Rhino future in danger: Report

Guwahati, March 1: A specialist group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has warned that long-term stability of rhino population in Kaziranga may be in jeopardy if poaching increases and ecological conditions decline.

The Conservation Breeding Specialist Group in its draft report on Population Viability Analysis (PVA) of the greater one-horned rhinoceros in Assam said though the rhino population was sufficiently large to tolerate translocation of as many as 40 animals a year over a period of two to three decades, this was critically dependent on the underlying demographics of the source population.

The World Heritage Site has already lost six rhinos this year, the last one on Friday. The action was swift with the department suspending range officer Puspadhar Buragohain and ordering a departmental and magisterial probe.

 

"If ecological conditions decline in the park, or if poaching increases, the long-term stability of the rhino population may be in jeopardy and its utility as a source population for translocations could be compromised. Careful monitoring of population abundance and poaching rates in the park is an extremely important component of a successful rhino population management approach," it stated.

More than 85 per cent of the world's greater one-horned rhinoceros are in Kaziranga. The PVA was conducted by using Vortex, a simulation software package to study the interaction of life history and population parameters of several rhinos and to test the effects of selected management scenarios on long-term population viability.

"Since this population is currently estimated to be approximately 2,329, and the estimated annual growth rate in the population is approximately three per cent, this estimate of a sustainable harvest for the purposes of translocation is logical," it stated.

The late eighties and early nineties had witnessed the highest rate of poaching, with numbers again beginning to rise in 2011 (see chart).

The report stated that when anti-poaching efforts increased in Kaziranga between 1996 and 2013, the overall average rate of poaching was about nine animals per year. However, this rate has shot up in the past three years to more than 15 rhinos per year.

The primary threats to rhinos in Kaziranga have to do with limited carrying capacity. At present there is space of 0.18 square km per rhino; there could be 0.38 square km per rhino if expansion areas could be added. There is great need for additional extensions of the park to accommodate the growing rhino population.

Preliminary modelling done by the specialist group suggests that by 2020 the rhino population in Kaziranga will be roughly 2,602. "However, the park's carrying capacity has been estimated to be 2,500. Therefore, at least 25 rhinos need to be translocated annually to other sites, or additional land needs to be acquired," it said.

A park official said six proposed additions have been notified, three of which are pending finalisation because of legal, administrative and financial reasons.

In 1996, there were 366 rhinos in Kaziranga.

Habitat loss, including degradation and fragmentation of habitat, specifically loss along the southern riverbank is another important threat.

"Overgrazing, loss of grasslands, issues of water in the park, woodlands taking over grasslands also pose a threat. Poaching is a continuous threat, which shows no signs of abatement. Finally, there are significant threats from unplanned economic growth all around Kaziranga. If this continues, it will be difficult to reach 0.38 square km needed per rhino in the park," the report stated.

Park director M.K. Yadava in his report to Gauhati High Court last year had said that National Highway 37, running on the south of Kaziranga, has of late become a zone of severe developmental activities such as hotels, dhabas, shops and commercial space for use of local population and tourists. The traffic on the highway has also increased manifold.

"Several identified corridors for animal movement have become almost dysfunctional due to anthropogenic activities," he stated.

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