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WWF warns of target failure

- Rhino killings at Manas trigger concern that conservation efforts may not be achieved

Guwahati, Jan. 15: The discovery of the third carcass of a translocated rhino in Manas on January 13 has forced World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), a principal partner in the Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020 programme, to warn that there is a real danger that the programme may not achieve its intended target.

The primary responsibility of providing protection to the translocated rhino at Manas, which falls within the Bodoland Territorial Areas District and is 150km from Guwahati, lies with the state forest department and the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), the WWF said yesterday. “We can’t achieve our targets unless we have their full attention,” the statement said.

Two rhinos had been killed earlier at Manas. The first carcass was recovered on October 14, 2011, while the second was recovered on May 23, 2012.

“It seems that the forest department and the BTC have not learnt lessons from the earlier poaching incidents. As a result, one more rhino has been lost,” Dipankar Ghose, director (species and landscapes) with the WWF, said in the statement.

Experts had, following the death of the second translocated rhino, put out 10 suggestions, which it appears have not been heeded (see box). The security re-assessment carried out by the WWF, Aaranyak (a wildlife NGO) and the park had, at the time, said patrolling at Manas was not intensive, and that the authorities had not made way for adequate tracks. Those that existed were not well maintained, the report said. “There isn’t adequate supervision of animals and there isn’t adequate monitoring,” it had said. The number of rhinos killed in Assam this month alone stands at three. The other two poaching cases have been reported from Morigaon in central Assam and Gohpur in Upper Assam. Assam had lost 21 rhinos to poachers last year.

IRV 2020, which was launched in 2005, aims to increase the rhino population in Assam from 2,001 (the population of the animal then), to 3,000 by the year 2020. The IRV effort involves wild-to-wild translocation of rhinos from Kaziranga National Park and Pobitora wildlife sanctuary to Manas and Dibru-Saikhowa National Parks, as well as Laokhowa and Burachapori wildlife sanctuaries.

IRV 2020 is a joint effort of the Assam state forest department, the BTC, the International Rhino Foundation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and WWF-India. All partners have pledged their commitment to the programme of bringing back rhinos to various sanctuaries, including Manas, which had seen its population of 60-80 rhinos being wiped out during the turmoil in the Bodo areas from 1987 to 1996, leading to its World Heritage site tag being removed. The tag was reinstated in 2011 after the successful translocation of eight rhinos.

“In the latest case, the rhino could have been killed on January 3 or 4, going by the condition of the carcass,” a source said. The rhino was last seen by a WWF-India field team on December 31, before it strayed. The post mortem report says there were 12 bullet holes in the body and the horn, nails and tail were missing.

Manas, a known habitat of the endangered species, now has 21 of its entire rhino population left in the park. Between 2008 and 2012, 18 rhinos had been translocated to Manas, of which three have been killed by poachers in a span of 18 months. One calf has so far been born of Manas’s translocated rhinos. Six rhinos from Centre of Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation had been relocated to Manas, of which one has died.

Experts in the field are worried that the latest poaching has been reported from Bhatgali in Manas’s Bansbari range, which is said to have the best infrastructure among the park’s three ranges. The killing site lies within 3km of three anti-poaching camps — Bhatgali, Kahibari and Fort — bringing to the fore once again the penetrating capability and success rate of poachers who operate in the region.

“This clearly shows that the patrolling supposed to be carried out by the frontline staff of the park posted in these camps was not being carried out effectively,” the WWF stated. “The message is very clear: Rhinos will not survive unless these elements are neutralised. Everybody has to be committed and it also has to be sustained,” A. Swargiary, field director of Manas, told The Telegraph.

The WWF’s warning seems to be taking initial effect in the state’s wildlife set-up. “We are fully committed as well as open to suggestions and help from all. Prime facie, it appears that there are lapses as to why the nearby camps could not detect the carcass. Necessary action will be taken and the field director has been asked to get tough,” chief wildlife warden Suresh Chand said. “We will not allow IRV to be derailed,” he said.

People associated with conservation efforts in Assam are dismayed with the latest cases of poaching. “The authorities need to recruit more security personnel, set up more forest camps and create more patrolling paths so that more area can be covered swiftly and regularly by forest personnel at Manas,” said Dharanidhar Boro, a senior forest official and a known name in the field of rhino conservation. “Manas needs to be equipped with modern equipment immediately.”

The latest incident of poaching at Manas perhaps also calls for a rethink in terms of the security measures adopted for translocated rhinos. The normal practice is to radio-collar the animals. “The radio collars drop off after about a year, by which time the rhino would have established its home range,” said Amit Sharma, coordinator, rhino conservation, WWF.

The radio-collar fitted on this rhino is believed to have fallen off some time in November last year, after which it could no longer be monitored remotely. “Since then, it became imperative to conduct regular elephant and foot patrols to ensure security for this rhino, which was last located by a WWF-India field team on December 31. 2012,” the WWF statement said.

Given the poaching, the patrols obviously weren’t carried out. General lack of security at the park has also led to cameras, installed by NGOs, being stolen.

Roland Lin Chih-Hung, a senior official of the Asia and Pacific Unit, World Heritage Centre, Unesco, said it is contacting the Indian government for more information and clarification on this worrying situation.