A Unicorn's Last Stand

Thanks to a team of daring and dedicated park rangers, the greater Asian one-horned rhino still survives—for now

10-01-2003 // Anthony Mecir
A Unicorn's Last Stand magazine layout - Rhino Horn

A FULL MOON glides over an Asian Eden and its shimmer captures a primeval hulk emerging phantomlike from the dark, silent grasslands. Just ahead of us, straddling the narrow trail, stands a beast sculpted over some 50 million years into two power-packed tons, a body plated like medieval armor and a grotesque head saddled with an ancient curse. For a few spine-tingling moments, it sniffs the air in our direction, then vanishes like a visitor from another eon.

But it’s hardly an apparition. Despite all odds, this animal—Rhinoceros unicornis, the greater Asian one-horned rhino—is still very much alive, at least here in India’s wondrous Kaziranga National Park. And its survival, one of the great success stories of modern conservation, comes courtesy of men like the two rangers, rifles primed against poachers, and their leader D.D. Boro who take me deep into rhino country.

A Unicorn's Last Stand - Riding an Elephant

Photo: © JOHN EVERINGHAM

DEDICATED CARETAKERS: Thanks to rangers such as these patrolling northeastern India's Kaziranga National Park by elephant, some 1,600 rhinos still survive in the park—more than 70 percent of the species’ global population.

Boro has been called "Kaziranga’s Braveheart," a survivor of more than 100 firefights with poachers, and his warning—"You kill one of my rhinos and I’ll kill three of you"—is no macho boast. He and his comrades on Kaziranga’s ill-equipped, poorly paid, overworked but improbably dedicated frontline have in recent years literally stopped the poachers dead in their tracks, risking their lives to win many a battle, although not yet the war.

Their much-loved turf, set in India’s northeastern state of Assam, could accurately be called Fortress Kaziranga. Its 806 square kilometers harbor more than 70 percent of the world’s Asian one-horned rhinos, along with robust populations of elephants, tigers and wild buffalo. Nearly 500 bird species, a number of them globally endangered, have been sighted in its grasslands, forests and lakes. And the mighty Brahmaputra River, forming the park’s northern boundary, is home to endangered Ganges River freshwater dolphins. One would be hard-pressed to encounter such a profusion of wildlife anywhere outside of Africa. But lethal forces encircle this green citadel: the bursting, land-starved population of the Indian subcontinent, venal politicians, gathering ecological storms and the poachers, bloodied but still bent on hacking off the rhino’s horn for great profits on the international black market.

A Unicorn's Last Stand - Rhinoceros

Photo: © JOHN EVERINGHAM

CURSED BY A HORN: A large, relatively old Asian one-horned rhinoceros emerges from tall grass in Kaziranga. Outside the park, where rhinos are hunted for their horns that are valued in traditional Chinese medicine, few of them ever reach old age.

At dusk, before we set out on our nighttime patrol of the park, Boro points to a distant hilltop just beyond the park boundary, tinged by rosy clouds of twilight. He recalls one of the countless, typical encounters against those who have come close to eradicating the rhino. This time a gang of poachers—former soldiers armed with automatic rifles—had trekked from nearby Nagaland, planning to collect at least 15 horns. They set up camp at a remote village near that hilltop and prepared their foray into Kaziranga.

But one of Boro’s best intelligence operatives, a driver named Bani Kanta Saikia, got word from a village friend that poachers had come around to hire a local guide. Saikia befriended the gang and then guided a column of 26 rangers and policemen up a treacherous, rain-soaked hillside under cover of darkness. In the shoot-out that followed, two of the poachers were killed, and the gang was dispersed. It has been aggressive strikes like these, a military-style security grid, plus generally sympathetic relations between the park and surrounding communities that produced an incredible turn-around for the Asian one-horned rhino—a species that at the beginning of the 20th century was already well on its way to extinction.

The rhino’s great tragedy is to have been endowed with numerous magical and medicinal properties in the folklore of Asian countries and medieval Europe, which probably transformed the one-horned rhino into the mythical unicorn. Over the centuries, this peculiar creature became a universal apothecary: Drinking its urine, it was claimed, would cure skin diseases, a plaster of rhino dung could ease swellings, and the umbilical stump boiled in soup was good for rheumatism. But the horn was and continues to be the prized item, especially in traditional Chinese medicine, where it is prescribed for everything from cancer to headaches and fever.

A Unicorn's Last Stand - Two Rhinos

Photo: © JOHN EVERINGHAM

DECEPTIVE STRENGTH: Two male rhinos face off near a water hole in the park. The larger animal on the right had forced the smaller one out of the water, then chased him across land. Powerful animals, agitated rhinos could easily overturn the small, lightweight vehicles used by Kaziranga’s rangers. Despite such apparent ferocity, rhinos prove easy targets for poachers, who shoot, electrocute or snare the animals in pits placed along predictable, well-worn paths these creatures travel daily.

The hunt for its horn, together with habitat loss, have decimated populations of the Asian one-horned rhino, also known as the great Indian one-horned rhino. Listed as endangered by the IUCN—World Conservation Union, its habitat has shrunk to just a few reserves in north and northeast India and Nepal.

In Assam, British colonial tea planters out for a day of hunting in the late 1800s would casually bag two or three rhinos before breakfast. One Indian blueblood, the Maharajah of Cooch Behar, proudly notched 207 between 1871 and 1907. A year later, when Kaziranga was declared a reserved forest and hunting stopped, only about a dozen rhinos had managed to hang on in the area. By 1966, however, the population had grown to 366, in 1993 to 1,164, and today it exceeds 1,600 and is still growing. Visitors are almost never disappointed when they mount elephants to explore the mist-decked landscape on early mornings. A rhino, usually more than one, is sure to come trotting along, sometimes with a calf protectively in tow.

To make this possible, Kaziranga is shielded by some 300 rangers who set off on daily patrols from 125 anti-poaching camps on foot, boats and elephants. Reports from the field crackle into headquarters by walkie-talkie over a 24-hour communications net: unusual footprints sighted near a water hole, or someone purchased a stack of rations at a parkside store. Every gunshot heard must be immediately reported, and when poachers are suspected, reinforcements are rushed into the hot zone with orders to open fire if necessary. Often they do: More than 60 poachers have been killed and 500 arrested since 1985.

The park also attempts to stop would-be poachers by nonviolent means and enlists the support of all villagers in its defense. Many from surrounding areas are employed in Kaziranga, with some recruited and rigorously trained as rangers. Others find jobs in the budding tourism industry, spreading word that a healthy park is a long-term source of wealth for the community. Seeking to improve his intelligence network among village people, Boro suggests his men marry local women and managed to clean out one poacher’s lair, Dogoan village, by this method. In just one family, six daughters found lasting unions with Boro’s now well-informed rangers.

But the intruders are devious, and rhinos can prove easy targets. Creatures of habit, they take the same trails day after day and even defecate at the same spots, making it relatively simple for the poachers to shoot, electrocute or snare them in pits. The pits are dug along the well-trod trails, covered with reeds, grass and thatch and sometimes studded with sharp bamboo spikes. An excruciatingly painful death for the trapped animals follows as they struggle and drive the stakes deeper into their bodies.

Nearly 640 rhinos have met such fates since 1965, with 48 animals killed in the deadliest year, 1992. But over the past decade, as Kaziranga perfected its defenses, these numbers have been dramatically reduced, with only one rhino killed within the park’s boundaries during 2002. That came during the annual Diwali festival, when rangers suspect the infiltrators took advantage of firecrackers set off by celebrants to mask their gunfire. Two days later, as vultures circled overhead, they found the body of a young female rhino, and Kaziranga grieved.

A Unicorn's Last Stand - Rhinos and Buffalo

Photo: © JOHN EVERINGHAM

AN EMBATTLED FORTRESS: Asian rhinos and wild buffalo graze together in a remote corner of Kaziranga. In addition to these animals, the park is home to healthy populations of elephants, tigers and freshwater dolphins as well as nearly 500 bird species, several of them globally endangered. Whether this wildlife haven survives poachers, human population growth and a host of other environmental problems depends not just on the bravery of its rangers, but on the commitment of officials both inside and beyond India.

The people protecting the park have in a way become part of the ecosystem. "If a rhino is killed by a poacher, from the highest to the lowest level, it is felt like losing a member of the family," says K.N. Vasu, the park’s energetic director, nearly killed or seriously injured two days earlier because he couldn’t bring himself to order an armed escort to shoot a charging rhino.

Most members of Kaziranga’s family live hard lives, with poachers’ bullets and attacks by animals—more than 60 rangers carry scars from horns and claws—only some of their tribulations. At one lonely outpost, Baruntika Camp, Bubul Saikia talked of his 19 years in the service. Daily wake-up before 5 a.m. to begin a patrol, then another sweep before sunset until as late as 10 p.m. One or more months at a stretch in the field before seeing his wife and children for a few days.

Saikia earns 4,500 rupees ($95) a month. But the government deducts the cost of his simple rations of rice and lentils, sometimes delays his pay for several months and fails to provide even the basics. There often are not enough batteries for flashlights and walkie-talkies. Boots must be discarded in favor of rubber thongs and uniforms are in tatters long before new issues arrive. When Saikia and his colleagues come into harm’s way they carry slow-firing World War II-era rifles against the automatic, assault weapons wielded by many poachers. How long the morale of men like Saikia will hold is one of the many question marks hanging over Kaziranga because, despite the park’s success, the international syndicates are still very much in business, ready to probe faltering defenses, especially when a single rhino horn can fetch up to $40,000—far more than its weight in gold.

And poaching is not the only threat to the species. For a start, the park is situated in a very dynamic and fragile ecosystem—and that system is at risk. Each monsoon season the Brahmaputra, surging from the heights of Tibet, overflows its banks and inundates the park. Stranded on hillocks, many animals perish while others flee the park and into the gun sights of poachers. But the floods also deposit a rich sediment that nourishes the grasslands rhinos and other wildlife need for survival.

Bhupen Talukdar, Assam’s assistant conservator of forests and a former Kaziranga ranger, says that increased deforestation along the Brahmaputra is silting up the river, thus worsening the floods and blocking drainage from the park. And future diversions of water for irrigation and the construction of dams, both distinct possibilities, would fracture the life-giving cycle of ebb and flow. "If China dams the Brahmaputra," says Talukdar, "Kaziranga is dead."

Even without such a cataclysm, Kaziranga must be carefully husbanded. Each winter, the tall, coarse grasslands are burned to promote sprouting of the young, protein-rich grasses that sustain rhinos and other herbivores. More than 100 artificial islands must be shored up to help save animals during the floods, and the park’s many beels, or lakes, are periodically dredged of sediment.

Moving through the park, we see workers with machetes and hoes attacking one foe rangers say may be more dangerous than poachers. They’re trying to root out a virulent invasion of mimosa, a creeper that chokes the nutritious short grasses and throws down a tough, thorny net that even elephants can’t penetrate. This onslaught comes from surrounding tea plantations where mimosa is planted to rehabilitate soil and curb the growth of grass among the tea bushes.

In face of such complex problems, it is evident that bravery alone cannot save Kaziranga. Political will is essential. "The battle for Kaziranga will be won by the staff on the frontline. But in the long term, there have to be improvements in governance; otherwise we are all just fire-fighting," says Deborah Banks of the London-based Environmental Investigating Agency, an independent organization that exposed diversions of central government funds from the park by Assam’s administrators and the resulting plight of its rangers. This helped generate a flow of donations by foreign and Indian conservation groups. But the state remains at best lackadaisical, despite Kaziranga’s status as a United Nations World Heritage Site, its tourist revenue potential and Assam’s love affair with the rhino (one can’t escape the singular creature, its image proudly displayed by stores, corporations, restaurants and military units).

Conservationists fear Assam’s record of corruption and politicians ready to "sell off" pristine areas, including national parks, in exchange for votes could one day subvert Kaziranga, surrounded as it is by India’s multitudes coupled with a stream of migrants from nearby Bangladesh. "Given a chance Kaziranga would be cleared in a week. It’s the most fertile plain in the world," says Baru. Whatever the future, Baru’s rangers are making do and holding the line, sometimes angry at the bureaucrats and politicians but mostly imbued with an esprit de corps and traditions handed down by dedicated, farsighted park leaders going back to the 1930s. Vasu, Boro and others now at Kaziranga are their heirs.

Among the laudatory plaques on Boro’s office wall hangs one awarded by IUCN "in recognition of outstanding valor in the cause of protected areas." Beneath it, the 43-year-old chief of Kaziranga’s central section receives a procession of callers, all with problems dropped on his decrepit desk. He’s hardly heroic looking, with thinning hair, a slight paunch and an unassuming smile. Boro grew up herding cows on his father’s farm, and despite his impressive erudition—Latin names for species and Sanskrit sayings roll off his tongue—he remains a man of the soil, growing his own potatoes around his humble, government-assigned cottage.

A grass cutter sheepishly comes in to ask for his monthly pay of 500 rupees ($10), and another staffer needs fuel for a vehicle to take workers out to cut the mimosa. There’s also a food bill for park elephants to be paid. Boro reaches into his desk drawer for a wad of notes. No operational funds have arrived for eight months, and salaries have been delayed for three. So Boro gets a personal loan from a local moneylender to fill the gaps. He laughs about having to bend the regulations to get his work done: He can’t officially pay anyone since there are no official funds to pay them with, and he can’t drive the two government vehicles assigned since both have been officially condemned. His one and only decent vehicle is a jeep donated by the U.S.-based National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Yet he says, "Life is very short. Life in service is very short. So you must work wholeheartedly. You have to build for the future."

The following morning our jeep bounces through the park under a clear blue sky. Eagles are riding the thermals on high, and adjutant storks flap by like pterodactyls. Our guide is Imran Ali, the son of local farmers who as a boy shot red-breasted parakeets because their squawking disturbed his homework. Now he cringes when a tourist plays loud music in the park.

We mount the observation tower at Dunga Beel. The early morning mists have already lifted, unveiling vistas long vanished almost everywhere in Asia, even in its national parks. Just below the tower, where a kingfisher perches lazily on a branch, laps the waters of a lake teeming with terns, egrets and Brahminy ducks. Swamp deer roam the marshes on the far shore and beyond stretches a band of woodlands and the distant foothills of the Himalayas.

"The future of Kaziranga does not depend on this or that political party or vested interests. It is in the heart of Assam. There are lots of voices raised for Kaziranga. It is linked to a special sentiment," I remember Vasu saying when I asked who would win the war. But when I pose the same question, Talukdar, the former ranger, replies, "I’ll see wildlife in my life, but my son and grandson may not see it."

A winter wind rustles through the trees, and not the slightest human sound intrudes. A dozen rhinos move through a sea of tall grass, with only their seemingly indestructible upper bodies protruding. A shiver runs through me as I hope hard that a final curtain will never fall on such immemorial scenes. Imran must have read my mind. "The last dinosaurs in the world," he says.

Thailand-based writer Anthony Mecir visited Kaziranga National Park for this story.

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