On World Rhino Day, September 22, 2021, Assam has destroyed nearly 2479 horns of the Indian rhino in a public display of solidarity and commitment to protecting and conserving the species. In addition, after methodical examination of 2623 horns collected over many decades, 94 horns have been preserved as heritage pieces for academic purposes. World Rhino Day, an annual event celebrated on September 22, raises awareness for conserving all five rhino species; Sumatran rhino, Indian rhino, Black rhino, Javan rhino, and White rhino.

Burning the rhino horns to ashes brings the memories of Kenya’s most extensive burn of illegal wildlife products in 2016. It has included tusks from 8000 elephants and horns from more than 300 rhinos. The message to combat wildlife crime was loud and clear to the international community that had started with the first burning of such stockpiles in Kenya in 1989. The flames of such massive burnings, though contentious, carry the messages of conservation — wide and far — and create long-lasting memories. Assam has chosen to send the message too and with determination as far as to China and Vietnam, the unceremonial regions of the rhino horn trade.

Assam is synonymous with rhino conservation. The culture and sentiment of the people of Assam charter one of the most successful conservation histories on the face of the earth. Kaziranga holds the most extensive protected habitat of one-horned rhinoceros. At the same time, its exquisite range from Peshawar to Burma has been reduced to few scattered pockets. The wars in Moghul’s medieval India and the shortsightedness of trigger-happy hunters in colonial India brought the one-horned rhinoceros to the brink of extinction. As a result, the rhino’s range contracted, and its numbers plummeted. While establishing safe refuges for the rhinos helped secure their home, the Bengal Rhinoceros Protection Act of 1932 and the Assam Rhinoceros Protection Act of 1954 played a crucial role in protecting the animals.

Unlike elephants, rhinos are often solitary. Their inter-caving period could be as long as five years. This is because the mother can only be ready and receptive for conception when the calf is reasonably secured and nearly independent. For elephants, in a social unit, aunts and cousins play a supportive role in raising the young ones, making it easier and quicker for the nursing mothers to mate and conceive. Consequently, the population loss in rhinos is more challenging to compensate in shorter times than in elephants. For this very reason, along with highly active mongrels of Chinese Traditional Medicine craving to pounce on every piece of rhino horn, Kaziranga has scripted an enviable story. It is the emphasis on the protection that works for a species that faces bullets.

One-horned rhinoceros, primarily a grazer, weighing around 2 tonnes, features in many Indian paintings, motifs, coins, and even drawings of Mesolithic rock paintings. Rhinoceros bearing seals of Harappan civilisation finely depict the folds on the skin with tubercles and the prominent horn. However, as their population dwindled and their sightings became rarer, even their representations in the rock art of agriculturists and herdsmen declined. The current global population of one-horned rhinoceros is estimated to be around 3500. Kaziranga (~ 2400) in India and Chitwan (~600) in Nepal are the two population strongholds.

Translocation and subsequent protection to large mammals in their former ranges or new habitats are effective ways to strengthen their survival chances. Kaziranga has taken up a lead in repopulating and supporting other rhino bearing areas with its rhinos. It has acted as a ‘fulcrum of conservation’ by adopting a larger-than-park approach to create a safe haven for the rhinos by treating Assam’s Orang NP, Pobitora WLS, Karbi hills and Manas NP partners in conservation.

An image of a baby rhino trailing its mother and suckling from behind by the side of a wetland made a massive buzz at the start of 2021. The open grassland, shallow wetland, reflections of a fallen yet alive tree, hue of a setting sun and serenity of Kaziranga created the stage ready for the divine pair. Social media sites were flooded with the mother-calf pair photographed in different shades of light. Similarly, an image of an adult female rhino with a sharp, long and pointed (unbroken) horn in the backdrop of the snow peaks of the Se La Range of the Eastern Himalayas, a little more than one hundred miles away. The well-protected rhinos and their home in Kaziranga have been a sensation on social media, print media and wildlife documentaries.

For over a century, the conservation narratives have undergone many metamorphoses in Asia and the rest of the world. As a result, the Indian rhino has become the centre of all conservation thoughts in the pristine forests of Assam. In rhino’s protection rests the wellbeing of vast forests of northeast India.

Long live the Indian rhino, the flagbearer of conservation of many species, big and small!

(The writer is the deputy director of the Corbett Foundation, Kaziranga, Assam)

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