From Pobitora to Manas

An eye witness account of the translocation of rhinos carried out in Assam between 27-29 Dec 2010 and 17-19 Jan 2011.

Note: An edited version of this was first published as a special feature in the Jan-March 2011 edition of Panda.

Prologue

It is 5 am on a Tuesday morning, towards the end of 2010, and a thick fog conceals the vast grasslands of the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, located about 60 km east of Guwahati. I’m on the back of an elephant, for the first time in my life I should add, sitting behind the mahout and hanging on for dear life with one hand while trying to shoot with a video camera with the other hand. We are following three elephants, each of which has one veterinarian equipped with a tranquilizing gun. Much ahead of them, lost in the gloom of the fog, is the locator team. Waiting behind at the elephant camp is the logistics team along with forest department officials and guards, WWF and other NGO staff as well as a host of other support staff. All of them are part of the team tasked with translocating rhinos from Pobitora to Manas National Park in northern Assam under the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020, see below).

The sun is still not up but a faint glow suffuses the fog. An occasional bird call and grunts of the elephants disturb the stillness of the early morning. I slip into a pleasant limbo induced by the gentle rocking of the elephant. But it does not last long. A burst of static shatters the stillness. The locator team is contacting the veterinarians through the wireless. And they have some good news. They have found a couple of rhinos and apprise the team of the location. We rush together into the fog. By this time the sun has risen and is a pale disc hanging low in the sky. Suddenly, a little ahead of us, a silhouette resolves itself into the thick outlines of a rhino. Behind it is another rhino.

The First Attempt

The elephant I’m on falls back a little while the elephants of the tranquilizing team take up a triangular position to box in the rhino and enable correct targeting. Each tranquilizing gun is loaded with a diluted solution of the powerful narcotic-Etorphine. I’m told one undiluted drop of which if exposed to bare skin is capable of killing an adult human within minutes! However, the rhino doesn’t play to their plan. It quickly cuts through the fourth side before the doctors can take proper aim. We follow him and there begins a fruitless chase that lasts more than an hour and a half. By this time the sun has climbed the eastern sky. The fog has also cleared improving visibility. The tranquilizing team decides to leave this unsporting rhino alone and they move to a different location with the locator team. I return to the base camp to join the remaining translocation team there. I’m actually grateful for the chance to dismount the elephant, even if it was an enjoyable experience, as it was not easy shooting with one hand while hanging on to only a rope with the other hand.

The Second Attempt

The locator and tranquilizing teams then move off to a new location in another part of the sanctuary in the hopes of having better luck at finding rhinos. But little did they know that their luck would stay rotten until early afternoon. After a series of near misses, partial hits and uncooperative rhinos the tranquilizing team finally meets with success and manages to tranquilize a female. The rest of us rush to the new location to find the rhino tottering with her concerned calf hovering nearby. A decision is taken to tranquilize the sub-adult rhino also as it is a female too and more importantly would keep the mother and her calf together.

The mother quickly falls asleep and the logistics team swings into action. A bulldozer is brought in to dig a shallow trench next to the tranquilized rhino so that a platform can be placed there onto which the rhino can be rolled. This is soon accomplished.

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