Anil Cherukupalli – Communications Manager, WWF- India
An eye witness account of a rhino translocation exercise carried out in Assam, India
It is 5 am on a Tuesday morning and thick fog conceals the vast grasslands of the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, located about 60 km east of Guwahati. I’m on the back of an elephant, for the first time in my life I should add, hanging on for dear life with one hand while trying to shoot with a video camera with the other hand to document the whole rhino translocation process. We are following three elephants, each of which has one veterinarian equipped with a tranquilizing gun. Much ahead of them, lost in the gloom of the fog, is the locator team. Waiting behind at the elephant camp is the logistics team along with forest department officials and guards, WWF and other NGO staff as well as a host of other support staff. All of them are part of the team tasked with translocating rhinos from Pobitora to Manas National Park under the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020).
The sun is still not up but a faint glow suffuses the fog. An occasional birdcall and grunts of the elephants disturb the stillness of the early morning. A burst of static shatters the stillness. The locator team is contacting the veterinarians through the wireless. They have found a couple of rhinos and apprise the team of the location. We rush together into the fog. By this time the sun has risen and is a pale disc hanging low in the sky. Suddenly, a little ahead of us, a silhouette resolves itself into the thick outlines of a rhino.
The First Attempt
The elephant Iâ€™m on falls back a little while the elephants of the tranquilizing team take up a triangular position to box in the rhino and enable correct targeting. However, the rhino doesn’t play to their plan. It quickly cuts through the fourth side before the doctors can take proper aim. We follow him and there begins a fruitless chase that lasts more than an hour and a half. Therefore, the tranquilizing team decides to move to a different location with the locator team. I return to the base camp to join the remaining translocation team.
The Second Attempt
The tranquilizing team finally meets with success and manages to tranquilize a female and her calf.
The logistics team swings into action. A bulldozer is brought in to dig a shallow trench next to the tranquilized mother so that a platform can be placed there onto which the rhino can be rolled. This is soon accomplished.
Meanwhile, the doctors conduct a quick examination of the rhino. A radio collar with a GPS locator is affixed around the neck of the rhino to facilitate tracking of the rhino post-release in Manas.
After the examination, the rhino is rolled onto the platform and the bulldozer then moves the platform to where the crate that will be used to transport the rhino is located. Next, a carefully coordinated exercise is undertaken which first involves bringing the rhino into the crate with the platform followed by administration of the revivant and removal of the platform once the rhino is awake to fully close and lock the crate. A crane is then brought in to carefully raise the crate and lower it onto a truck. Throughout this whole operation the rhino is watered at regular intervals to keep it cool. The same sequence is repeated for the sub-adult female as well. Once the rhinos have adjusted to the crates we retire for a quick lunch and a trip back to our rooms to pack our luggage.
It is 5 pm now and we start the long road journey through the night to Manas National Park, located about 260 km away in the north of Assam. The convoy starts with a police van in front providing security followed by the trucks with the rhino crates behind which the various other vehicles such as the veterinarians and us follow. We reach Manas just as dawn is breaking at around 5 am.
Everything is ready. Two ramps have been hollowed out for the trucks to facilitate the release of the rhinos. The release site is a small clearing in front of dense grasslands. The trucks are in place. The post release rhino monitoring and tracking teams are ready on elephants nearby. The crates are lowered from the trucks by the crane. The doctors do one last check of the rhinos within. They seem to be fine and look ready to get out and explore their new home. People are cleared from the site. It is time.
First, the gate of the crate containing the calf is raised. She comes out, understandably a little miffed at being confined in a crate for the night. So she tries to bite the truck. She then turns around and runs to her motherâ€™s crate, which is also being raised. The calf passes in front of the mother. However, in the heat of the moment they both miss seeing each other and the calf vanishes into the jungle. The released mother instantly goes over to her daughterâ€™s cage. She then wanders over to some feed from her daughterâ€™s cage kept under a machan. There are about 10 people on the machan including me observing and recording the proceedings. She is huge and fills the viewfinder of my video camera. For a moment Iâ€™m stunned as the sheer size of the rhino belatedly hits me. Quite literally, as if reading my thoughts, while turning away from the machan the rhino below us hits one of the wooden pillars of the machan with her side. The whole machan is rattled and sways but fortunately for all of us the rhino moves forward and the machan stays. The rhino is presumably following the smell of her calf as rhinos have an excellent sense of smell, better than their eyesight.
She soon settles down though and veers off into the adjacent grasslands and eventually into the forest. The post-release monitoring and tracking team soon sets off on elephants after her to track her by her GPS radio collar and check if she has united with her calf. We all heave a sigh of relief and the translocation team is happy that everything has gone to plan.
The story has a fitting end with news coming in a few days later from the monitoring team that the mother and daughter had united and were settling down in their new home. Happy endings happen in the natural world too!
These translocations will ensure that Assamâ€™s rhino population will have a safer future by having breeding populations in several protected areas and also contribute to reviving the past glory of Manas National Park.