Indian Rhinoceros: Driven to Brink of Extinction Due to Poaching and Habitat Degradation

Indian Rhinoceros
Indian Rhinoceros
Driven to Brink of Extinction Due to Poaching and Habitat Degradation
-Dr. Arvind Singh 

The Indian rhinoceros which is also called as “Indian one-horned rhinoceros” and “Greater one-horned rhinoceros” is a large species of mammal found in alluvial grasslands in the foothills of Himalayas. It is the fifth-largest land animal and is native to Asia. The scientific name of Indian rhinoceros is Rhinoceros unicornis. It is vernacularly called as Gainda

Due to the reduction in population size, Indian Rhinoceros is listed as “Vulnerable” in the Red List of Threatened Species of International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Those species which are likely to move into the endangered category in the near future if the causal factor continues to operate are known as vulnerable species. However, endangered species are those which are facing the danger of extinction.

Distribution Range:
The Indian rhinoceros once ranged across the entire Northern part of the Indian sub-continent along the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins from Pakistan to the Indian-Burmese border including parts of Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. They prefer the alluvial plain grasslands of Terai and Brahmaputra basin. Excessive hunting reduced their natural habitats drastically and today they only survive in Terai grasslands of Southern Nepal, Northern Bengal and in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam.

In India, Indian rhinoceros are found Kaziranga National Park, Orang National Park, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, Jaldapara National Park, Dudhwa National Park. Manas National Park and Katarinaghat Wildlife Sanctuary. The Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary shelters the highest density of Indian rhinoceros in the world.
Physical Characteristics:
The Indian rhinoceros is second in size only to the Asian elephant. This species is also the second-largest living rhinoceros behind only the white rhinoceros. Indian rhinoceros is considered to be the most amphibious of all the rhino species.

The average height of Indian rhinoceros is about 170 cm with a girth of 335 cm. The fully grown male rhinoceros weighs around 2,000-2,500 kg and female weighs around 1,600 kg. The Indian rhinoceros has a single horn present in both males and females but not a new born young. In most adults, the horn reaches a length of about 25 cm.

The Indian rhinoceros has thick, silver brown skin, which becomes pinkish near the large skin folds that cover the body. Its upper legs and shoulders are covered in wart-like bumps. It has very little body hair, aside from eyelashes, ear fringes and tail brush. Males develop thick neck folds.

Habitat and Ecology:
The Indian rhinoceros is found in grasslands, in swamps and in forested areas around the foothills of the Himalayas.

Rhinoceros are mostly solitary creatures though several may occupy the same patch of forest or water hole. The home range of males being usually 2 to 8 km2 and overlapping each other. Dominant males tolerate males passing through their territories except when they are in mating season when dangerous fights break out. They are active at night and early morning. They spend the middle of the day wallowing in lakes, rivers, ponds and puddles to cool down. The Indian rhinoceros is an excellent swimmer. It can run at speed of up to 55 km / hour for short period of time. Indian rhinoceros is blessed with excellent sense of hearing and smell but the eyesight is poor.

Indian rhinoceros are grazers. Their diets consist almost entirely of grasses but they also eat leaves, branches of shrubs and trees, fruits and submerged and floating aquatic plants. They feed in the mornings and evenings. Indian rhinoceros drink for a minute or two at a time, often imbibing water filled with rhinoceros urine.

The Indian rhinoceros makes a wide variety of vocalizations. At least 10 vocalizations have been identified which include snorting, honking, bleating, roaring, squeak-panting, moo-grunting, shrinking, groaning, rumbling and humping.

Indian rhinoceros breeds throughout the year. The period of gestation is about 16 months and the birth intervals range from 34-57 months. Young at birth is around 105 cm and weighs up to 60 kg. The female attains sexual maturity in 5 years and the male between 7 -10 years old.

Main Threats to Survival:
Indian rhinoceros are among the world’s most threatened species. Today only about 2,500 individuals survive in India and Nepal. The species is at risk because 70% of the population occurs at one site (Kaziranga National Park).

Poaching and habitat degradation are the two main threats to the population of Indian rhinoceros. For years Indian rhinoceros have been widely poached for their horn used as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicines.

Degradation of habitat over the years has brought the Indian rhinoceros to the brink of extinction. Throughout their range habitat continue to shrink fast owing to conversion of grasslands into agricultural fields and other human pressures. The other causes of habitat degradation are:

1. Grazing by domestic livestock.
2. Severe invasion by alien plants into grasslands replacing native plants; and
3. Woodland encroachment.

Indian rhinoceros is listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1975. The Indian and Nepalese governments have taken major steps towards Indian rhinoceros conservation especially with help of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and other Non-governmental organizations.

World Wide Fund for Nature has been working on rhino conservation for over four decades. The big programme initiated by WWF is the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020). The vision of the programme is to increase the total rhinoceros population in Assam to about 3,000 by the year 2020 and just as significantly ensure that these rhinoceros are distributed over at least seven protected areas to provide long-term viability of an Assam meta-population of the species.

In India following actions are needed for the conservation of Indian rhinoceros.

1. To check the habitat loss of Indian rhinoceros.
2. To strictly enforce the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act.
3. To regularly monitor the population of Indian rhinoceros.
4. To restore the degraded habitats of Indian rhinoceros.
5. To promote breeding in captivity.
6. To dehorn the rhinoceros.

It can be concluded that Indian rhinoceros is threatened chiefly due to habitat loss and poaching (for their horns used in the traditional preparation of traditional medicine). Presently less than 3,000 individuals of this species are left in its entire distribution range. Therefore, it is the need of the hour to conserve this giant species of animal for the maintenance of biodiversity and environmental stability.

Dr. Arvind Singh is M. Sc. and Ph. D in Botany with an area of specialization in Ecology. He is an active Researcher having four dozen of published Research Papers in the Journals of National and International repute. His main area of Research is Restoration of Mined Lands. However, he has also conducted Research on the Vascular Flora of Banaras Hindu University-Main Campus, India

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