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The Incredible Tale Of A “Rhino Man”

The Incredible Tale Of A “Rhino Man”

Dr Deba Dutta with a rescued rhino calf

Dr Deba Kumar Dutta, a hardcore rhino lover and conservationist, has launched a solo struggle to save and preserve the unique rhino species in the sanctuaries of Assam

While we all were enjoying the newest edition of the IPL from the comfort of our homes, on the 22nd of September, one man was busy organizing awareness campaigns at Manas National Park.

The 22nd September marks the World Rhino Day, aimed to raise awareness towards Rhino conservation.

And the one-man army devoted to this cause in India is none but Dr. Deba Kumar Dutta.

Dr. Dutta has been instrumental in his efforts of Rhino conservation and creating awareness towards the need for this.

He is a wildlife biologist based out of Guwahati and is the first Indian to hold a doctorate in translocated Greater Indian One-horned Rhinoceros’ behavior and habitat change.

Dr Dutta has been associated with WWF(World Wildlife Fund) India, since 2007, as a Senior Project Officer. In the initial years, he was involved in the human-elephant constituted programs as well as research related monitoring in Sonitpur and across the north bank of Brahmaputra.

Panoramic view of Manas landscape
Panoramic view of Manas landscape

He shifted to Manas in 2008 and has since been involved in translocating rhinos. The first two adult rhinos were translocated to Manas from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary on 12 April 2008.

“I was the main person to provide technical support. I was always behind the rhinos, getting all information like what they are doing, which habitat favours them and other issues,” says Dr Dutta.

“Sometimes the rhinos would stray outside the park and we went tracking for several days to relocate them in their habitat.”

The Indian Rhino Vision(IRV)- 2020 is a project with which Dr. Dutta has currently been associated. Started in the year 2005 by the government of Assam, the IRV- Rhino conservation and management project is associated with WWF India, International Rhino Foundation, United States Fish and Wildlife Service and many local organizations.

The aim of the project is to translocate and spread the concentration of rhino population across seven protected areas of Assam, and take the rhino population beyond 3000, by the year 2020.

In 2005, there were only three areas with rhino population, namely Kaziranga National Park, Orang National Park and Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary.

Under the project, rhinos that have been translocated to Manas, are reported to be adapting well to the new surroundings.

The one-horned rhino used to be found earlier in the entire north belt of India, but over the years, population has shrunk and presently been concentrated in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.

Kaziranga which has more than 2400 rhinos, throws a challenge to the rhino population  every year during the floods.

On top of it,  poaching is another menace which has led to a decline in the number of rhinos.

Although  the target of translocation to seven protected areas was unfortunately not achieved, the number of rhinos has gone well beyond the targeted 3000.

In 2020, there are four rhino bearing areas and plans are in place for another identical project, IRV 2020 Beyond, to achieve the original target.

Author and Mr Dharanidhar Boro on elephant ride to search of R10 calf
Dr. Dutta and Mr Dharanidhar Boro on elephant ride to search of R10 calf

Manas National Park,  declared as a world heritage site in 1985, suffered its largest setback during the prolonged (1989-2003) Bodo agitation when the rhino population was completely decimated.

An “In Danger” tag got suffixed to the Park due to the ravaging monstrosity caused by insurgency and political unrest.

The efforts to translocate and conserve the rhino population along with small but thriving tourism industry, led to the tag being withdrawn in 2011.

“Rhinos are a protection dependent species. When we provide protection for rhinos, automatically entire area is protected. In Kaziranga, we were only targeting rhino conservation and security, but we’ve observed other species’ density has also improved.”, Dr. Dutta points out.

In Manas, a lot of security related infrastructure was undertaken under the program, before translocation of the rhinos.

The Bodoland Territorial Council had suggested involving the local youth as part of the program. More than a hundred people were recruited on a short-term basis on a 5-year contract, some of whom were later confirmed as permanent staff in the forest department.

Their involvement has eased the level of communication between villagers and forest department as they began playing a role in the security and creation of awareness among the local villagers about the need for conservation.

Also Read: From Job Woes to Tigers’ Jaws

This apart, some training programs were arranged for the youth as well. There are some groups like Manas River Welfare Society, Manas Conservation and Ecotourism Society comprising of the local youth.

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These youths were given some tourism and income related training under the program. The earnings from tourism in and around Manas has shot up to more than Rs 1 crores per annum from a paltry Rs 8 lacs in 2007-08. Notwithstanding this, the tourist inflow is yet to fully pick up.

Many of these factors are directly related to the translocation of rhinos to Manas. The infrastructural developments, the involvement of the local communities and growth of the tourism industry saw the removal of the danger tag during the 35th session(2011) of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in Paris.

Sharing an experience with EastIndiaStory.Com, Dr Dutta recalled how a rhino strayed into the eastern part of Manas which is the Bhuyanpara range.

Having entered Bhutan, the animal travelled close to 100 kms across a river island called Kalseni. Teams were formed to track, capture and bring it back .

Dr. Deba Kumar Dutta on top jeep safari

Villagers from as far as 50 kms volunteered to help out to track the strayed rhino. They collected the rhino dung as they considered it auspicious. They also encircled each rhino footprint with bamboo sticks to preserve it.

“It was during that operation that I turned 30; as the sky opened up, I was nowhere near my loved ones. As for my birthday wish, I hoped for the safety of the rhino and all of us,” Dr Dutta observes with a smile.

The conservational efforts have not only led to a phenomanal increase in the number of rhinos, but also the tiger population in Manas.

From around 10 tigers in 2010, Manas now has around 30 tigers spread across different parts. Tiger pug marks can also be found in the buffer areas of Manas, suggesting their presence.

The pandemic has indirectly helped protection of rhinos though 22 forest guards had tested positive for the virus. In fact, due to the lockdown, poaching has gone down, but nature has bloomed spontaneously.

On 2nd October last, Manas has been reopened for the visitors, bringing cheers to Dr Dutta and the locals.

“There is no short cut for a wildlife career. If you want to join wildlife conservation, you need to prepare for hard work, team spirit and an overriding sense of preservation. I learnt this in a hard way,” says Dr Dutta, “when I saw the spontaneous participation of the locals in tracking the rhino. Love and empathy for wildlife is very much there among them.”

The message of the one-man army is thus quite loud and clear : the One-horned rhino is native to the subcontinent and must be preserved at any cost.

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