Hot, dirty and rewarding – moving rhinos in Assam

Posted on 17 April 2008

"The tranquilizing team changed tactics. They now started stalking the rhino on foot, using the elephants as cover. In the next half hour that ensued, the first rhino, a male, was tranquilized. After fifteen minutes of tracking, the rhino grew sluggish and his hind legs started sinking. A vet then approached this animal and gave him a second shot of tranquilizer. But as soon as the dart hit him, the animal was up on his feet and running again!"
by Sujoy Banerjee, Director Species Conservation,  WWF-India

It was a long wait for this day. Over the past one and a half years, Manas National Park, once and now to be a future home for rhonos, went through a major reconstruction process. Security against poachers was reinstalled by construction of protection camps and posting of extra staff and volunteers. The habitat was monitored and found suitable for the rhinos.

There was eagerness on part of the Forest Department authorities to move the rhinos, and there was equal eagerness on part of Manas National Park authorities to receive them. But I was keeping my fingers crossed. The rhino translocations had to be called off a month ago at the very last moment due to non-availability of valid drugs on time.

Not taking any chances this time, WWF sponsored a veterinarian to visit Singapore to procure valid drugs. The veterinarian came back with the drugs on Monday, 07th April, 2008 and the date of translocation was scheduled four days later. But anything could have gone wrong; bad weather, possibilities of ethnic clashes, curfew . . .

Everything seemed perfect on the D-day. The weather gods smiled upon us and the day was clear. Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, from where the rhinos were to be moved, was agog with activity since very early in the morning with tight security positioned at entrance points and only authorized persons associated with the translocation allowed entry into the area. Cranes, earth moving machinery, an ambulance and loads of trucks were in place.

The operation started off at 5.30 in the morning and a group of veterinarians went off on elephant back to tranquilizing the rhinos. Ramesh Bhatta, Project Officer of WWF-India, who had identified the four rhinos (two males and two females) to be translocated, was also with the tranquilizing team.

Everything went off as planned initially. Of the four rhinos identified, Bhatta showed three of them to the tranquilizing team one by one, and the elephants, splayed out in a single file, gradually started cordoning the rhinos. But all three rhinos managed to break the elephant cordon.

It was 9.00 am and the tranquilizing team had not been able to tranquilize even a single rhino. The wireless was crackling with frantic conversations. The sun was now up and the temperature was gradually rising. The rhinos had sensed that the people on elephant back were not usual visitors and avaoided being closely approached. It appeared that the team may not be be able to tranquilize even a single rhino.

The tranquilizing team changed tactics. They now started stalking the rhino on foot, using the elephants as cover. In the next half hour that ensued, the first rhino, a male, was tranquilized. After fifteen minutes of tracking, the rhino grew sluggish and his hind legs started sinking. A vet then approached this animal and gave him a second shot of tranquilizer. But as soon as the dart hit him, the animal was up on his feet and running again!

The rhino lost consciousness in the next ten minutes and the tranquilizing team approached him cautiously. A person prodded him with a stick, and when he was found totally unconscious, others, waiting in the flanks swooped in.

The eyes of the rhino were covered with a cloth and buckets of water were poured over him to keep his body temperature down. While the vet team busied themselves taking measurements and samples; blood, nose smears, temperature, pulse, length, height etc., the radiocollaring team started fixing the radiocollar in place. The darts were taken out and the wound sprayed with antiseptics. The rhino was also administered antibiotics and sedatives for the long journey ahead.

The excavator began digging a cavity about a foot behind the felled rhino. Once this cavity of depth equal to the height of the stretcher sledge was excavated, labourers with shovels and diggers moved the loose earth and gave proper shape to the pit. The stretcher sledge was placed into this cavity. Everyone lent a hand in flipping over the rhino, weighing around fifteen hundred kilos, on to the stretcher sledge. The sledge was then pulled out of the cavity by the excavator and dragged about five hundred meters to the site where the crate (wooden cage) was parked.

Time was running out, since the rhino was to be revived and the stretcher sledge carrying the unconscious rhino was hurriedly taken inside the crate. The crate, which is a wooden cage, has two sliding doors on both side, which can be lifted vertically to open the cage. The cage was closed from one side and the door towards the head of the rhino was lowered halfway. A vet entered into the crate and administered a drug for reviving the rhino from his unconsciousness. In ten seconds, the rhino was stirring and stood up on his feet, albeit a trifle groggy and dazed. But no sooner had he gained foothold, he began heavily pounding the walls of the crate with the horn sitting over his nose.

