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Rhino Lookout: A Second Chance for Rhinos

In India’s Manas National Park, the greater one-horned rhino population was once poached to extinction.

But now rhinos are getting a second chance there. So are the people of Manas. 

This is the community leading the cause: to look out for rhinos.

“Poachers target the rhino because of its horn. Horn earns a lot of money in the international market,” explains Bibhab Talukdar, Asia Coordinator of the International Rhino Foundation, Woodland Park Zoo’s rhino conservation partner in India.

Rhino horn is illegally traded mainly for use in traditional medicines, though it has no medicinal value. It is made of keratin. So are toenails.

The rhino’s horn can grow between 8 and 25 inches.

“In the late 1980s, early 1990s, there used to be about 80 rhinos in Manas,” according to Bibhab. “But then, due to socio-political unrest, we lost the rhino population. 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.”

But hope was not lost. “As long as land remains, there is always a future.”

A brighter future requires bold vision. 

Woodland Park Zoo has joined International Rhino Foundation, the Indian government and their partners to support Indian Rhino Vision 2020—an effort to build stable rhino populations across the northeastern state of Assam. Over the past decade, these partners have moved rhinos to Manas from nearby parks where populations are increasing. 

One by one, rhinos are returning to Manas, and a new generation is taking hold. The population is now up to 30 – 35 individuals. 

Yet the threat of poaching remains.

The watchtower at Kuri Beel anti-poaching camp in Manas National Park.

Forest guards stationed across dozens of anti-poaching camps inside Manas National Park are the first line of defense for wildlife. On foot and by elephant back, they look for signs of poachers and illegal activity.

“We do patrolling daily, in the morning and in the evening,” explains a forest guard who has worked in Manas for 36 years. The tall grasses that conceal predators such as tigers and leopards can also provide cover for human intruders. “We go in teams to give us courage and to discuss our strategies.”

Courage comes from another source, too. “Manas is successful. We cannot say that it is only from our level. We get help and courage from our neighbors. That means the villagers,” says Mr. Sarkar, a Manas range officer. 

“The common people, the communities do help. We have a local council that is showing deep interest in the protection of rhinos and other animals,” adds Bibhab.

Painted by the hands of schoolchildren, a mural shows pride of and commitment to the wildlife of Manas National Park.

From within the community, a second line of defense for wildlife has emerged. “Ex-poachers have come forward now to assist the Manas National Park authorities,” explains Bibhab. “These Service Providers lend their hands in patrol, in sharing intelligence, in communicating with villagers in order to garner community support and to strengthen the second line of defense so as to ensure that wildlife is safe in Manas National Park.”

According to one of these ex-poachers-turned-Service-Provider, a sustainable livelihood made from coexisting with wildlife instead of exploiting wildlife provides more stability not just for him, but for the community as a whole. “We are feeling great because things are improving and our future generation can see rhino,” he tells us.

Students pass a rhino mural on their way into class.

The youngest schoolchildren here have never known a Manas without rhinos thanks to these collaborative conservation efforts. Still, education programs supported by International Rhino Foundation help them understand their local wildlife is not something to take for granted. 

“Students are the future. They have to take the responsibility of conservation to carry it forward,” says Bibhab. Across 63 public schools in the fringe villages of Manas, schoolchildren make an oath to conservation every morning, pledging to protect Manas National Park. Their voices come together each day in unison, and their meaning is heard far beyond school walls: rhinos will always have a home in Manas.

High school students gather before class begins in Manas.

To Bibhab, “It is the responsibility of all of us to protect rhinos. So everybody has a role to play.”

Once, rhinos went locally extinct in Manas when no one was watching. Now, the people of Manas, the government of India, partners like the International Rhino Foundation, supporters of Woodland Park Zoo, and rhino lovers everywhere have come together around a movement to do more than see rhinos—together, we’re looking out for them.


Action Alert: Save the Endangered Species Act

You 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.


In the Rhino Lookout series, we’re highlighting the stories of those who are looking out for rhinos and what we can do to help. Visit Assam Rhino Reserve, now open at Woodland Park Zoo, and follow #rhinolookout for more stories. Every visit to Woodland Park Zoo supports our work with the International Rhino Foundation and more than 30 other projects dedicated to saving species here and around the world.

Rhino Lookout: Do more than see rhinos. Look out for them.

Written by: Rebecca Whitham; photos and video by: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren