Along the banks of the Manas River in the Indian state of Assam, impenetrable undergrowth gives way to sandy banks and clear water. A slim man walks ahead, searching, sniffing, and scanning. Tall trees of silk cotton (Bombax ceiba) loom above him, laden with orchids and other epiphytes. In the dense vegetation below, the tracker hunts for signs—broken branches, a fresh pile of dung, a flash of silver-gray reflecting the morning sun. Finally, he sees what he’s looking for across a stream in the distance—a portly greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) grazing on tall elephant grass. “It’s looking good,” Maheshwar Basumatary whispers with paternal pride. “Look how well it is feeding!” He surveys the area behind the animal. “It usually moves in this territory with two other rhinos,” he says. “Where are they?” His concern is palpable—and understandable.
By 1905, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), only 12 rhinos remained in Kaziranga National Park, about 200 miles away from this spot. Their population across their range, which once extended across northern India and encompassed the Himalayan foothills from Pakistan to Burma, shrank to forests in Nepal, Assam, and West Bengal in eastern India, because of habitat conversion to farmlands, conflicts with people, and hunting. And though the overall population has climbed ever since governments began protecting those that held on, poaching has remained a serious threat.
Bamboo thickets characteristic of this lower Himalayan jungle obscure Basumatary’s view as the rhino ambles through the grass. Best done on foot because of the difficult terrain, rhino tracking can be dangerous and uncomfortable. The Dooars—fertile areas hemmed between the Manas and other tributaries of the River Brahmaputra in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas—are thick with creatures that bite and sting, including tigers, king cobras, and a variety of insects. And between dense stands of forest lie savannas, where wild elephants and famously aggressive Asian water buffalo also graze.
Few feel as much at home here as Basumatary, or Onthai to his friends, which means rock in the local language. As an animal keeper with Wildlife Trust of India, a conservation NGO, his present job is to keep an eye on this and the other two rhinos he’s currently seeking, as well as two others in Manas National Park, which encompasses the riparian landscape where he now walks. Basumatary watches patiently from a safe distance until the rhino settles down to wallow in the shallow steam under the climbing November sun. “Every morning, I walk miles into the forest to these rhinos’ known territories to observe them from a distance,” he says. “The days when I can’t locate them, I feel too anxious to do anything else.”
And little wonder. Basumatary and a handful of others have invested huge amounts of time and energy in these animals’ lives, from hand-rearing them as orphans to releasing them in different areas of Manas and ensuring they thrive. Paired with translocations of wild adults from the rhinos’ recovered stronghold in Kaziranga to Manas and other viable rhino habitats around the state, their efforts have yielded impressive results: From 2006, when rhinos numbered a little over 2,000 in Assam, their population had grown to more than 2,600 by 2018 and may be near 3,000 now. Thanks to efforts here and in Nepal, the greater one-horned rhino is the only large mammal in Asia that the IUCN has downlisted from Endangered to Vulnerable. And since 2018, the number of rhinos in Manas alone has climbed from 29 to 48, according to Dr. Samshul Ali, a veterinarian at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation.
But Basumatary’s job and his devotion to the rhinos are not the only reasons he knows this landscape so well. Until about 15 years ago, he was a poacher himself out of economic necessity—a sign of just how far rhino conservation here has had to come, and the challenges that remain for ensuring that both rhinos and people can thrive.
“Every morning I walk miles into the forest to these rhinos’ known territories to observe them from a distance. The days when I can’t locate them, I feel too anxious to do anything else.”
— Maheshwar Basumatary, ex-poacher turned animal keeper with Wildlife Trust of India
The jungles that became Manas National Park have a troubled history. A transboundary landscape once filled with rhinos, elephants, tigers, bears, and clouded leopards, the region has long been the scene of political unrest among local communities, including the Bodo and Adivasi. The largest minority group in Assam, the Bodo are linguistically and culturally distinct. They speak several dialects of a Tibeto-Burman language, have an extensive pantheon of tribal gods and goddesses, and have long felt alienated from their home state as well as from the rest of the country. In the 1980s, some groups demanded a separate state of Bodoland; others demanded full secession from India. Different factions took up arms against the Indian government and set up camps inside the jungle that had sustained them for generations. “In front of our eyes, forest department check posts inside Manas were abandoned as the militants did not want any government presence inside,” Basumatary, a Bodo himself, recalls. The sustained unrest forced schools, markets and factories to shut down. All development activity around Manas ceased for more than two decades.
Unable to complete formal schooling and unemployed, Basumatary got married at 19, which brought new pressures and responsibilities. “Some neighbors asked me if I would like to help them track rhinos and other animals in the forest,” says Basumatary, who is now 46. “There were no other job opportunities available, so I joined their poaching gang to support my household.”
Basumatary was not alone. Many young men like him who did not flee the region began hunting animals and felling trees to support themselves. Even disclosing a rhino’s location to a poaching gang could earn in one day what it would take them more than two months to earn legally. Seven years after Manas became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, and two years after it became a national park, it became India’s only entry on the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. By the end of the 1990s, all of Manas’s rhinos were gone. Basumatary’s marriage deteriorated, too. Basumatary says his wife, when she realized what he did for a living, left him to raise their two young children by himself.
In 2003, though, the Bodo community entered into a peace accord with the Indian government and formed the Bodoland Territorial Region, autonomous from the state of Assam and governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC). Community leaders supported government and NGO initiatives to restore the biodiversity of Manas. “We felt humiliated and guilt-stricken that the entire world blamed Bodo people for the destruction of Manas,” recalls 54-year-old Kampa Borgoyary, the Bodoland Territorial Council’s first deputy chief and minister in charge of forests and education, who oversaw the conservation effort in Manas National Park from 2003 until he lost his seat in 2020. “The imperative of restoring Manas to its former glory became deeply linked with the resurgence of our own ethnic pride,” Borgoyary says.
Bringing back the rhino was a key part of that. The council urged tribal poachers like Basumatary to reform, and offered them a small monthly stipend to join anti-poaching operations—initially $40, now about $80, similar to Assam’s annual per capita income of about $665. “I also realized the error of my ways,” Basumatary says. “I gave up poaching and joined a local outfit working on wildlife conservation in 2005.”
An hour after leaving behind his first rhino of the day, Basumatary finds its two missing companions placidly wading in a marsh some distance from each other. Having tended to them for almost a year after they were translocated to Manas, he’s relieved to see them. His radio crackles, informing him that a black bear (Ursus thibetanus) has strayed into a village. Later, he will have to trap and then release the animal somewhere safe. He is particularly happy this morning, though. He has also received word that two rhinos he released into the wild a couple of years ago have had calves.
The rhinos before him faintly evoke armored trucks, the way their hides fold in sections. But each has long eyelashes and a quivering semi-prehensile upper lip that brings to mind a Bollywood diva. The animals use this protuberance to grasp long elephant grass, roots, and branches and place them into their mouths. When they are full-grown, they may weigh between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds each and eat, on average, 1 percent of their body weight daily.
When they’re not eating, the rhinos are usually soaking, spending as much as 60 percent of their waking hours in muddy water. This protects their skin from sun, dehydration, and insect bites. It’s also a social time. Although the males are territorial, it’s common to see two or more wallowing together. And unlike the rhinos’ African counterparts, they use their horns for digging up roots and foraging for food, not for fighting.
Clumps of lavender spider flower (Cleome hassleriana) bloom around them in the grasslands. Animal trackers say the plants proliferate where rhinos defecate regularly, making the flowery mounds an easy way to identify rhino territory in conjunction with other signs. This is exactly how the Bodo and other communities that live on the peripheries of Manas and Kaziranga used to track them in the past.
That poachers only recently cleared Manas of its rhinos is one of the reasons it made such a good candidate as a location for their recovery. It was “a strong indicator to suggest that the area was suitable for the species from a habitat perspective,” says Amit Sharma, who leads the rhino program at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) India. Plus, the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, part of the 280,000-hectare Manas Tiger Reserve, had a larger area to support a larger rhino population. In 2005, the Assam state government, Bodoland Territorial Council, the forest department, and conservation organizations like WWF India and Wildlife Trust of India, among others, initiated a project called India Rhino Vision 2020. Their goal was ambitious: to increase the rhino population in Assam to 3,000 by 2020 by translocating individuals from Kaziranga, where they were still numerous, to viable habitats like Manas, where they’d been extirpated.
As Rhino Vision 2020 got underway, adult wild rhinos in other forests of Assam were identified to be moved, to help repopulate Manas. Also, four rhino calves were being hand-reared in Kaziranga National Park’s Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation, established in 2002 by Wildlife Trust of India, the forest department and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Between 2006 to 2008, the rehabilitation center moved these orphans to a large enclosure within a solar-electric fence in Manas, where they familiarized themselves with their new habitat under animal keepers’ supervision before release into the wild.
Buy-in from locals was critical to this program. Rhino Vision 2020 devised a series of projects to convert poachers like Basumatary around the state, not just in Manas, into conservationists, and to help their families with alternative livelihoods. “Rather than trying to protect the jungle here, or anywhere for that matter, with rules and guns,” says Rathin Barman, joint director of Wildlife Trust of India, “we discovered our most potent weapon was love.”
Meanwhile, as the forest department increased patrolling of the forest, poaching became more difficult. “When poaching no longer remained an easy way to make money, locals realized that helping restore Manas might enhance tourism in the area, which could in turn create much needed employment options for us,” says Rustom Basumatary (no relation to Onthai Basumatary), the former general secretary of Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society, a community organization working on conservation and ecotourism since 2003. Of the society’s 48 members today, 30 are ex-poachers. They offer a range of tourist activities—safaris, birdwatching tours, guide services, and more. Ex-poacher members also receive BTC’s monthly stipend, which Rustom Basumatary argues is too low. He and other locals would like it at least doubled, but with few other options for employment, the arrangement still appeals.
“Rather than trying to protect the jungle here, or anywhere for that matter, with rules and guns, we discovered our most potent weapon was love.”
— Rathin Burman, joint director of Wildlife Trust of India
Over the past 15 years, BTC has inducted more than 100 poachers from Manas into anti-poaching squads and financially supported many others who have surrendered their arms. When 162 square miles of Raimona, a forest adjoining Manas, became a national park last summer, BTC provided about $665 each as well as livelihood alternatives to 57 poachers who had been working the region.
Some converts, like Onthai Basumatary, have become animal keepers. Like other ex-poachers, his income has dropped to a fraction of what he used to earn tracking and killing elephants for their tusks. But he cannot think of doing anything else: “I love my work and the animals in my care too much.” Since he got involved, Basumatary has seen 20 rehabilitated rhinos rewilded in Manas. And in 2017, the program marked a significant success—Ganga, one of the first three—had a grandson.
On a balmy November morning, Barman walks the grounds of the rehabilitation center to check on the five rhino calves, as well as the elephants, clouded leopards, and other species in residence. As he reviews their progress reports, he recalls his elation over the news of Ganga’s grandson: “Having seen her since she was rescued in infancy, I felt as if I myself had become a grandfather!” The center, which now has an operating room, pathology lab, and advanced rehabilitation equipment for all species found in the region, has grown substantially since Ganga’s time here. The first wild animal rescue and rehabilitation hospital in India, it has the same end goal for all its wards: successful translocation and breeding in the wild.
At the end of the day, “rehabilitated rhinos will never be 100 percent wild,” says Barman, who is based in Guwahati, Assam’s capital. “But their progeny born in the wild will be.”
Outside the center, in an enclosed boma, a fenced-in microcosm of their natural habitat, the rhinos huddle together for warmth in the grass. Dr. Ali, the veterinarian who heads the rehabilitation project, watches from a distance, partially hidden behind tall green screens that block the animals’ view of the center’s buildings and human activity. “Treating injured and orphaned wild animals is hard as there are few protocols to follow,” he says. “In fact, for rhinos, the best practices and protocols are being created right here.”
Those include ensuring that the rhinos don’t habituate to humans. Keepers undergo significant training before being allowed to interact with the animals. One of the keepers, Amal Das, has the crucial job of making milk for all of the center’s infant tenants, mixing vitamins, minerals, and high-calorie additives in a base of human infant formula. The important thing, he says, is to keep the bottles and milk-processing area completely sterile to avoid sickening the animals.
The baby of the center is three-month-old Krishna. The rhino was found wandering alone in a tea plantation when he was barely two days old, but today he’s thriving—so playful and inquisitive that the older rhinos constantly swat him away. “We refer to him as Krishna among ourselves, as he was rescued on the day we observe the birthday of Hindu deity Krishna,” Das explains. (Krishna is one of the most beloved incarnations of Vishnu, the godhead of the Hindu trinity of deities.) But the staff never say such names to the rhinos themselves, “as it makes it harder for them to rewild.”
Once the rehabilitated rhinos are about two years old, they will be shifted to another boma in Manas, as their predecessors have been before. They will spend another two years there, learning the lay of the land and developing loyalty to their release site, which research shows is crucial for their survival.
Onthai Basumatary and his colleague Debojit Saikia look after the rhinos that make it to Manas. For the first month, they feed them high-energy food like horse gram and unrefined cane sugar. Then they leave the animals to graze naturally. “It’s never easy to do this—whenever any of the rhinos spot me or Debojit, they mewl, begging to be fed,” Basumatary says. Once they’ve adjusted, though, “it feels good to see them thriving. It gives us all motivation to do more.”
Basumatary’s present charges have been roaming for more than a year and a half now. None seem to recognize him anymore. Their radio collars have fallen off on their own, as intended. Now, he says, “I have to treat them as wild animals.”
Despite successful efforts to translocate rhinos and reform poachers, poaching has remained tough to control. Even without the political unrest, Assam’s annual per capita income is just a third of India’s national average of about $1,817. For Assam’s forest-dwelling tribes, it’s even lower. Meanwhile, conservationists say that simply telling poachers where to find rhinos can earn a person up to $1,330. Around Manas, some people have continued to cut large trees or tip off poachers to help cover the costs for a daughter’s wedding or building a new home.
The geography hasn’t helped: Assam borders Bhutan and is near the Indian border with Myanmar. Many well-established poacher routes take advantage of the Free Movement Regime established between India and Myanmar, which allows locals to travel freely 10 miles into either country for up to 14 days. From Myanmar, poachers are able to reach traditional medicine markets in China and Vietnam, where some consider the horn a treatment for fever, rheumatism, and other disorders, as well as a status symbol. Today, a single horn is worth more than its weight in gold, commanding up to $264,134, according to Barman.
Making matters trickier, some believe that conservation measures helping rhinos, especially in and around Kaziranga, have come at the expense of the people living on the forest’s peripheries. The rhinos’ stronghold, “initially started with an area of less than 190 square miles, and today it boasts of having a territory of more than 425 square miles. The very simple question is whose land has been occupied for this extensive expansion?” asks Pranab Doley, a Kaziranga-based farmers’ rights activist and a member of the indigenous Mising community, who advocates for preserving tribes’ access to the forest.
When the state government issues notifications for new additions to the park’s protected areas, it appoints a resettlement officer to resolve land claims and determine compensation years before incorporating them. However, Doley and other land-rights activists accuse the government of clearing encroachments on notified forest land with excessive force. In 2016, for example, 331 houses in three villages in Kaziranga were reportedly razed to the ground. The police opened fire to quell the ensuing protests, and two people died in the fighting.
And given the constraints and the growing rhino population’s need for space, these types of conflicts will likely become more common. Kaziranga National Park has argued before the Guwahati High Court that alongside poaching, the lack of secure and adequate habitat is the greatest threat to rhino conservation. Meanwhile, recovering wildlife populations are increasingly coming into conflict with people living nearby. “Rhinos cannot be directed to settle in other areas, but people can,” says Barman. “If we consider rhinos as our pride, then we must help them to reclaim their land….”
Days after Barman’s visit to the rehabilitation center, the sun drowns blood red in the still waters of a marsh near Natundanga, a Karbi tribal village on the edge of Kaziranga. Here, villager Mangalsing Teron describes locals’ fraught relationship with the jungle and the impact of conservation. “We have never been able to plant any crops here as they attract the elephant and wild boar to our fields,” he says, as a wild elephant trumpets in the distance. And “after our forest became a protected area and the law forbade us from logging, hunting, or collecting forest produce, our lives became really hard. There were few jobs to be had in the village and the nearest high school was a 7-kilometer hike through the forest.” As a result, he explains, many skilled hunters and trackers of his tribe joined poacher gangs.
Gradually, though, new economic opportunities created by conservation and conservationists are changing this here as in Manas, at least partially. Increased tourism in Kaziranga has increased the demand for guides, drivers, chefs, and hotel staff. And Teron himself is part of a group that WWF India trained in 2017 to run Choran Ahem, a restaurant that serves Karbi delicacies such as spit-roasted pork. “Now that more tourists have started visiting us, this is slowly becoming a viable source of livelihood for people in my village,” he says.
WWF India has also enlisted more than 70 women living on the fringes of Manas, mostly from families of ex-poachers, in alternative livelihood programs including weaving, mushroom cultivation, and food processing. They plan to induct at least 30 more by March 2022. “We have to recognize humans as an intrinsic part of the rhino’s habitat,” says WWF India’s landscape coordinator Deba Kumar Dutta.
In the Manas Banani Food Producers group, for example, women learn to farm mushrooms, pickle local produce, and weave textiles for locals and tourists. “Before our group was trained by WWF in 2017, most of us used to let our cattle graze in the jungle and we would also collect firewood from there,” says Dharitri Pathak of Barengabari village in Manas. Sharmila Basumatary (no relation to Onthai Basumatary) is part of another group called Gungzema that showcases Bodo ethnic cuisine and culture in Barengabari village, serving such dishes as country chicken curry with rice paste, pork, and leafy vegetable stew to tourists. In the past, Basumatary recalls, village men would hunt wild boar, deer, and fish in the forest, not just for themselves, but also for poaching gangs. “We weren’t aware then that this was harming our forest,” she says.
While the pandemic years have been slow, Gungzema still earned approximately 80,000 rupees from its restaurant in 2021; Teron’s group earned approximately the same amount. Equivalent to about $1,000, that’s a tidy secondary income for members. “Many in our village have started homestays and young people are finding employment in forest lodges and as drivers,” Basumatary says. “For us, this is a huge change and we are happy to not have to go to the jungle.”
For his part, the former poacher Maheshwar Basumatary believes that such initiatives will help wean people away from poaching and tree felling. Indeed, things have changed a great deal since 2012, when the forest department flagged 22 cases of rhino poaching, and 2013, when the number went up to 41. In 2020, the forest department recorded only two cases of poaching. And despite the killing of a rhino on a full moon night in May 2021, the police, with the Assam forest department’s help, nabbed the gang within months.
But P Sivakumar, field director of Kaziranga National Park is careful to add that too much focus has been placed on developing awareness about those who have co-existed with the forest for centuries. “More than these tribes, it is people like us, with our ever-growing need for highways, hotels, malls, and worse, who need to become aware that all this so-called development comes at the cost of the jungle, the rhino, and eventually, our future,” he says.
“More than these tribes, it is people like us, with our ever-growing need for highways, hotels, malls, and worse, who need to become aware that all this so-called development comes at the cost of the jungle, the rhino, and eventually, our future.”
— P Sivakumar, field director of Kaziranga National Park
As Rhino Vision 2020 wound to a close in 2021, conservationists began looking toward the future. In Delhi, about 1,000 miles west of Kaziranga, Vivek Menon, founder and executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India and senior advisor to the president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has been advocating for safe animal movement corridors in the state. His organization’s advocacy led to the Raimona National Park designation, a significant expansion of protected rhino habitat. Speaking in his office, lined with wildlife books and posters, Menon notes that the forest department burned almost its entire stock of rhino horn on World Rhino Day in September, 2021, saving a few dozen for ongoing court cases and the historical record. “This must have sent a strong message to potential traders on the futility and criminality of this trade,” he says. “The successful conservation of rhinos in Assam would not have been possible without such political and community will.”
And it will take sustaining that will to ensure the rhino’s continued recovery, as there is still a long road ahead. Even today, many animals drown during annual floods around Kaziranga as they are cut off from higher ground in the adjoining Karbi Anglong hills by the busy National Highway 37. To help address the problem, the Assam government is awaiting clearance from the central ministry of road transport and highways for a 22-mile elevated road project through the Kaziranga National Park, which will be suspended over nine vital animal migration corridors.
Wildlife Trust of India is also working with the Assam forest department to develop yet more rhino populations in the state by translocating breeding individuals to currently unoccupied habitats. This will ensure that the overall population remains genetically robust and will help make the species more resilient in the face of a variety of threats, such as infectious disease.
Even without initiatives like these, though, the work of Basumatary, other handlers, and those on the anti-poaching squads has clearly made a difference. At the end of his long day stalking rhinos, he and his colleagues are called to rescue another bear, the fifth this month to stray too close to settlements around Manas. He will have to investigate whether there has been some disturbance to their habitat, but that can wait. For today, his work is done.
He cuts a lonely figure as he returns to the forest outpost that is his present home. The cellphone network here is patchy, and he has not spoken to his family in days. He remarried a few years ago, but has not seen his wife for weeks, his son for months. “I’ll take some time off soon,” he says, happy that at least he is able to talk to his son, now 26, on the phone regularly. “Like me, he too is a conservationist, working with a local NGO in Raimona National Park.”
From poacher to protector, Basumatary’s journey has been long and hard. But in many ways it mimics the trajectories of the rhinos he tends to. A rewilding, a homecoming.
Some of the author’s reporting for this story originally appeared in BBC Future.
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Sandesh Kadur is an award-winning wildlife photojournalist, author, and documentary
filmmaker who, with his images, works to highlight the need for conservation and encourage
protection of the planet’s biodiversity. His films have been shown on television networks
including National Geographic, BBC, Discovery, and Animal Planet. He is a member of the
International League of Conservation Photographers.