I wrote earlier about gorillas as peacekeepers in Congo and Rwanda, but they are not the only peacekeeping animals in the world. In Manas National Park, Assam in India the reintroduction of rhinos has brought pride, prosper and stability back to the area.
The earliest settlers of Assam are the Bodo tribe. They live in the forests on the north bank of the Brahmaputra River, below the foothills of Bhutan and are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the rest of the state. In the late 1980s their demand for a separate state, Bodoland, took a violent turn. Armed separatist groups such as the Bodoland Liberation Tigers and National Democratic Front of Bodoland hid inside Manas National Park. “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.” Before 1980 the rhino population in Manas was between 85 till 100, but by the year 2000 the whole population of rhinos had been wiped out, while local populations of elephant, bear and clouded leopard declined significantly. It became India’s only entry on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites marked with being in danger.
On February 10, 2003, the government of India signed an agreement with the leaders of the Bodoland Liberation Tiger Force (BLT). They agreed on concessions of autonomy from the government, including the establishment of a Bodoland Territorial Council to represent the interests of the 1.6 million indigenous Bodos in the northeastern state of Assam. The agreement was a win for the Bodos, but the fights that led to this agreement had heavily damaged the flora and fauna in Manas National Park. “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.”
Because rhinos play a crucial role in maintaining the park’s habitat, the local government of Assam came in 2005 with plans to reintroduce rhinos. With the help of Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020), 22 wild rhinos and 20 hand-reared rhinos have been reintroduced between 2005 and April 2021. “Rhinos play an important role in the grassland ecosystem and their re-introduction in Manas in the past one and half decades shall enable effective management of grassland habit which will not only provide space for rhinos but also other grassland dependent species”, says Dr Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, CEO of Aaranyak and senior advisor of International Rhino Foundation for Asian Rhinos.
Simultaneously in 2006, Menon was researching pygmy hogs in Manas when he came face-to-face with a king cobra. This is the world’s longest venomous snake which is found only in dense, undisturbed jungles in South and Southeast Asia. The presence of this elusive reptile suggested to him that the habitat of Manas was still robust and viable for rewilding. He realized there was scope for reintroducing lost animal species in this forest and grassland landscape, as it was ideal habitat for greater one-horned rhinos and elephants.
“From a rewilding perspective, as long as one can minimize livestock pressure on them, grasslands regenerate fast,” says Menon. The first task at hand was to provide alternative livelihoods. Therefore Menon, Indian Rhino Vision and collaborators started a community-based conservation project to develop non-forest livelihoods for local residents, protect the forest and restock it with rhinos, elephants, swamp deer, clouded leopard and wild buffalo. Hand-reared orphan rhino calves and black bear cubs from their Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation in Kaziranga, 250 miles further east, were carefully released in Manas. Simultaneously, WWF began translocating adult rhinos from other parts of Assam to Manas.
Thirty-five-year-old local Radhika Ray recalls how women in her village used to depend on the forest for fuel, forest produce and meat. Not so now, as women weave and sell the local dress, Dokhona, shawls, towels and more from silk and cotton bought at local markets. “Our generational bond with the forest remains unshakeable,” she says. “But now, like so many other women in my community, I make a living from weaving and no longer need to deplete its resources to survive.” The results of this shift are visible as she looks around the forest. “It is greener and more beautiful than before,” she smiles. A fellow weaver, 40-year-old Rohila Ray echoes this, adding that the income from weaving has made them independent of the forest as well as their menfolk.
A nighttime experience from Deba Kumar Dutta, then a junior rhino researcher with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), shows the response of a local village to the arrival of the reintroduced rhinos. Around midnight on the first of September 2008 he received a phone call that one of their recently released rhinos had entered a small village on the outskirts of the jungle. He was afraid that this could cause trouble for the rhino and the release program. When he arrived he saw hundreds of villagers surrounding the rhino and his heart sank. But when he came closer he saw what they 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 realized the quest for a rewilded Manas was not just a pipe dream.
“Salient success of IRV 2020 in the past one and half decades include no casualties of rhino during capture or release and providing opportunities to build local skills and expertise in rhino capture and release,” said Dr Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, CEO of Aaranyak and senior advisor of International Rhino Foundation for Asian Rhinos.
From poacher to park ranger
Part of the success of IRV 2020 can also be contributed to more than 400 former poachers. BRT and other organizations have convinced them to work as forest and wildlife protectors in return for monthly stipends. Maheshwar Basumatary, affectionately called Ontai (rock, in the local language), is one of them. In the 1980s he had turned to poaching as there were little other opportunities and it offered easy money. In 2005 he surrendered his weapons to the local administrative authority BTR and assisted in the pioneering rehabilitation of two orphaned clouded leopard cubs as part of the Greater Manas Conservation Project. Since then, he has helped catch poachers, seize illegal products, conduct wildlife surveys and hand-rear orphan rhino calves in Manas. “I have fed so many rhino calves and other baby animals through bottles, like I would my own children,” he says. “My heart fills with pride to see that some have now successfully had babies of their own in the wild.” Today, the man who formerly helped track rhinos for poachers feels conflicted when it is time to release the animals under his care into the wild. But in the end optimism wins. “Every animal that we rescue, rear and return to the wild enriches its habitat,” he says.
Sustainable rhino tourism in India
Other erstwhile poachers have joined the several local conservation outfits that have mushroomed around Manas, including Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society, where they volunteer as patrollers with the Assam forest department. “Their tracking skills really come in handy for this,” Rustom Basumatary, general secretary of the society comments. “We dream of Manas becoming a sustainable tourist destination so that local people have an even greater stake in its conservation.”
The benefits of tourism for species and environmental conservation are hotly contested. However Banerjee and other conservationists believe that sustainable tourism, and the income it provides, could create a virtuous feedback loop for Manas. “Locals also realise that over-exploiting natural resources in their environs could lead to not only reduced tourism revenues but greater policing by the government,” she remarks. “That is a serious disincentive.”
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.
In a state with a per capita GDP of roughly £820 ($1,120) a year, reviving Manas has cost IFAW an estimated $2.5m (£1.9m) so far. Menon says it has been worth it. 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.
Even the dung of the rhinos has made it into a commercial product. With an increased rhino population, more of them share land with the villages on the outskirts of the Manas reserve. This can be a source for conflict when they eat or destroy the crops of local farmers. To compensate for this loss Mahesh and Nisha Bora from Elrhino, the “poop to paper” company, step in to purchase the rhino dung from them. “We ensure that not only are they compensated for their contribution, but also made aware on the importance of rhinos,” says company CEO Nisha Bora. “They feel proud in being able to co-exist with such a rare species and thus will not cause damage to them.”
In addition to the wild rhino dung paper, the company also manufactures paper from the droppings of captive elephants in the area. Banana pseudo stems and the stems of the water hyacinth, found in abundance across Assam’s wetlands, are also used as fiber sources. “Both rhinos and elephants eat a lot of grass, and their gastrointestinal tract cannot digest fibers well and hence their dung is full of fiber,” Mahesh says. “So are the parts of banana plants and other such natural components, all of which endow the paper [with] its distinct texture and intrinsic character.” These are then used to make luxury paper products that have found markets in Hong Kong, the United States, Switzerland and the United Kingdom as well as India.
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. “The Rann of Kutch (Gujarat), Sundarbans (West Bengal) or the Western Ghats of Central India could benefit from similar projects,” Banerjee says, provided such projects have the required intensive community support and financial resources.