The bouncing back of the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros from perilous decline is a century-old example of successful conservation. The iconic animal recovered dramatically from a long phase of colonial era hunting and habitat loss. Assam in general and Kaziranga in particular have nurtured the maximum number of rhinos. As per the 2012 census, the population estimate is of the order of 2,505 animals. The conservation challenge in the 21st century is to protect the rhino during the annual flooding of Kaziranga National Park and its contiguous areas. Recent incidents make it clear that poachers will stop at nothing. The world has seen the shocking spectacle of rhinos being shot as they fled flood waters to safer highlands, and their faces hacked for the horn — a compact mass of keratin fibres that commands staggering prices in the international market. The response to this crisis has to be internationally coordinated and two-pronged, aimed at choking off illegal trade channels using improved field intelligence and creating secure migration paths for the animals on the ground.

All critically endangered flagship animals need habitats that have viable size, and adequate protection. In the case of the great Indian rhino, the earliest measures date back to 1908, when 56,544 acres were set apart as reserved forest and hunting was banned. Kaziranga, which harbours the largest number of rhinos, has the reputation of being better-policed than other national parks. Park security was significantly strengthened two decades ago by setting up anti-poaching camps. Armed patrols here make it risky for poachers to enter, as they can be shot. Many have died in such attempts. Unsurprisingly, attacks on rhinos now often take place during the flooding season, when they migrate to areas where ensuring security is difficult. It may therefore be worth examining the possibility of further expansion of the park boundaries, and creation of additional conservation highlands. The Assam Forest Department and the Indian Army built such highlands after devastating floods in Kaziranga killed many rhinos in 1998. Restoration of wildlife corridors north and south of the Brahmaputra river to provide an escape route for rhinos may also be beneficial. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau’s investigations into the recent poaching incidents should lead to coordinated Centre-State action on smuggling syndicates. The Assam government’s move to enhance armed park security is also promising. In the long term, it is crucial to create migratory corridors for rhinos and other animals to use during floods, and secure these pathways.

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