02 03/02/2011

Rhinos on the move

Support from Chester Zoo has enabled the translocation of Indian rhinos in Assam.

In a move to ensure the survival of this vulnerable species, four rhinos - one male and three females - were translocated from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary to Manas National Park. The animals join two females that were moved to Manas in late December, and five rhinos (two males and three females) that were moved in 2008. Funding from the zoo, a conservation charity, played a part in helping the move go ahead.

Indian rhinos are a conservation success story. The species has recovered from about 200 animals in the early 1990s to more than 2,850 today. Resembling living armoured tanks, the species is a popular zoo animal – about 175 Indian rhinos live in 66 zoos around the world. As a result of increasing commitment to conservation, zoos from Europe, Australia and the United States have joined forces to support the rhino moves.

Pobitora, where the four rhinos were captured, boasts the highest density of rhinos in the world, with more than 90 rhinos in less than 18 square kilometers (4,450 acres) of rhino habitat. To minimize the chance of loss from disease and other disasters, the rhinos need to be spread among other parks. The translocations will lessen pressure on Pobitora’s rhinos for food and space, and hopefully reduce the number of rhinos straying into nearby villages which can lead to injuries to people and animals.

Moving a rhino is no easy task – the moves are the result of months of meticulous planning for every possible situation that might arise from capture to release – all with the aim of keeping both the animals and the people involved safe. Under the guidance of veterinarians, field workers, park guards, conservationists and forest department officials, the four animals were captured and released within 24 hours. Veterinarians darted the animals with tranquilizers, then transported them 250 km in crates specially-designed to hold the 1.5 to 2 ton pachyderms. Each rhino is radio-collared and will be closely monitored by WWF-India and Manas National Park staff.

The translocations are the backbone of the ambitious Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020 - a partnership among the government of Assam, the International Rhino Foundation, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Bodoland Territorial Council, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - that aims to attain a population of 3,000 wild rhinos in seven of Assam's protected areas by the year 2020.

Dr Roger Wilkinson, Chester Zoo’s Head of Field Conservation and Research, said: "Chester Zoo’s conservation efforts extend beyond the zoo’s boundaries and assistance from organisations such as ours can make a real difference to species everywhere. The translocation of these rhinos is a real success story and one that we are proud to support."

It is not the first time the zoo has supported Manas National Park. In 2008 it provided funding to help reduce the risk of poaching, human-wildlife conflict, disease transmission and ultimately protecting the habitat. Community projects were also supported.

Manas National Park, once an icon among India's many spectacular wildlife reserves, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. As of 2010, only 911 sites in the world have been named as a place with special cultural or physical significance. Manas is home to the tiger, pygmy hog and golden langur as well as elephants, wild buffalo and Indian bison. Rhinos were once common in the park, but violent civil conflict beginning in 1989 caused massive damage to the park’s infrastructure, including destruction of anti-poaching camps, roads and villages. Until recently, the last rhino seen in Manas was in 1996.

Zoos have contributed more than half a million dollars in the past three years to rebuild Manas National Park’s infrastructure, including anti-poaching camps, roads, and bridges, in preparation for the Park’s new inhabitants. Because of the ever-present threat of poaching, guards from the local communities, which herald the rhino homecoming, have been hired to protect the park’s rhinos and other wildlife. Many of the guards are former poachers who now want to help to conserve the park’s living treasures. The funding consortium, led by the International Rhino Foundation in the U.S., Save the Rhino International in the United Kingdom, and the Asian Rhino Project in Australia, include the American Association of Zookeepers, Zoo Basel, CERZA Zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Chester Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, Mesker Park Zoo, Philadelphia Zoo, Stuttgart Zoo, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, Woodland Park Zoo, and the San Diego Zoo.