The next operation involved pulling out the stretcher sledge from the crate to provide the rhino with a better foothold during transportation. Inch by inch, the stretcher sledge was pulled out of the cage ensuring that the rhino was not injured in the process. Once the sledge was out, the sliding doors of the cage was sealed using cross-iron strips which were bolted on the door. The door was also secured to the body of the crate with ropes.

The crane was moved in to lift the crate and put it into the back of the truck. In the first attempt, the crane lifted the crate a feet or two in the air only to find that it was tilting to one side The two securing steel ropes were readjusted and the crate was lifted about eight feet from the ground. Then the rhino moved. The crate tilted heavily on one side at an angle of forty five degrees and hung precariously as the entire mass of rhino came to that side side, and for a moment it appeared that the crate would come crashing down with the poor rhino inside it. But the crate, made out of strong Sal wood stood its ground. Finally, the crate was maneuvered to the ground before anything untoward could take place.

Now the excavator was summoned. As it was lifted, the excavating arm of the excavator keep the crate upright and the crate was loaded onto the truck without any further event.

It almost noon by the time decision was taken to make an attempt to tranquilize the second rhino. Having learnt a lesson from the earlier event, things went quite smoothly this time and the second rhino, again a male, was put into the crate and secured in the back of the truck.

At 2.30 pm, the vet team started their reconnaissance for the third rhino and they had been able to locate a rhino, which broke off the elephant cordon and moved into a wooded area on the fringes of the grasslands of Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary.

While it was being contemplated whether to drive the rhino out of the woodland into the open for tranquilization, Mr. B.S. Bonal, the Chief Conservator of Forests who was in charge of the translocations decided to call off further translocations as everyone was very tired and fagged out. While returning back to base, Ramesh Bhatta and Garga Mohan Das, a veterinary doctor working as a Project Officer with WWF-India spotted a rhino at close distance. Garga had a loaded tranquilizing gun, and without any hesitation, this rhino, thought to be a female, was tranquilized. To the utter dismay of everyone it turned out to be a male again! The rhino was revived and allowed to go immediately.

The team waited till sundown to start the transportation of the rhinos. At about six pm, the convoy of vehicles with the trucks carrying the rhinos in the center, started moving. As soon as the convoy reached the exit gate of the sanctuary, it was greeted by a huge number of local people, who had been waiting since morning to catch a glimpse of their rhinos. People cheered as the procession passed by.

The vet team kept monitoring the rhinos every half and hour and water was poured over them periodically. The vehicles in the convoy maintained contact with each other through walkie-talkies. The police provided an escort vehicle with flashing red lights to lead the convoy, and the traffic of cities and towns that were stopped throughout the journey by the police to make way for the "VIP" convoy to pass by. The escort vehicle in front, called the “pilot” kept changing from time to time as soon as the border of a district was reached; the pilot leading the convoy would pull by and another pilot, already waiting by the side of the road, would take his place upfront without stopping the convoy, as if it were a part of some kind of relay race.

The distance of 240 kms from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary to Manas National Park was covered in twelve hours due to slow movement of vehicles in the interest of comfort and safety of the rhinos. It was daylight by the time we were reaching Manas, and only one obstacle needed to be negotiated……. a flowing river!

There was only about two feet of water in the river and the leading vehicles cleared the river with ease. People watched with bated breath as the first truck carrying the rhino crate entered the water. If the truck got stuck in the river, it would be a gargantuan task to pull it out. But luck was on our side as the truck crawled out the water uneventfully, the second truck following closely behind the first.

The convoy entered the Manas National Park and continued some ten kilometers inside to reach the area where the rhinos were to be released. We were greeted by a large group of people who had been waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of the rhinos. Two ramps had been created by excavating the earth, and both the trucks backed down into these depression. The iron board securing the back of the truck was opened, which formed a platform for the rhinos to walk over from the truck to terra firma. The space between the crate and end of the iron board was covered with mud and grasses and rhino dung was scattered over it to provide a natural base for the rhino to come out.

