Conservation of Rhinoceros unicornis in its entire range of distribution has been becoming a major challenge due to anthropogenic pressure on its precious habitat. Rhinoceros requires a very special type of habitat, which is generally a composition of grasslands and low laying areas covered by lot of water. Northeastern part of India and Nepal are the major habitat of the species, which represents about 95% of the species total population. Rapid conversion of grasslands to human use areas, succession to woodland, deterioration by extensive invasion of weeds limits the rhino habitat across the Indian sub-continent. The state Assam represents the major rhino bearing areas of the Indian sub-continent, sharing about 70% of the total Indian rhino living in the wild. Basically, the state is a natural abode of One Horned Rhinos, nourishing rhinos in three major PAs – Kaziranga National Park, Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary and Orang National Park besides in other rhino bearing areas. Although in these PAs the population has been gradually increasing, they are under severe pressure due to multifaceted problems, both natural and man made. The original habitat area of the species gradually become fragmented and confined only to a few areas and these are still shrinking at a significant pace.
Dolphin Foundation has been working on Rhino Conservation in Assam since the year 2001 and Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary as a priority area. Being an agency of Scientific Field Research, the main Rhino conservation activities of the foundation have been carrying out of extensive researches on the habitat & management, behavioral biology, threat analysis, community interphase etc. besides promoting conservation awareness and educational programs in the local areas of Pabitora. Many studies have already been completed by Dolphin Foundation and data have been published in the form of reports, scientific manuscripts/papers etc.
The recent studies in Pabitora are – study and mapping of rhino straying out pattern in Pabitora, crop damage and Human-rhino conflicts in fringe village, territorial behavior of rhino, rhino poaching, utilization of grasslands of Pabitora by the local people, study of grassland habitat and profiling of community interphase with the sanctuary. The data generated through the current program will be used to develop a long tem management plan for the sanctuary.
Rhinoceros conservation Program in Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary :
Pabitora at a Glance ;
Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary is the Rhino habitat par excellence and the only grassland area in the entire Indian Sub-continent that harbors a Great Indian One Horned Rhinoceros population of highest concentration in the world. Situated in the central Assam’s Kamrup & Morigaon districts in the northeastern region of India, Sanctuary is a miniature garden of God’s own natural treasure. But in comparison to Kaziranga Rhinos, the Pabitora rhino population is appeared to be getting less management attention. Pabitora has high potential of being upheld as a future reservoir for Rhinos, if can be managed properly, translocation of rhinos from the sanctuary to other rhino areas of the country can be carried out strategically. Moreover, Pabitora represents an amazing Rhino place where the animal is sharing a major portion of the everyday life of the people living in the fringe areas of the Sanctuary.
Pabitora is basically a grassland Sanctuary, where grasslands cover about 70% of the original 15.84 km2 area (excluding the addition areas). The new areas added to the Sanctuary are not contributing to the actual Rhino habitat area (15.84 km2) as all these new addition areas were agricultural land and hills. On the contrary, the Rhino population of the Sanctuary has been increasing steadily and now becomes about 90+. High Rhino concentration is causing food scarcity and home range conflicts inside the Sanctuary. As a result the Rhinos started straying out heavily to the fringe areas invoking serious Human Wildlife Conflict (Human Rhino Conflict). Moreover, indiscriminate grazing inside the Sanctuary by the domesticated cattle from the fringe areas is also a major problem creating food competitions and alteration of natural grassland characteristics. One of the major consequences of Rhino straying out is the enhancement of the scope of poaching for Pabitora Rhinos as the strayed Rhinos are very vulnerable of being poached. At present about 75% of total Rhino poaching is taking place outside the Sanctuary.
Moreover, Pabitora is located in the flood plains of River Brahmaputra, it experiences high perennial flood every year which replenish the Sanctuary – its grassland and water bodies with water and nutrients. But gradually the flood problem has become more acute, affecting the grassland ecosystem of the Sanctuary besides causing severe damages to its infrastructure. Grasslands are affected mainly by the long-standing floodwater, which submerges the total grassland areas, sometimes for months together, affecting the natural growth of different species. Indiscriminate grazing by the domesticated cattle is also causing of extensive invasion of weed species deteriorating the natural quality of the grasslands.
Biomass extraction by the local communities is also a major problem. As the Sanctuary do not posses any buffer zone, invasion by intruders from all the side is very easy. Thatch, fodder and firewood are among the major forest base produces extracted by the local village communities from Pabitora. Poor economic status of the fringe village people is one of the major reasons of their dependence on the Sanctuary resources.
Most importantly, there is no active management plant presently being adopted for Pabitora as the necessary information required for development of an affective Management Plan was greatly lacking with the Sanctuary authority. Hence important grassland management activities like – annual burning of grasslands is presently not happening in the Sanctuary, which is affecting the growth of some important grass species.
Rhino Conservation activities carried out by Dolphin Foundation in Pabitora :
Dolphin Foundation has undertaken a comprehensive rhino conservation program in Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary and carried out the following activities with financial assistance from US-Fish & Wildlife Service.
- Comprehensive study on status of grassland habitat of Pabitora Rhinos.
- Gathering baseline information on grassland utilization pattern by the local people around Pabitora and its effects on the ecology of Rhino habitat.
- Collection, herbarium preparation and identification of the grass species found in rhino habitat in Pabitora with reference to preferred food of rhinos.
- Profiling assemblage pattern of different grass species and their trend analysis for last 5 years in Pabitora.
- Preparation of a checklist of all the grass species present in Pabitora with their percentage composition and economic value.
- Study and profiling of the socio-economic status of all the fringe villages of Pabitora and their dependence on the sanctuary.
- Assessment of the effects of livestock grazing on grasslands of Pabitora.
- Effects of weed invasion on the grassland ecosystems of Pabitora and its effects on rhino habitat.
- Human Resource Development of the local youths by arranging necessary trainings required for conservation activities.
- Extensive field study and GIS mapping of the straying out patterns of Rhinos in the peripheral areas of Pabitora.
- Studying the crop-raiding pattern of Rhinos in the fringe areas.
- Supporting local people affected by Rhino depredation by providing torch lights, batteries etc.
- Providing necessary supports to anti-poaching staffs during high flood season.
- Carrying out field survey to gather the information about the status & management of the peripheral boundaries of the sanctuary.
- GPS tracking of the notified boundary with the new additions to Pabitora and their proper mapping.
- Taking up regular awareness and environmental educational program for the local people and the school children targeting Rhino conservation etc.
- Supports given to forest field staffs of Pabitora in the form of Field Caps.
- Infrastructure support to Pabitora in the form of Search Lights, Solar Panels etc.