Rhinos reach record number

THE ONE-HORNED rhino lives. Seven months after 39 of the highly endangered leathery behemoths were swept to their deaths by catastrophic flooding that forced hundreds more to flee, a census completed at Kaziranga National Park in Assam, north-east India, on Saturday revealed an increase in rhino numbers of more than 40 per cent over five years.

Elsewhere in Assam, too, where the rhinos are less rigorously protected from poachers, the numbers are up. Saturday's census at Kaziranga found 1,649 rhinos, while the rest of the state has another 120. A senior forest official said proudly: "This is the best figure Assam can boast of since the animal census started in 1908."

Thirty years ago, rhinos seemed on the brink of extermination in the park, the principal reserve for one-horned rhinos in the world. Poached mainly for their horn, which is highly valued in Chinese traditional medicine, their numbers in 1966 were down to 366. Levels of protection unmatched in any other park in the subcontinent led to a recovery, with 1,229 animals counted in 1991. But in 1993 numbers fell to 1,164.

Kaziranga is in the southern flood plain of the Brahmaputra River, and in last year's monsoon flooding was so severe that most of the animals had to take refuge in unprotected areas, crossing a road used by lorries. There were fears that the park's wildlife, which includes tiger, elephants, deer and wild pigs as well as rhino, might be decimated. An international alert galvanised supporters around the world, and now the park is celebrating a change in its fortunes.

Much of the success of Kaziranga is due not to funding but to its rangers, who patrol 24 hours a day. Last year, poachers killed 34 rhinos across the state of Assam, while in Kaziranga at least four poachers were killed by forest guards. A reputation for ruthlessness has undoubtedly aided the guards' efforts.

"In the past we used to arrest poachers and after a few days they were out again on bail," one forest official said. "But now if we find anybody inside the park with arms, we just shoot them."

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