One of the elephants deployed at Jagadamba tea estate on Friday. Picture by Mridul Bhuya
Kuthari (Nagaon), Sept. 28: A concerted effort to save two injured rhinos came a cropper in Assam today. The one inside Jagadamba tea estate on the fringes of Kaziranga National Park met with a tragic end after the bleeding and traumatised animal ran into a water body in panic and drowned. The other rhino, whose horn had been slashed away by poachers on Wednesday, also died.
The injured animal in the tea estate, which had strayed away from the park to escape floodwaters, was shot at, had its horn hacked off and was left for dead by poachers yesterday. Garden staff noticed the injured and bleeding animal moving around the estate around noon yesterday and notified the authorities.
A massive rescue effort was immediately launched by the forest department in coordination with a team of veterinarians led by Bijoy Dutta, assistant professor at the Khanapara College of Veterinary Sciences. Three trained elephants were also deployed to help the team control the rhino.
Nagaon divisional forest officer N. Anand told The Telegraph at the site that several attempts were made to bring the rhino out of the bushes it had been taking shelter in since yesterday, to be tranquillised. But it turned violent and charged at forest personnel and a veterinary team from the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation near Kaziranga.
Anand said they had to resort to blank firing to keep the animal from attacking the rescue team. He said the primary problem faced by them was that animal had to be brought out of the bushes before being tranquillised. “We could not dart the animal as it was inside the bushes and quite close to the water body. Had we tranquillised it there, it could have fallen into the water and died.” He said over 50 personnel were involved in the rescue effort, which was abandoned late last evening and resumed this morning.
The tranquilliser, Immobilon, which was brought from Assam state zoo in Guwahati, was never used.
Bijoy Dutta, who was heading the rescue effort, said the animal panicked during an attempt to bring it out into the open this afternoon, backed into the water and drowned.
He said bullet injuries were noticed on the carcass after it was brought out of the water. “We saw two bullet injuries, suspected to be from a .303 rifle, on right side above its neck.”
Late this evening, N.K. Vasu, who took over as director of Kaziranga National Park today, confirmed that the other injured rhino had also succumbed to its injuries. Rescue efforts were difficult as the animal had moved up into inaccessible terrain on the hills, about 25km away from here.
It was around 4pm that the rhino’s carcass was recovered, sources said. Post-mortem will reveal whether it had been shot although five gunshots were heard very early on Tuesday. The rhino had entered Karbi Anglong around 8.30 that night. Forest guards were tracking it, but the rhino climbed over a very steep hill at great speed and disappeared.
Elephants were deployed to bring the rhino to a convenient location where tranquilliser shots could be administered. “Had we tranquillised it on the steep slope, anything could have happened, risking its life,” the source said. Since it takes some time for the drug to take effect, the men and elephants could also be endangered, the source added.
Sniffer dogs were deployed today following recovery of a pair of bloodstained shorts. “But too many people had gathered and the dogs lost the trail. We suspect that the shorts belonged to one of the poachers — a local — who would have jettisoned it fearing detection; they do carry rations and also clothes because they may have to stay put in a bush for multiple days,” the source added.
Earlier in the day, Assam Tea Tribes Students’ Association activists blocked NH37 near the Kohara range office of Kaziranga for over two hours, demanding protection of rhinos and compensation for tea workers who lost their cattle and, at times, even their lives to wild animals.
They also gheraoed principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) Suresh Chand, who had come to the park to inquire into the latest rhino killings.
Aaranyak, a prominent conservation group of the state, in a statement said the Assam forest department had not been up to the task of protecting the rhinos, especially when the park was reeling under the fury of floods.
The conservation group said this could be ascribed to a complete lack of coordination with the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council forest department, failure in intelligence gathering, a lack of proactive action and commitment on the part of officials and a complete lack of planning to face the annual floods.
“It is unfortunate that the authorities have failed to learn anything from the last wave of floods in June, when three flood-displaced rhinos were poached. Absence of coordination with fringe communities has also weakened the forest department’s monitoring mechanism in the peripheral areas of the park,” the statement said.