The Great Indian one-horned rhinoceros is ruthlessly hunted down for its horn

It’s a dark night. He had been on the move all day, chomping on grass and wallowing in the lake. A little weary now, he trundles to his usual spot to answer Nature’s call. Suddenly, there’s a commotion by the bush. Men with guns jump on him. They were lurking there to ambush him. He is taken aback — the men whip out sharp-edged tools. Little does he know that he will be killed soon. They will chop off a part of him and leave him there to rot.

This is the story of the Great Indian one-horned rhinoceros. The gentle giants are perhaps among the most misunderstood creatures on the planet. Rhinos are under threat from a brutal enemy — man. Humans have falsely attributed medicinal qualities to rhino horns. The horn has become their greatest bane. Every year, poachers hunt down several rhinos in Assam, home to the Kaziranga National Park.

On October 8 this year, a rhino, suspected to be killed by poachers, was found dead and de-horned in Kaziranga. The Park holds 70 percent of the world’s rhino population, according to K. Ramesh, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India. “Seventy five per cent of the world’s (rhino) population occurs in Assam.” The animals defecate in the same place, creating a huge dung pile, explains Ramesh. This habit of “marking their territory” has been exploited by poachers, says naturalist Mohammed Ali.

“Poachers hide close-by and shoot them from behind,” he explains. Rhinos are subjected to extreme violence by these men who are after the horns that are “worth their weight in gold in the black-market”.

Rhinos have a special way of eating. “They chomp off grass without uprooting it. This is so that it can grow back,” explains Mohammed. “They seem to possess armour. But rhino skin is actually not that thick,” he adds. So much so that even mosquitoes bite them! The animals share a good relationship with their fellow-animals and birds.

Wildlife film-maker Mike Pandey plans to make a film on how rhinos and tigers live harmoniously in Kaziranga. The idea for his film was born when he once saw a rhino and her calf cross paths with a tiger. “They just looked at each other, and carried on in their journey,” he says. Mike feels that “Rhinos are jewels in India’s wildlife heritage.” Sadly, they are not treated that way. “A rhino with her calf is a beautiful subject for a camera-person,” he says. Poachers don’t spare the calves too. Mike recalls an incident where a calf was found dead along with two adult rhinos. The poachers must have killed it too.

The Forest Department, Government of Assam, along with NGOs WWF and IRF has come up with the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 for rhino conservation. It aims to “have a rhino population of 3,000 in the wild in Assam in seven of its protected areas by the year 2020”, according to a report titled ‘Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020 – Training cum Translocation of Rhinos within Assam, the first Phase’. This is being achieved by trans-locating rhinos from areas with a viable population to identified “potential rhino habitat areas”. Awareness and support from local communities, goes a long way in rhino conservation, feels Mohammed. Mike calls for better equipment for forest guards, a rapid action force with helicopters, sophisticated cranes to hoist the animals up when in need, and a hospital with veterinarians inside the sanctuary. Also, “we need to create buffer zones with higher platforms” to save them from drowning during floods, he says. (Every year, floods take a toll on the wildlife of Kaziranga.)

Stocky and slow-moving, rhinos posses a certain charm. Wildlife photographer Sriram Janak saw some 50 mynas perched on two rhinos wallowing in a lake in Kaziranga. With their short legs, rhinos look amusing when they roll in mud, he says. “When they saw us, they gave a snort and a grunt, shook their heads, and went back to grazing, as if saying, ‘Oh, it’s just you’.”

Rhino Bytes

- They are herbivores that inhabit the swampy grasslands of north and north-east India, and Nepal.

- Primarily solitary, they live in pairs during the mating season and sometimes as small herds that consist of females and calves.

- A rhino spends its mornings and evenings feeding, and wallows in mud during mid-day.

- They are usually quiet animals and tend to get aggressive only when they sense danger to their calves.

(Source: K. Ramesh)