West Bengal’s rhino population hits a record high

West Bengal’s rhino population hits a record high

  • A census carried out in February in India’s West Bengal state counted 231 rhinos in Jaldapara National Park and 52 in Gorumara National Park, up from 204 and 49, respectively, in 2015.
  • Both figures are the highest recorded since authorities began taking official rhino counts in the 1920s.
  • While encouraged by the rising rhino numbers, conservationists have raised concerns about the skewed sex ratios in both parks, a scarcity of grazing land, and the ever-present threat of poaching.

Rhino populations in India’s Jaldapara and Gorumara national parks, in the state of West Bengal, have hit their highest levels in a century, according to preliminary figures from a recent census.

Following February censuses in these two parks, researchers put the current population of greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) at 231 to 237 animals in Jaldapara, up from 204 in the previous census in 2015. In nearby Gorumara, 52 rhinos were counted, up from 49 in the 2015 census.

Conservationists have welcomed the confirmation that rhino numbers are rising, but voiced concerns about the sex ratios in both parks, the size and quality of grasslands available to the animals, and the ongoing threat of poaching.

A greater-one horned rhino in Jaldapara National Park, which is now home to at least 231 of the animals, according to the 2019 census. Image by Debabrata Bardhan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Head count

The census in Jaldapara was carried out on Feb. 15 and 16, and involved more than 300 park staffers and NGO members, as well as 53 elephants that some of the observers rode on to cover the entire 217-square-kilometer (84-square-mile) park, says Manish Yadav, assistant wildlife warden at Jaldapara National Park. In addition, observers were placed at the boundaries of the park to report any animals that might be moving between ranges.

Altogether, 231 rhinos were directly sighted in Jaldapara, including  97 males (68 adults, 23 sub-adults and six calves), 91 females (56 adults, 27 sub-adults, eight calves), and 43 whose sex could not be identified, Yadav says. (A total of 237 rhinos were actually counted, but officials believe that six rhinos may have been counted twice).

The census in Gorumara National Park (80 square kilometers, or 31 square miles), along with the adjacent Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary (9 square kilometers, 3.5 square miles) and reserve forest areas of Jalpaiguri, was held on Feb. 12 and 13.

Nisha Goswami, the divisional forest officer at Gorumara, says the rhino population there includes 25 males (18 adults, four sub-adults, three calves), 17 females (15 adults, two sub-adults) and 10 of unidentified sex.

In addition to the manual count, teams from WWF and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) collected samples of rhino dung, which will be used to help build a database of individual rhinos’ genetic signatures, part of the global Rhino DNA Indexing System, or RhoDIS program. “Under this system, we collect as many individual rhinos’ DNA from the wild, including poaching cases, to generate a database,” says Samrat Mondol, a scientist at WII whose team runs the project in India. “This database is then used to match seized rhino contraband, and provide extremely strong scientific evidence in the court of law against the offenders.”

Mondol says eight poaching cases have been successfully prosecuted in court since the project was launched in India more than a year ago.

Wallowing rhinos in Jaldapara National Park. The semiaquatic animals spend much of their lives in and around water. Image by A. J. T. Johnsingh, WWF-India and NCF via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Record highs, but some concerns

In both parks, the current population figures are now highest since officials began keeping records a century ago.

In 1920, Jaldapara had 200 rhinos. By 1986, it had plummeted to just 14. Gorumara had around 12 rhinos in 1920, with the population dwindling to just eight in 1986.

However, concerns remain. The number of male rhinos equals or exceeds that of females in both parks, a pattern also observed in the 2015 census. To minimize conflict and maximize population growth, experts say the ideal sex ratio is closer to one male per three females. “It is really a matter of concern as more males are getting born, which has resulted in increase in the straying of animals, infighting among them leading to deaths,” says Raju Sarkar, assistant divisional forest officer at Gorumara. “But it is nature and we are helpless.”

The growing population has also raised concerns among forest officials, who fear that the limited size of available grasslands means ensuring enough food for these herbivores might soon become a challenge. In addition to rhinos, both parks have sizable populations of Indian bison and several species of deer, which generally remain uncounted and which also rely on the grasslands for food.

“The grasslands is a natural phenomenon caused by floods, but increasing human intervention by the construction of dams and embankments have reduced the scale of floods in the past few years,” says Kumar Vimal, the Jaldapara divisional forest officer. “The western bank of the park had turned completely dry before the embankments were broken a few years ago.”

There are about 120 square kilometers (46 square miles) of “pristine” grasslands in the park, and officials clear another 3 to 3.5 square kilometers (1.1 to 1.4 square miles) each year, he says. “But artificial grasslands are susceptible to weed infestation. We have to realize that floods are not always the bane but also boon for living creatures.”

Gorumara faces the same problem. The park has about 10 square kilometers (3.9 square miles) of grassland, with 1 square kilometer being renewed each year.

“The increase of population is certainly a positive step and the numbers are going to rise further if poaching is controlled,” says Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, Asia coordinator of the International Rhino Foundation. “The state government should now focus on grassland management as both the parks still have the capacity to hold 40-50 more rhinos.”

Poaching remains a threat in both parks, especially as stricter enforcement in neighboring Assam state’s Kaziranga National Park, home to the country’s largest rhino population, pushes poachers elsewhere.

Eight rhinos were killed by poachers in Jaldapara since the 2015 census, officials say. In Gorumara, at least two rhinos are believed to have been killed for their horns in the same period.

Still, with the number of rhinos increasing, conservationists in West Bengal have reason for optimism. To provide grazing grounds and balance the sex ratio of the state’s growing rhino population, plans are afoot to develop a new habitat for the species in a forest reserve in Patlakhawa, around 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) south of Jaldapara.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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