Success and setbacks in the fight for rhinos

Posted on 19 February 2013

By Dr A. Christy Williams
By Dr A. Christy Williams

When I started leading WWF’s Asian Rhino and Elephant Programme in 1999, greater one-horned rhinos were highly endangered. During years of insurgency, in the animals, also known as Indian rhinos, had been poached out of many of their habitats. At that time there were only two Indian parks that had more than 100 rhinos in them. The rest of the animals were living in isolated groups of about 40-60 individuals.

It was a very dangerous situation to have all our eggs in one basket, as the saying goes. With only two strong populations the species was too much at risk. A disease outbreak, natural disaster or poaching spree could have eliminated them all in a very short time.

In 2000 we decided that we needed to move some rhinos from the big populations back into the places where the species used to be found. It took us five years to convince the Indian government to let us move rhinos for what we call range expansion. WWF scientists are the experts in this type of work pioneering it in South Africa for critically endangered black rhinos.

We started relocating rhinos in 2005 to Manas National Park under the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 project. Our goal is to increase rhinos from three protected areas within India’s Assam state to six, and to get the population up to 3,000 by 2020.

When we identified Manas as a project site it was not in great shape. UNESCO had it on the list of World Heritage Sites in danger. Because of improvements to the park’s infrastructure and management that were made in preparation for receiving the rhinos, such as more game guards, is was removed from the danger list. That in itself is a great victory because Manas is home to endangered species like tigers and the golden langur, a monkey that is only found in Assam and Bhutan.

Things were going really well in Manas for a few years. We had moved 18 rhinos and a calf was born. Greater one-horned rhinos were even moved off the endangered list. But the rhino poaching crisis, which led to the deaths of 668 rhinos last year in South Africa, has dealt us a terrible blow. Three of the rhinos we moved have been shot by poachers for their horns in the past 18 months.

With demand for rhino horn surging in Viet Nam, we learned the hard way that cannot let our guard down even for a second.

We’ve put the translocations on hold for the moment while we look at how to improve protection in Manas. WWF is part of a global coalition rolling out a tool for rangers called SMART that helps them be more efficient and effective. When we are sure things are under control we will start to move rhinos to Manas again.

The setback, while discouraging, reaffirms our belief that we need to keep expanding rhino range. Having rhinos in more places will mean the species as a whole is more secure for the future.

Taking a pause in Manas may mean that we can get started sooner in our next site. We have a rhino ready to go that strayed out of a park a while back. It was going to go to Manas, but now it may instead be the first rhino to start a new population.

When one door closes, another opens. No matter what, we are going to continue to do everything we can to give rhinos a safe place to live and breed.
One-horned rhino.
© WWF / Christy Williams
Manas National Park - All set to receive the rhinos
© Sameer Singh - WWF AREAS and Tiger Programmes
A female Indian Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) is released after being translocated to Manas National Park in Assam, India on 29 Dec 2010. The translocation is part of the Indian Rhino Vision 2020, a joint project that involves WWF.
© WWF India / Dipankar Ghose
The recent poaching crisis in South Africa is largely due to increases in demand for rhino horn products in Viet Nam.
© Michele Depraz / WWF