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About four decades ago, the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh did not have any trace of the greater single-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), commonly known as the Indian rhinoceros. Most of the population was concentrated in the popular Kaziranga National Park in the northeastern state of Assam. But recently, the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh reported a positive rise of the terrestrial mammal. A four-decade-old ambitious inter-state rhino reintroduction project seems to have worked in the right direction.

The Indian rhinoceros falls under the “vulnerable” category of species in the Red List of threatened species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Around 40 such rhinoceroses can now be spotted on the marshy grasslands of Terai in Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. In the last 38 years, the population has grown from the five rhinos, that were introduced in the reserve, to 40 and according to the local forest department. The population is only expected to increase in the days to come.

Dudhwa Tiger Reserve is spread over an area of around 1,284 sq km, but the rhinos thrive in two segregated forest ranges measuring 27 sq km and 14 sq km. This year, the latest population estimation of the animal was undertaken in these two ranges. Amit Sharma, Lead, Rhino Conservation Project at World Wildlife Fund for Nature, India and an expert on the Indian rhinoceros was specially invited from Assam for this exercise. Seven teams were also constituted in the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve for this project and the exercise was undertaken under the supervision of World Wildlife Fund. The team used drones, sensors and also elephants to conduct the population survey.

Five out of these seven teams counted rhinos in the southern Sonaripur range in one of the rhino rehabilitation areas while two covered the Belrayan range in a second rhino rehabilitation area. The survey could not be undertaken in a part of one of the rehabilitation areas. Because that particular is marshy and covered with long grasses. Thus, the survey was conducted over 75% of the total rhino rehabilitation area of 41 sq km.

According to the survey, 40 rhinos are estimated to be in the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. Of these, 28 are adults which include seven males and 16 females, while the gender of five could not be identified. There were also eight baby rhinos that are between one and three years old and four others aged between four and twelve years. Out of these, one was female, and the gender of three others could not be identified.

Kailash Prakash, Deputy Director, Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, said in a press release, that as the population estimation was done in 75% of the area, it is possible that there are more rhinos in the remaining area that had not been surveyed and the total population could be higher. He said that in 2017, the total population of rhinos in the tiger reserve stood at 34.

Sanjay Pathak, Field Director, Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, while pleased with the success of the rhino reintroduction programme, is also concerned about the safety of the baby rhinos. Compared with other animal species, the reproduction rate among rhinos is slower and the baby rhinos are protected for their initial three years as they are vulnerable to attacks from tigers, Pathak said. He added that the gestation period of rhinos is between 16 months and 18 months. A female rhino can give birth to another offspring only after three years from her last delivery.

During these three years, the female rhinos lactate and protect their young ones, as they are prone to tiger attacks. These young rhinos often live in the close vicinity of their mother until they start developing horns. Female rhinos reach sexual maturity by the age of six years but produce their first child only after the age of 12 years.

After four decades, the rhino reintroduction plan in Uttar Pradesh’s Dudhwa Tiger Reserve has resulted in more than 40 rhinos in the reserve. Credit: Sanjay Pathak.

Conservation efforts

The journey to conserve the single-horned rhino started around four decades ago. In August 1979, the Asian Rhino Specialist Group, one among the many specialist groups from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission focussed on the conservation of the Indian rhinoceros. Special attempts were also made to reintroduce the rhinos in their old natural habitats like Dudhwa. Soon, the National Board for Wildlife, India, based on the suggestions, formed a sub-committee and started exploring options to reintroduce rhinos in Uttar Pradesh. It found Dudhwa to be an appropriate place for the reintroduction.

SP Sinha was a member of the committee which was entrusted with the task of bringing back rhinos to Dudhwa. He said, “For the introduction of any animal species, sites which have a history of their habitation are usually chosen. It is taken into account how many years back that animal used to live here. We found from records that Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh recorded the hunting of the last rhino in the state in 1878.”

Sinha said for the survival of rhinos, marshy land, forests and grasslands play pivotal roles. They like to play with mud. They like to hide in the forests and use grasslands for food. Dhudhwa offered all these. The local conditions were also similar to what is available in Kaziranga National Park.

After that, an area of 27 sq km was earmarked for them, and only after that were the rhinos reintroduced in the state after 106 years in Dudhwa. During March and April in 1984, six rhinos were captured in Assam’s Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. They were taken to the Guwahati Zoo where one of them died. Out of the remaining five, two were males and three were females. They were then introduced to Dudhwa on April 20, 1984.

One of the female rhinos died while delivering a baby, and another female also died in the same year. Then, only one female rhino and two male young rhinos were left. After that, there was a transboundary agreement with the Nepal government, and four young rhinos were exchanged with Nepal in return for 16 elephants from India. These rhinos were introduced to Dudhwa. They were caught near Chitwan in Nepal before being introduced in Dudhwa in 1985. With the seven rhinos in the reserve, the population began rising.

Buoyed by the rising population of these rhinos, the local authorities earmarked another area of 14 sq km in the Belrayan Range of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. And three female rhinos and one male rhino were introduced in situ from the thriving Sonaripur Range of the tiger reserve.

Field Director Sanjay Pathak told Mongabay-India that the forest department is now creating an Action Plan to expand the area for the rhinos. This region now has rhinos from Assam and Nepal and talks are also on to bring more rhinos from West Bengal. A committee is also expected to be constituted to study the plans and submit a report to the state government which has also allocated Rs 1.43 crore for the same.

The forest department is now creating an Action Plan to expand the area for these rhinos, and the state government has allocated Rs 1.43 crore for the project. Credit: Sanjay Pathak

Natural habitat

According to documents from the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, there was a time when single-horned rhinos were found in several parts of India including the plain areas around major rivers like Sindhu, Ganga, and Brahmaputra. According to historical books like Baburnama, it was claimed that these species were spread until the India-Myanmar border of northeast India.

There are five types of rhinos found worldwide, but single-horned rhinos are usually found in India, Nepal and Bhutan. Rhinos have faced illegal hunting for their horns which made them vulnerable. According to World Wide Fund, at one point their population globally dipped to 200 and they were on the verge of extinction. But with the coordinated transboundary efforts of the Indian and Nepal governments, the scenario has improved.

According to a global report by the International Rhino Foundation in 2022, the total population of rhinos in India and Nepal stands at 4,014. This is 426 more rhinos compared with the 2018 report.

Pathak said that in India, there are only seven such places that are the natural habitats of rhinos. Out of these, four sites are in Assam, two in West Bengal and one in Dudhwa in Uttar Pradesh. He said that although India has a total of 22 tiger reserves, there are only four such tiger reserves rich in biodiversity where tigers and rhinos co-exist. This includes Kaziranga National Park, Orang National Park, Manas Tiger Reserve in Assam and Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.