Talk Point: Are rhinos ‘overpopulated’ or is their habitat shrinking?

Screengrab from a video of a rhino chasing a vehicle. Source: North East of India Facebook page

Last week, two videos of rhinos in Kaziranga chasing vehicles on the highway and entering residential neighbourhoods went viral. But incidents involving wildlife leaving reserves and entering residential areas have increased substantially in recent years. Many experts say this rise is due to the ‘overpopulation’ of rhinos, lions, leopards. Others say the reason is the shrinking habitat of the animals. Local pride, and politics, have stymied efforts to relocate and redistribute these animals across the states.

Is the alleged overpopulation of rhinos, lions and leopards a result of successful conservation or due to shrinking habitats and slow relocation drives? We ask  experts.

Short-term fire-fighting solutions triggered by viral videos are not helpful —Goutam Narayan, Rare & Endangered Species Conservation Unit, EcoSystems-India, Guwahati

The ‘overpopulation’ of rhinos is a myth. No doubt, the effective protection of Kaziranga National Park over decades has increased the population density of the rhinos in the core area, but the animal is present in comparable densities in many other areas of the Brahmaputra valley. Apart from Kaziranga, Orang NP and the tiny Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary are the only places with viable populations of rhinos in Assam. But even these are under constant threat from the breakdown of the protection systems.

By the late 1970s the rhino population in Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuary, which is 40 km downstream from Kaziranga, was down to 30-35 due to sustained poaching. Between 1980-81, every rhino was mercilessly butchered by poachers. There were over 80 rhinos in Manas National Park till the late 1980s, but they were decimated within the next 5-6 years, by local and international poachers. Although efforts are being taken to repopulate rhinos in Manas, the threat remains.

In the past, wildlife habitats were connected. Now, protected areas are fragmented by farmlands and floodplains that are occupied by an increasing human population. Apart from shrinking habitats, the connections between them have been lost, bringing the animals in direct conflict with humans. Re-introduction of animals may help, but it may not address the problems of the lack of genetic connectivity and human-animal conflict.

A large number of animals from the Kaziranga floodplains would earlier take refuge in the Karbi-Anglong foothills that lie to the south of the park. Today, a busy highway cuts through this crucial corridor. Plans are also afoot to broaden this highway and build flyovers and underpasses for the animals to cross. A better solution would be to move the super-express highway to the north of the Brahmaputra and to maintain a narrow track south of the park. But political considerations have prevented such rational decisions. Instead, what’s being forwarded are short-term fire-fighting solutions that are triggered by images of animals chasing vehicles or being run over by them.

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For animals to survive in India, there is no other choice but to share space with humans — Vidya Athreya, wildlife biologist, Wildlife Conservation Society, India

Habitats have always been too small for animals like rhinos and lions, which due to their body sizes require large areas. Protected Areas have been made for biodiversity conservation, but they cannot hold all the large animals like rhinos, elephants, leopards, lions, etc. All these animals are endangered, which makes it our duty to conserve them. Lions can never be ‘overpopulated’ as they number only 400 or so, and are restricted to a very small part of their global range.

Human-animal interactions are much more complex than what media reports portray, which is almost always a problem. Also, overpopulation is not a problem if there are no negative impacts of the presence of the animals on humans. For instance, the people in Gujarat are quite fine with the presence of lions and know how to behave so that conflict is avoided.

India has a lot of wildlife that share spaces with humans, and no amount of relocation will get us to a point where they live only inside Protected Areas. Animals, if they have to survive in India, have no other choice but to share space with humans. Other countries have wildlife restricted to Protected Areas because stepping out implies certain death for them. Our knowledge of how we share spaces will be very useful to the rest of the world. If India with so many people can have the world’s largest population of tigers, elephants, leopards, rhino’s, lions then there must be something we are doing right.

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Protected area boundaries follow no ecological logic and are based on administrative convenience — Ravi Chellam, Executive Director of Greenpeace and wildlife biologist

We think we have created protected areas with clear boundaries and that these animals must now exist only within them. But these boundaries follow no ecological logic and are often based on administrative convenience. Animals outside the protected areas are referred to as ‘straying’, needing rescue and rehabilitation.

The presence of wildlife populations preceded the arrival of humans by a very long time. The species at fault is us, not the wildlife. We build dams, roads and other infrastructure, which modifies the habitat by fragmenting it; block rivers and create barriers for animal movement. In the name of wildlife management, we plant trees in grasslands and plant exotic species. The focus in wildlife conservation policy is on the fate of individual animals rather than the protection of habitats.

This is the context in which we must view the presence of rhinos on highways and in human settlements adjacent to the flooded flood plains of Kaziranga. If regular flooding does not occur, the grasslands will be soon taken over by trees and significant ecological processes will be disrupted. The flooding is exacerbated by the raised highway along the southern boundary of Kaziranga, which prevents the flood water from draining away. The heavy traffic on the highway confuses and blocks all wildlife, especially rhinos, who come there seeking safety on the high ground. Normally these animals would have moved south to higher ground to escape the floods, but man-made barriers are preventing this free movement.

