Inside the watchtower, Mr. Nath pulls on his boots, slings a rifle over his shoulder, straightens out his uniform shirt, and heads for the stairs. He’s one of eight forest guards stationed at Kuri Beel anti-poaching camp inside Manas National Park, Assam, India and he is off on a mission this morning.
It’s time to patrol.
Mr. Nath joins a crew of forest guards setting off from the watchtower as they fan out into the surrounding grasslands. Their long sleeves and pants defend them against blades of grass that tear at bare skin. But these tall grasses potentially conceal a much greater danger still—poachers.
|Mr. Nath is a forest guard in India's Manas National Park.|
On foot and sometimes on elephant back, forest guards patrol day and night in search of signs of intruders. They look for evidence of human activity—a breached fence, footprints, discarded litter from an illegal poacher encampment. Their morning patrols last two to three hours, and today reveals no signs of trouble for the rhinos and other vulnerable species poachers target in Manas.
“Forest guards man the anti-poaching camps both inside and outside the park,” explains Bibhab Talukdar, Asia Coordinator of the International Rhino Foundation, Woodland Park Zoo’s partner in rhino conservation in India. Generally, three to eight guards are stationed at each camp, living on site during their duties to assure there is 24/7 coverage in strategic locations throughout the park’s 235,000 acres.
|The Kuri Beel watchtower in Manas National Park.|
One of the larger stations, Kuri Beel camp is centered in the southern grasslands of the park. From the watchtower roof, those grasslands seem to go on forever, the forests and foothills of Manas far off in the distance. Even with a 360-degree view, most wildlife is lost to the naked eye in the vastness from up here, save for elephants, water buffalo and rhinos that occasionally appear as specks in the expanse. And yet, little goes unseen by these guards.
Their tools include binoculars, walkie-talkies, GPS units and transmitters, but it’s their deep knowledge of the area, its animals and its patterns that makes the forest guards so effective. They are the eyes and ears of the park, monitoring all wildlife and tracking everything from the behavior of individual animals to the dynamics of entire populations.
“Today we saw many vultures, so we went to the area and found one buffalo had died,” explains one forest guard who has worked in Manas for 36 years. He has been an eye-witness to the dramatic changes the rhino population has overcome.
“When I first joined Manas in 1981, rhino could be seen in many watering holes—sometimes up to 4-5 rhino. Many wild animals were present. But due to unrest in the area 15-20 years ago, rhinos were exterminated by poachers,” he explains.
|A greater one-horned rhino in Manas National Park.|
In the 1990s, socio-political unrest in the region demanded the attention of law enforcement, and poachers took advantage. Rhinos were hunted to extinction inside Manas National Park. Poached rhino horn is sold illegally on the international market where it is valued for traditional medicine despite having no medicinal properties. Rhino horn is made of keratin. So are toenails.
But hope was not lost. Woodland Park Zoo has joined the International Rhino Foundation, national and regional Indian governments, and other partners including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the effort to rebuild stable rhino populations across Assam. Over the past decade, these partners have successfully translocated several rhinos to Manas from more populated nearby parks. One by one the rhinos are returning, and as they settle in, breed and establish territories, they are forming a new generation of rhinos in Manas.
With the return of rhinos comes the return of interest from poachers, and conservation success is met with a heightened need to protect and defend that success. The guards are undaunted and their vigilance is paying off.
|A rhino retreats into forested shade at Manas National Park.|
“In this area, we haven’t seen any poachers recently,” says Mr. Nath. He explains that now with the work of the forest guards and support from conservation groups such as the International Rhino Foundation, poachers “don’t try to come to Kuri Beel.”
It’s a point of pride for the forest guards that their work makes a brighter future possible for all wildlife in the park, not just rhinos.
According to Mr. Sarkar, a Manas range officer, “Wild animals are gradually increasing in Manas—not only rhinos, but also elephants. In 2006, there was an elephant census [in the park]. At that time there were 600 elephants, but nowadays there are more than 1,500 elephants in Manas. We can say proudly that Manas is the most newly revived park in India.”
|A family of elephants in Manas National Park.|
It’s 2:00 p.m. and the sun is hot. By this point in the day, most of the rhinos have retreated into the forest for shade or are cooling off in watering holes. But the forest guards don’t rest.
It’s time for another patrol.
Action Alert: Save the Endangered Species ActYou can look out for rhinos right now. Proposed administrative changes to the Endangered Species Act would significantly weaken protections for species most vulnerable to extinction. Contact your Member of Congress to urge leaders to save the Act that saves species.
Rhino Lookout: Do more than see rhinos. Look out for them.Written by: Rebecca Whitham; photos and video by: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren