square kilometres was created in Kakraha, Sonaripur range for the rhinos. The enclosure kept rhinos in the same space thus speeding the mating process and at the same time acted as a safety barrier. The program was a success and the enclosure has 30 rhinos as of 2018.
Ramesh Pandey, Field Director, Dudhwa National Park, narrates, “Banke, one of the male rhinos was so dominating he would not let the other rhinos mate with the females. Banke mated with his own offspring and hence most of the rhinos in that enclosure are from the same gene pool. Genetically speaking, over generations, they are susceptible to genetic diseases that could wipe out the entire population. Hence, the need of the hour is introducing new male blood and increase the gene pool to avoid inbreeding depression.”
With this idea in their head, Dudhwa National Park launched its second Rhino Rehabilitation program in 2018. A male rhino from Nepal had wandered into Dudhwa and became a permanent resident. With the help of scientists, based on the breeding and foraging experience, three females from the earlier enclosure were chosen. The male and these three females have now been introduced into a new enclosure of 20 square kilometres in Bhadi Taal, Bhagital range. The results for the second phase will take time to show since rhinos have a long gestation period. Over the next decade, the efforts would be visible.
© Ramesh Pandey
Apart from inbreeding depression, the other challenge faced is predation by tigers. Rhino calves are mostly unable to defend themselves and become soft targets for tigers. Despite the enclosure, tigers enter freely.
To give rhinos more space and freedom, the long-term goal is to release the rhinos slowly into the wild. Even though they have no dearth of food, water, and habitat in the current enclosure, keeping them for a longer time in the enclosure might prolong the inbreeding depression. This process is still in talks. Expertise to monitor the rhinos once they are released and the risk of them straying outside the national park are being studied.
As Ramesh Pandey puts it, “This is one of the most successful programmes in the of rehabilitating a large mammal in the world. We are proud that Dudhwa National Park has successfully re-introduced rhinos in its landscape.”
This is a story of hope in a world where rhinos are poached everyday for their horns across Africa, and to a lesser extent in India too. The horn is in big demand in south east Asia where it is both a status symbol as well as used in traditional medicine. Between 2007 and 2015, rhino poaching in South Africa increased almost 90-fold, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) data. In Africa it is illegal to even reveal the locations of Rhinos since it is seen a threat to their existence.
In India, the animal which once was widespread along the floodplains of Indus, Ganges and the Brahmaputra, is today restricted to parts of Assam with the largest population in Kaziranga National Park at around 2400 rhinos. Poaching has been a big concern with more than 500 killed in two decades but with strict vigilance and protection in recent times, the rhinos are doing well. Around 20 were still poached in 2016 but the number dropped to five in 2017.
Besides poaching, habitat fragmentation and loss that has become very real with the ever-growing race for development, also affects the rhinos. Hopefully, with more such efforts like at Dudhwa, the rhino will be a thing of the future, not of the past.
Written by Meghana Sanka