What we call ‘over-population’ is really the presence of wildlife outside protected areas. The best way is to work with local communities to give them sufficient warnings and training to co-exist with the wildlife.

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Villagers have so far tolerated these animals, what if their patience turns to anger? — Janaki Lenin, writer on wildlife issues.

More Asian lions and Indian rhinos walk on Indian soil than at any other time in the past century. From territories stretching across much of the north, their turf shrank under their feet. Hunters drew a bead on predator and grazer. Both species were down and close to being out by the early 20th century. With protection, they staged a comeback.

Assam relocated some rhinos to other forests within the state, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Gujarat has steadfastly refused to move some of its lions to Madhya Pradesh. But the animals had their own plans.

Lions spilt out of Gir to settle in nearby forests. Meanwhile, farmers gave up wheat for sugarcane and mango orchards. To young lions on the lookout for real estate, these farmlands were good enough. Even as the population of the wild cats in protected forests stagnated, their numbers in the surrounding areas increased by more than 100 percent.

The case of rhinos in Assam is similar.

Not only did they reclaim territory, they also colonised the imagination of the people. Lions are Gujarat’s pride just as rhinos are Assam’s mascot. Successful conservation poses new challenges.

Outside forests, large animals live off their human neighbours’ largesse, eating crops and livestock. But India has no policy to deal with this situation. The Forest Department provides compensation for losses, but this alone is not enough. Laws and policies drafted for protected forests cannot be imposed everywhere. While villagers have tolerated these animals so far, what if their patience turns to anger?

In Assam, militancy complicates conservation that antagonizes local communities. Elsewhere, city-based wildlife enthusiasts and the judiciary interfere with management decisions, often posing a hazard to human life.

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Creating wildlife corridors will allow animals to move from one park to
another, recolonise areas devoid of animals — Umesh Srinivasan,
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Program in Science, Technology and
Environmental Policy (STEP), Princeton University

Gir is the only home of the Asiatic lion, and Kaziranga has about 70 per
cent of the world’s one-horned rhinos. These two parks have certainly been
conservation successes, at least in terms of allowing populations of large,
endangered species to rebound from minuscule numbers. But while the gains
have been small, human numbers and population densities have increased
enormously.

This increases the potential for encounters-and therefore conflict or
various kinds. But the success in bringing back wildlife populations has not
been complemented by providing this rebounding wildlife with living space.
Instead, not only have wildlife habitats become smaller and more degraded,
they have also become tiny islands in a vast human-dominated sea. More
technically, this is called habitat fragmentation, which is one of the
leading causes for the decline and extinction of species across the world.

In Kaziranga, this problem intensifies every monsoon, when large parts of
the park are flooded, and rhinos (and other species) have to seek higher
ground.

India’s conservation story has been remarkable – there is perhaps no other
country in the world where so many large, potentially dangerous animals live
cheek-by-jowl with people.  But creating wildlife “corridors” will allow
animals to move from one park to another, recolonising areas devoid of
animals.

Without natural corridors, the only other option to get animals to move from
one area (with many animals) to another (with no or fewer animals) is
relocation. With tigers and rhinos, relocation has been successful in
bringing back populations to areas from which the species had gone locally
extinct. Relocation of lions can safeguard the future of the species, and
potentially minimise conflict.

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What is worrying are the decisions taken in New Delhi that are divorced from
local conservation efforts — Nandini Velho, Earth Institute Fellow at
Columbia University and works on the human-dimensions of wildlife
management.

At the outset the success stories of Kaziranga’s rhinos are different from
that of lions in Gir or leopards in Sanjay Gandhi national park, and
vice-versa for their short-comings. These successes or short-comings are not
only an outcome of the population of a certain species, but how the
local-level bureaucracy and people living with these animals share a
connection with these species. What is worrying are the larger decisions
taken in New Delhi that are divorced from local conservation efforts and
shrink and divert forests across Indian states.

Prerna Singh Bindra in her book ‘The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis’
points out to how a former environmental minister stated that ‘ministry was
“on autopilot” and “took 130 decisions in a single day”. India has the
second largest public-road system in the world, apart from railways,
transmission lines and other linear projects that criss-cross these natural
habitats. But planning for these needs to recognise the importance of ‘who
was there first’, to paraphrase Ravi Chellam who did a pioneering study on
Gir’s lions. This includes the needs of 270 million people who derive some
form of income or sustenance from India’s forests (including grasslands,
wetlands) where 150 critically endangered Great Indian bustards, half of the
world’s tigers, 60 percent of all Asian elephants, and 70 percent of all one-horned
rhinoceros live. It will be prudent for individuals, institutes,
environmental ministry, and the inch space given to environmental issues to
re-assert a space of seeking to ensure development without environmental and
livelihood destruction.

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