Some team members climbed on the top of the crate, while the onlookers clambered on to another truck carrying water tanks parked in the vicinity. Some people placed themselves on the two Machaan (elevated wooden platform), strategically built especially for this event to provide the best glimpse of the rhino release. Dozens of cameras were lined up to record the history that was going to be created. And the door of the cage was lifted up. All eyes were focused on the rear of the truck from where the rhino was to emerge. The fingers on the cameras were ready and taut to click the best shots possible. But the rhino did not emerge.

In the next half and hour that followed, attempts were repeatedly made to get the rhino up on his feet, but the rhino had planted itself firmly to the floor of his crate and would not budge. Water was poured over him repeatedly and he was prodded with a stick, but he held his ground. As the minutes passed by, people were getting more apprehensive about some injury that may have incapacitated the rhino.

It was then decided to release the second rhino. Some others got on to the top of the crate while I decided to help unscrew the bolts for opening the door. A plank, which was fixed at the bottom of the door needed to be taken out. So I requested the people operating the door to lift it six inches to lift the door. As the door was lifted a few inches, I was crouched on the ground attempting to pull out the plank. Then there was a bang and the rhino managed to lift the door with his horn, and I was staring at the face of a snorting rhino two feet away! I jumped and moved aside. But the rhino could not balance the door on his nose for long and it came down crashing the very next moment. It was decided not to make any further attempts to remove the plank.

While all this was happening, another drama began to unfold. The people on top of the first crate shouted that the rhino, which had not budged an inch for the past forty five minutes decided to move. Someone shouted to me to run for cover (I was the only person on the ground) and I scampered into the cabin of the truck carrying the second rhino. The rhino emerged from the back of the truck and turned right, straight towards the truck with a loadful of people parked some twenty meters away! It banged on the truck with its horn five or six times much to the chagrin of a group of onlookers on board the truck. Then it turned around and ran into the grassland and disappeared as the crowd broke into a loud applause.

Before the second crate was opened, I had managed to plant myself on one of the Machaan overlooking the back of the second truck to get some pictures of the rhino release. No sooner was the door of the crate of the second rhino was opened, the head of the rhino poked out of the rear of the truck, and it surveyed the scene around it. Then it came out full charge, turned a full circle, and banged the side of the truck that had been carrying it for the past fourteen hours. Then it galloped and vanished into the thickets, again evoking loud applause from the crowd.

Happy and content, but very weary, the team returned back. Most of us had a very scanty sleep over the past few two nights, while some had not slept properly for three. Everyone was covered with a mix of sweat and dirt from head to toe.

As we drove back, the significance of this exercise dawned over me. It was not merely a process of shifting some rhinos into a place where rhinos once existed, we were bringing back the lost glory of this World Heritage site, which the local people were once proud of. Above all, it would secure a long-term future for the rhinos in this part of India, as this would help building up of another population of rhinos in another part of the state of Assam. If the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 Programme goes on successfully, then rhino populations would also be built up gradually in other places of Assam as well by translocating rhinos to such areas. There would be opportunities for tourism, a reduction of human-rhino conflicts in areas rhinos are taken from, and an intermixing of genetic material through rhinos being brought into Manas from different places.

While I write this articles, the sequence of events unfold before my eyes, as if I am watching a replay. And what impresses me most in the whole event is the role of the people of Assam. What started off as an initiative of the Government of Assam in partnership with Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and US Fish and Wildlife Services actually turned out to be really a movement of the people of Assam. Apart from local NGOs, individuals, doctors, veterinarians, academicians and a host of other people had participated in the event whole heartedly, and the contribution of these people to the success of the first translocation is immense. It was really a role model to learn in terms of team work.

I guess the effort of translocation was successful in more ways than one!!
Rhinos becoming wary of tranquilliser team on elephants
© WWF/Sujoy Banerjee
Success! A tranquillized rhino being loaded into a crate
© WWF/Sujoy Banerjee
A river provides the final obstacle to a slow and careful 240 km rhino transport convoy through Assam
© WWF/Sujoy Banerjee
After some delay, first rhino to call Manas National Park home in more than a decade emerges . . .
© WWF/Sujoy Banerjee
. . . and promptly charges the truck that transported it
© WWF/Sujoy Banerjee