With a very high rhino concentration sheltered in its small habitat, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary is having a tough time managing the pachyderms.
The high rhino density has triggered a spurt in the incidence of rhinos straying out of the sanctuary in search of food and space. Growing infighting among the males has been another disturbing fallout.
The problems confronted by the forest personnel is laid bare by the fact that the straying rhinos move out a great
distance from the sanctuary, necessitating constant monitoring by forest guards who follow the rhinos.
A recent GPS mapping showed that straying rhinos effectively cover an area of 372 sq km whereas the size of Pobitora is a mere 38.81 sq km.
“After sunset, around 20 per cent of the rhinos stray out to a considerable distance and return by next morning. The mapping showed the effective area covered by the rhinos to be 372 sq km. We need more personnel for more effective monitoring,” Mukul Tamuly, Range Officer, told The Assam Tribune.
He added that the rhinos often stray into riverine areas, making monitoring even more difficult. “We often have to use boats to keep a track of the rhinos,” he said.
As per last census Pobitora has 102 rhinos. It has a frontline guard strength of 68, who also have to man the forest camps.
According to conservationists, the tiny sanctuary – often called a miniature Kaziranga for its ambience similar to that of Kaziranga – is no longer in a position to support the growing rhino population.
The actual rhino habitat in the sanctuary is even smaller, with roughly 67 per cent of its area under grassland.
According to Tamuly, the problem can be eased by translocating rhinos from Pobitora to other rhino habitats. “Pobitora has exceeded its rhino-bearing capacity and translocation is the only viable option, given that there is no scope for adding to its size. It is surrounded by revenue villages on all sides. With rhinos increasingly frequenting paddy fields and settlements, a serious man-animal conflict can ensue,” he said.
Another grave danger in the form of straying rhinos getting contaminated with diseases that afflict domestic animals also looms over Pobitora. “The cattle in the nearby villages are regularly vaccinated but the danger is still there.
The possibility of inbreeding among the rhinos is yet another concern.
A few rhinos from Pobitora had been translocated to Manas under the ambitious Indian Rhino Vision 2020 project, which aims at attaining a population of 3,000 rhinos in Assam distributed over seven protected areas (PAs).
“But more rhinos need to be taken away from Pobitora so that the rhino population is within the ecological and sociological carrying capacity of the sanctuary,” a conservationist said.
Located just 40-odd km off the city, Pobitora was notified as a sanctuary in 1998. While its claim to fame rests on the rhino, it is home to a total of 24 species of mammals, besides 27 species of reptiles. It is extremely rich in avifauna with 216 species of bird recorded so far.
Predominantly a grassland habitat (66.90 per cent) that suits the rhino, Pobitora has 18.44 per cent and 14.66 per cent of woodland and wetland respectively.