|Children pass a rhino mural on the way to class.|
It’s morning and class has not yet begun. The Raghab Bill middle school students in the Manas community of Assam, India gather in the courtyard. Their chatter rivals the mynahs in nearby trees.
An educator emerges from a classroom with a scroll-like poster in his hand. It contains the words that start every schoolchild’s day in Manas.
With little direction, the murmurs recede and the children form neat rows, arms’ distance apart. A small group of students heads to the front of the assembly, commanding the scroll and the audience. After the traditional recital of national and provincial anthems, these student leaders beckon (translated):
“Come, let’s take an oath for conservation!”
“We, the people of the fringe villages of Manas National Park always feel proud,” the oath begins. One of the student leaders calls out the words, while the rows of children echo the pledge back, line by line.
“We shall assist Manas to be the best forest and wildlife area of the world.”
“We shall never kill or eat meat of wild animals and birds.”
“We shall never collect forest produces, grasses, etc. from Manas National Park and rather help conserve the wetlands.”
“If somebody is engaged in illegal activities that may damage Manas, we shall take help of teachers and senior citizens to halt such activities.”
“We shall assist the forest guards to engage in conservation and protection of Manas to deliver their duties.”
“If some culprits get engaged in injuring or killing wild animals, we shall inform forest officials.”
They count themselves off row by row. 90 students. That’s 90 pledges to the wildlife of Manas. Today. In one school.
There are 63 public schools in the community. Each student takes this oath every day.
|High school students in the Manas community.|
“Our thinking is that if we use this oath, then there must be some effect in their minds: what is the importance of, what is the duty to, and what are the needs of conservation of the forest and the animals,” says Amin Basumatary, a conservation educator in Manas.
“Our team is there from the beginning in childhood. They must build up knowledge of forest and animals.”
|A watchtower is itself towered over by the foothills of the Himalayas in Manas National Park.|
|Through the flora peers an alert hog deer in Manas National Park.|
|A capped langur infant explores the treetops of Manas National Park.|
In the Northeast of India, in the shadow of the foothills of the Himalayas, Manas National Park forms the 235,000-acre heart of Assam’s Manas community. There is wildlife found here and nowhere else, such as pygmy hogs and golden langurs. But Assam is perhaps best known as “rhino land,” according to Bibhab Talukdar, Asia Coordinator for the International Rhino Foundation, Woodland Park Zoo’s rhino conservation partner in India.
“In the late 1980s, early 1990s, there used to be about 80 rhinos in Manas. But then, due to socio-political unrest, we lost the rhino population,” Bibhab explains. “The poachers took advantage of the situation because the law enforcement authorities were particularly busy with restoring the law and order in civil areas. So poachers got enough scope to exterminate the rhino population.”
|A rhino takes a cooling dip in Manas National Park.|
Though rhinos were poached to local extinction in Manas, the park remained a viable habitat for this species on the brink and hope was not lost.
“In 2005, the government of Assam, along with [organizations] like the International Rhino Foundation and World Wildlife Fund India, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the local government, we all decided that rhinos can be translocated back to Manas from other areas, especially from Pobitura Wildlife Sanctuary and Kaziranga National Park where the populations are increasing.”
|A greater one-horned rhino grazes in the Manas floodplains.|
Thanks to this successful translocation project, known as Indian Rhino Vision 2020, there are now approximately 31 rhinos thriving in Manas National Park with their offspring. The rhinos are getting a second chance.
So too is the community of Manas.
When many of these schoolchildren were born, the first of the rhinos were being translocated to Manas. As they grow up, so does the new generation of rhinos taking hold. Through the International Rhino Foundation, Woodland Park Zoo supports conservation education that strengthens these ties.
“See students are the future. They have to take the responsibility of conservation to carry it forward,” Bibhab adds. “I think this involvement of students at the right age is very important, because they have to take the responsibility to ensure the wildlife that we can see, future generations can also see.”
|A boy attends his family's artisan booth at the local cultural fesitval.|
The children of Manas are not alone. To Bibhab, “It is the responsibility of all of us to protect rhinos. People across the globe can contribute towards conservation by making a personal pledge that he or she will never do any harm to rhinos.”
Imagine if we all took it one step further, and pledged ourselves daily to actively protect the wildlife in our own community. For the animals, for ourselves, for each other.
|A mural outside school walls in Manas.|
Two miles down the road from the middle school, a mural adorns the outer walls of a high school. Gray concrete is colorfully punctuated by rhinos, tigers, elephants and peacocks.
Painted by the hands of children, a simple imperative on the mural reads: “Save My Manas.” It is at once their demand of us and their promise to each other.
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