Saving the soft-armored giant


New Delhi: They now look at the rhino with different eyes. They have transformed from being poachers to becoming protectors. They are fifteen former rhino poachers, who gave up their arms recently, and took up conservation work in prime rhino habitat in Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam.

WTI’s Rapid Action Project gave these poachers an alternate livelihood, when they were hired as labourers for a four-month period to desilt the wetlands in Pabitora. They were given wages of Rs 1,000 per month to carry out the desiltation. Siltation of the rhino habitat has been a major problem at Pabitora. It is Pabitora that gave rhinos a new home from Dudhwa National Park, where they had almost gone extinct. The rhinos were relocated to Pabitora, so that their chances of survival were enhanced.

The Indian Rhinoceros, also known as the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, once ranged across the entire northern part of the Indian sub-continent, from Pakistan through parts of Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh to the Indo-Burmese border. It may also have existed in Myanmar and southern China. A large (2,000-4,000 kg) solitary species that mainly inhabits floodplain grasslands alongside rivers and lakes, but is also found in drier forest areas in Nepal, the Indian Rhinoceros is primarily a grazer. The species has been eliminated in most areas by hunting for its horn, and habitat loss to agriculture and stock grazing. Rhinos are now confined to isolated pockets of its original range in northeastern India, Nepal, and Pakistan, with the bulk of the surviving animals living in protected areas.

Natural siltation during floods has been shrinking the natural wallowing grounds of Pabitora’s rhinos. The RAP ensures the immediate desiltation of the wetlands– which had to be completed before the onset of this year’s monsoon– facilitated conservation of the animal. Allowing rhinos to use their natural wallowing grounds obviates the need for them to move out of Pabitora, minimizing the chances of poaching and conflicts with humans.

The desiltation programme began in January 2000 and continued for four months. The work began by removing the weeds form the wetlands. Most of the wetlands were covered with weeds that reduced the wallowing areas of the rhino and water bodies for the migratory birds. After the de-weeding, the desilting work was done. WTI will continue the desiltation work this winter, starting December, to make the wetlands more suitable for the rhino and the migratory birds.

Rhino sightings in Pabitora have consequently increased, with as many as 22 rhinos seen after the desiltation work, compared with one or two observed earlier.