Editor’s Note: Eric’s role in Panthera’s Tigers Forever program specializes in working with anti-poaching law enforcement stakeholders in the field to understand and tailor responses to wild cats’ threats.
We were so close that we had to move slowly and silently to avoid being detected. Creeping through the trees of India’s Manas National Park, we finally found a clear line of sight, and I got my first visual of a rhinoceros: a mother and calf standing next to each other in a small forest clearing. It’s one thing to see a wild animal from atop a vehicle, but another thing entirely to see one on foot. Something about being at their level on your own two feet makes the experience incredibly thrilling.
I had been working in the park with the Manas Tigers, an elite anti-poaching team, for roughly six months before I joined my first “rhino control patrol.” From time to time, they get a request to help relocate animals that stray too close to exiting the protective boundaries of the 950km2 park. Most often, these requests are for rhinos.
The Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) is a natural treasure of India’s Assam region and is a symbol of successful conservation efforts. In the late 1980s, armed conflict resulted in mass poaching of rhinos and other wildlife in Manas. However, following the reintroduction of rhinos in 2008, the population was able to begin breeding successfully. Rhinos and tigers have significant habitat overlap, especially grasslands—which not only sustain rhinos but tigers’ main prey species as well—so protections for one of these iconic species typically benefits the other.
Until this patrol, I had yet to see a single rhino. I’d heard of sightings from patrollers and my co-workers fairly frequently though, so I hoped it was just a matter of time. Rhinos are typically seen from the back of a truck while en route to patrol locations, but my experience ended up being a bit more intimate than that.
The day started as it normally does, but before the morning patrol, we got word of the request for assistance with rhino relocation. The team’s previously planned patrol was postponed and preparations made for the new one; then we were off to work.
The Manas Tigers have been doing this for many years—as far as they were concerned, this was just another day’s work. For me it was incredibly exciting; I didn’t want to reach the end of my field season without seeing a rhino! However, it’s relatively common for these patrols to never see the rhino they’re tracking. Sometimes, the animals move back to the interior of the park by themselves, and sometimes another team—one of several anti-poaching camps stationed throughout the park—successfully relocates the rhino before our staff arrives.
Reaching the drop-off point and rendezvousing with camp staff, the operation was a great display of coordination by all of the patrollers. They found the rhinos’ tracks and were immediately able to tell that the animals in question were a mother and calf pair who they knew by name. The patrollers name all rhinos in the park, and you can really see the attachment they have to the wildlife they protect.
We followed their tracks, all the while radioing the other teams to update them on our position and where we thought the rhinos had moved. There were several moments when the tracks became faint, and it took some time to pick them up again. Finally, after a few hours, we heard some loud grunting noises, and all the patrollers knew immediately that we had found our target.
The mother and calf were certainly aware of our presence before we were of theirs, and had begun slowly moving through the brush upon detecting us. The vegetation was quite thick and I could hear the snapping of each twig and plant as the pair moved past. I’ve always known that rhinos are big animals, but hearing how loud their movements were made me truly realize the magnitude of their size.
Now that we’d found them, it was time for the relocation tactics to begin. This involves both herding the rhinos with domestic elephants and firing a rifle into the air to startle the animals back into the park. Then it clicked. I’d soon be standing less than 100 meters away from two running rhinos. But after six months together, I trusted our team. I knew I’d be just fine.
The forest got quiet and the shot went off. Immediately, everyone started climbing trees as fast as they could. Though the rifle’s shot is intended to scare the rhinos away from us, they can be unpredictable. It’s better to be in a tree than on the ground in case they come your way. There was no finesse in the way I hastily made my way up the tree. My heart was beating fast and adrenaline was pumping through me.
All I could think of while climbing was “Is the sound getting louder?! Am I climbing fast enough?!” A few bumps and scrapes later, I had reached the top. I could hear vegetation being crushed by the rhinos as they ran. The intensity was comparable to thunder and was spectacular to listen to.
It took a few attempts, but eventually the rhinos moved in the intended direction and were confirmed safely back in the core area of the park.
I count myself very fortunate to have seen a mother rhino with her calf, alongside such experienced patrollers. It’s an honor to be a part of Manas’ conservation success story, contributing to the protection of rhinos in addition to the tigers my own team works to safeguard. Rhinos and tigers play different roles in the park’s ecological web but are both vulnerable to poaching. A safe place for rhinos here can help ensure a safe place for tigers.
While those were the only rhinos I saw in the year I worked in Manas, I don’t feel like I missed out. It may have only been one short-lived sighting, but damn was it exciting.
To learn more about Panthera’s work to protect tigers and their ecosystems, click here.