On the flood plains of the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India, lies Kaziranga National Park, one of the last areas in the eastern part of the country to be undisturbed by human presence. Here, the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinoceroses (Rhinoceros unicornis) — along with bears, elephants, panthers, highly endangered swamp deer, tigers, more than 50 percent of the world’s wild water buffalo, and thousands of birds — live.
On March 26, 2013, Kaziranga let the world in on some good news. Its rhino population grew. In 1999, the World Heritage site of Kaziranga had 1,672 rhinos. In 2009, that number had increased to 2,048. The latest census, concluded at the end of March, found 2,329 individuals.
There is a darker side to this success story, however. Last year, more than twenty rhinos were poached in Kaziranga. And after only the first three months of 2013, the number of poached rhinos is already at sixteen.
That sad fact is causing some to ask: Could concentrating most of the planet’s remaining one-horned rhinos in one park actually be helping poachers?
A single fortress
Kaziranga is one of the world’s best-protected wildlife preserves. When it comes to poachers, rangers here follow shoot-to-kill orders, and drones and satellite surveillance stand at the ready to track harmful intruders. Still, poachers are laying siege to what they call “Fortress Kaziranga,” managing to sheer off the rhinoceroses’ horns to supply a Chinese surge in demand for the purported “medicine” that’s more valuable than gold. At least twenty rhinos fell to poachers in and around the park in 2012, compared to ten in all of India in 2011.
The one-horned rhinoceroses in Kaziranga National Park represent 60 percent of the world’s entire population of the animals. Some argue that that’s a dangerously high percentage to have living in one known area. Should a natural disaster, such as a flood, or disease rampage through the park, the animals’ numbers could drop below the point at which they would be sustainable. And being able to pinpoint the location of the largest group of remaining wild one-horned rhinos makes finding them easy for poachers.
In the United States, a similar scenario is being played out with American bison (Bison bison). Inside Yellowstone National Park are four thousand or so of the animals, which are descendants of the handful who survived the nineteenth-century slaughter and the only bison in the country that are considered genetically pure.
For a long time, conservationists worried that if something should befall the Yellowstone bison population, the species would be lost. One solution was to repatriate some of Yellowstone’s wild bison to the plains, in order to create several, separate “pockets” of the animals. In 2010, billionaire Ted Turner received eighty Yellowstone bison on his Montana ranch, the first to be located outside of the park. Last year, sixty-four bison were moved to the Fort Peck Reservation with the help of the tribes, environmental groups, and federal and state agencies. Some conservationists would eventually like to see several herds of bison resuming their ancient ecological role on our Western prairies.
The animals were not moved without controversy, however. Bison opponents went to court and received an injunction to prevent further transfers. Environmental groups appealed the injunction to the Montana Supreme Court, and it will be heard next month. If it is lifted, bison will be loaded on trucks and taken out of Yellowstone to new homes around the state.
Luckily, Kaziranga, too, seems to be working on establishing another herd of rhinos. A few of the animals were relocated to Manas National Park in the Himalayan foothills, also in Assam. Dispersal might be their only hedge against the continued attacks of poachers.
Do you think that concentrating the last members of a species into a protected preserve is the best way to save them, or does spreading them out into several populations in the wild afford them a better chance for survival?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
Natural Habitat Adventures’ India wildlife trip will take you to Kaziranga National Park in Assam for an opportunity to see one-horned rhinos. For an extraordinary bison encounter, choose from one of our many Yellowstone Safaris.