In 2003 Manas had lost its entire population of rhinos and swamp deer. In 2021 Manas was home to 52 rhinos, 48 tigers, more than 1,000 wild elephants and a number of endangered animals
GEETANJALI KRISHNA: The call came at midnight on 1 September 2008. One of the first greater one-horned rhinos, brought 400km (250 miles) from Kaziranga National Park to Manas National Park in Assam, India, was heading towards a village on the outskirts of the jungle. Any conflict with humans could spell doom for the entire rhino reintroduction programme there.
“My heart sank when I found over 500 villagers gathered to see the rhino,” recalls Deba Kumar Dutta, then a junior rhino researcher with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) who was monitoring the two animals.
But as Dutta came closer, he saw what the villagers were doing. “They’d collected its dung as they believed it was auspicious,” he says. At that moment, as he watched the gathered crowd mark each rhino footprint with bamboo sticks, Dutta realised the quest for a rewilded Manas was not just a pipe dream. Far from the conflict he had feared, the villagers were embracing the presence of the rhino in a way he could scarcely have hoped for.
Fourteen years later, the rhino reintroduction at Manas National Park offers lessons for similar reintroduction projects elsewhere. The close bond between local people and the rhinos has helped lead both away from a precarious past…
The earliest settlers of Assam, the Bodo tribe, live in the forests on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River, below the foothills of Bhutan. Ethnically and linguistically distinct from the rest of the state, their demand for a separate state, Bodoland, took a violent turn by the late 1980s. Armed separatist groups such as the Bodoland Liberation Tigers and National Democratic Front of Bodoland hid inside Manas.
“Forest protection, development work and economic opportunities ceased here,” recalls Mahesh Moshahary, secretary of New Horizon, a local conservation outfit. “Deforestation and poaching became the sole means of livelihood.”
All 100 rhinos in Manas disappeared, and local populations of elephant, bear and clouded leopard declined significantly. Seven years after it had entered Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites, Manas, and the Bodo who inhabited it, became India’s only entry on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 1992. In 2003, when Bodoland Territorial Council (BTR) was formed as a result of a tripartite peace agreement with the central government, Assam state government and the BTR, Manas was a shadow of itself.
“We were humiliated and guilt-stricken that the entire world blamed Bodo people for the destruction of Manas,” recalls 54-year-old Kampa Borgoyary, BTR’s deputy chief and minister in charge of forests and education at the time. “The imperative of restoring Manas to its former glory became deeply linked with the resurgence of our own ethnic pride”…
“Since 2003, the Assam government has regularly extended the area of Manas and adjoining forests,” says Vivek Menon, executive director of the Indian conservation organisation Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). Expansion of the park has huge conservation significance for the 283,700 hectare (1,100 square mile) landscape, says Vivek, who is also a senior advisor to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), an international animal welfare and conservation charity.
Orphaned baby rhino, swamp deer, black bear and elephant have been rescued, hand-reared, rehabilitated and released here by the WTI, IFAW and the Assam forest department. Wild rhinos have also been reintroduced in the park from other parts of Assam. The rewilding of Manas has been so successful that in 2011, Unesco removed Manas from its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger…
As “mega-herbivores”, rhinos indicate the health of the Manas grasslands: their presence suggests the habitat is in good ecological condition, providing water, clean air and carbon sequestration. Grassland regeneration has also helped conserve species like the endangered pygmy hog and the world’s rarest bustard, the Bengal florican.
In 2003 when the Bodo Peace Accord was signed, Manas had lost its entire population of rhinos and swamp deer. In 2021 Manas was home to 52 rhinos, 48 tigers, more than 1,000 wild elephants and a number of endangered animals such as clouded leopards, pygmy hogs, hispid hares and Bengal florican.
The Manas model has been proposed as a best practice for World Heritage conservation and management in Unesco, and is spurring conservationists to identify more areas for rewilding elsewhere… “Going forward, species reintroductions – whether they be of cheetahs, clouded leopards or even tigers – will look to the Manas model,” says Dhriti Banerjee, director of the Zoological Survey of India. SOURCE…