As the monsoons end this year, five wild buffaloes, residents of Assam’s Manas National Park, are likely to undertake the longest journey of their lives – to Chhattisgarh’s Udanti Wildlife Sanctuary, located more than 1,500 km away.

It will be no ordinary trip. On its success rests the future of Chhattisgarh’s state animal: the wild buffalo, which is on the verge of extinction in the central Indian state.

According to latest count, there are only 10 wild buffaloes left in Chhattisgarh, all in the Udanti Wildlife Sanctuary. (There could be more in the Indravati National Park, but wildlife experts say there is no way to confirm or undertake conservation activity as the forest is a base for Left extremists). More worryingly, say conservationists, eight of the 10 wild buffaloes in Udanti Wildlife Sanctuary are male.

A cross-country mating trip

Wildlife scientists are now pinning their hopes on the five female bovines from Assam. They hope that the female wild buffaloes will mate with the males in Chhattisgarh, avert the impending extinction scare, and in the process restore gender parity too.

“We figured that the population is not viable and we need more female buffaloes, so carried out genetic studies of all [wild buffalo] populations in the country,” said Rajendra Prasad Mishra of the Wildlife Trust of India, which runs Chhattisgarh’s wild buffalo recovery project in partnership with the state government. “On the basis of that, we found out that the genetic type of the central Indian and the North Eastern wild buffalo is only slightly different. We finally zeroed in on Manas [National Park] as it was the closest with some minor variations.”

There are around 4,000 wild buffaloes in Assam.

Apart from the two state governments, the Union government has also approved the project. The Chhattisgarh government is expected to return the favour by transporting 40 spotted deer to Assam, said Mishra.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority, whose permission is mandatory as Manas is a designated tiger reserve, has also green-lighted the project. The wild buffalo, classified as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, is known to be one of the tiger’s favourite preys.

Obstacles ahead

But there remain many obstacles, caution wildlife experts. “It is a huge animal – we have to figure out how we will transport them,” said Rathin Barman, the joint director of the Wildlife Trust of India stationed in Assam. An average wild buffalo weighs nearly 2,000 kg.

Barman said there was no past instance of wild buffaloes being transported from one reserve forest to another. The project, he said, was turning out to be even more challenging than transporting elephants and rhinoceroses. This is because wild buffaloes have huge horns that make it difficult for them to be enclosed in a crate for transportation.

“When we transport elephants, we do it selectively and choose elephants with smaller tusks; for rhinos, we use crates,” he said. “But there is no option to do any of that in this case, so we do not want to anything in a hurry.”

He added: “If we pull it off, it will be a big thing.”