Vanishing Species – The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros


An article by Mohan Pai

 

The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros
(Rhinoceros unicornis)

A kilogram of Rhino horn was priced at $ 60,000 in the International market in 1994.

No wonder the species is facing extinction.

Rampant killing for superstitious & religious beliefs has driven this largest of all Asian rhinoceros to near extinction. The two-horned rhino (Didermocerus sumatrenis) became extinct in the hill tracts of Assam by the end of the nineteenth century.

When Mary Victoria Leiter Curzon, the wife of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, visited Kaziranga in 1904 and having failed to see even a single rhinoceros, for which the area was renowned, she persuaded her husband to take urgent measures to protect the dwindling species which he did by initiating planning for a their protection. On 1 June 1905, the Kaziranga Proposed Reserve Forest was created with an area of 232 km2 (90 sq mi).Formerly extensively distributed in the Gangetic plain to day it is restricted to parts of Nepal (Chitwan), North West Bengal (Dooars) and Kaziranga in Assam. The world’s largest population of this animal is in Kaziranga National Park followed by Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary and a small population in Gorumara National Park in North Bengal. A few have been relocated in Dudhwa NP.

Lady Curzon

Many legends and beliefs are attached to the rhinoceros.
“In Europe, during the Middle Ages, its horn was generally believed to have peculiar medicinal virtues.
In Nepal the flesh and blood of the rhinoceros is considered highly acceptable to the manes. High caste Hindus and most Gurkhas offer libation of the animal’s blood after entering its disembowelled body. On ordinary Sraddha days the libation of water and milk is poured from a cup carved from its horn. The urine is considered antiseptic and is hung in a vessel at the principal door as a charm against ghosts, evil spirits, and diseases. These beliefs connected with the rhinoceros are prevalent in varying forms in Burma, Siam, and China. They set a great value upon the animal and provide the main reason for its persecution.” (S. H. Prater)

In the nineteenth and end early twentieth century, the Indian Rhinoceros was hunted relentlessly. Reports from the middle of the nineteenth century claim that some military officers in Assam individually shot more than 200 rhinos. In the early 1900s, colonial officials became concerned at the rhino’s plummeting numbers. By 1908 in Kaziranga, one of the rhino’s main ranges, the population had fallen to around 12 individuals. In 1910, all rhino hunting in India became prohibited.

Human interference is one of the major factors responsible for putting the life of One Horned Rhinos at risk. Grazing of livestocks inside the protected areas makes the animals vulnerable to several fatal diseases. Unabated poaching activities mainly for it’s horn is pushing this animal to the brink of extinction. The horn is used as a medicine and an aphrodisiac. Medicinal purposes are as a pain reliever and a fever suppressant. For centuries, Asians have believed that powdered rhino horn could cure everything from fevers and nose bleeds to measles, diphtheria, and food poisoning. Many also believe powdered rhino horn helps retain the vigor of youth and contributes to sexual stamina. However, there are no scientific studies that show that rhino horn is affective for any of these purposes. In addition to the horn, rhino hide; blood, urine, and dung also have economic value.Recent media reports from Kaziranga National Park on Great One Horned Rhino poaching are shocking and have put the government on tenterhooks. Given the present set of infrastructure that is available with the officials who stay on guard, they simply stand no match with sophisticated weapons the poachers carry. A drastic remedial step against the menace of poaching is something that has to be sorted out today or tomorrow may just be too late.

Taxonomy, Ecology and Behavior

In size it is equal to that of the white rhino in Africa. Not including the white rhino, it is the largest of all rhinos. Fully grown males are larger than females in the wild, weighing from 2200- 3000 kg (4,800 – 6,600 lb). Female Indian rhinos weigh about 1600 kg. The Indian Rhino is from 1.7 to 2 m tall (5.7 to 6.7 feet) and can be up to 4m (13 ft) long. The record-sized specimen of this rhino was approximately 3500 kg.The Great One-Horned Rhinoceros has a single horn; this is present in both males and females, but not on newborn young. The horn, like human fingernails, is pure keratin and starts to show after about 6 years. In most adults the horn reaches a length of about 25 centimeters, but have been recorded up to 57.2 centimeters in length. The nasal horn curves backwards from the nose. Its horn is naturally black. In captive animals, the horn is frequently worn down to a thick knob.

The great Indian rhinoceros is active throughout the day, although the middle of the day is spent wallowing and resting in the shade. Wallowing takes place in lakes, rivers, ponds, and puddles, and is especially frequent in the hot seasons to cool off. This activity is believed to be important with thermo-regulation and the control of flies. Drinking occurs almost every day, and mineral licks are visited regularly. Population densities vary from 0.4-4.85 animals per square kilometer depending on the habitat. Only the strongest males breed, and they have home ranges between 2-8 square kilometers in size. These home ranges are not true territories, and overlap each other. When disturbed, these rhinos generally flee, though they have been reported attacking, which they do with their head down. Smell is important in communication, with urine, feces, and glandular secretions carrying the messages. Rhinos have very poor eyesight, but their senses of smell and hearing are well developed.

A 1515 woodcut of One-horned rhinoceros by the famous German painter Albrecht Durer

Distribution

The greater one-horned rhinoceros is commonly found only in South Asia and South East Asia. Historically, the rhinos were distributed in the floodplain and forest tracts in Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus river valley. Today, however, no more than 2,000 remain in the wild, with only two populations containing more than 100 rhinos: Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India (1,200) and Royal Chitwan National Park (CNP), Nepal (600).

Habitat & Feeding

Alluvial plain is the primary and preferred habitat. Adjacent swamp and forest areas are also used. Rhinoceros are herbivorous in nature. They feed on grass, fruit, leaves, branches, aquatic plants, and cultivated crops. Tall reedy grasses are preferred to short species. When eating aquatic plants, Rhinoceros submerge their entire heads and tear the plant up by the roots. Foraging occurs at night, in early morning, or late afternoon to avoid the heat of the day. Rhinoceros drinks daily and is fond of mineral licks.
Reproduction

Breeding occurs throughout the year. Only dominant bulls mate, and it is believed that they can assess the reproductive status of females through scent. Courtship may seem aggressive. Males chase females and sometimes fighting often ensues. After a gestation period of 480 days, one young is born weighing 70 kg. Weaning usually occurs in one year, although it may last up to 18 months. Females have young at intervals of about three years. One week before the next birth, the female will chase away her previous calf. Sexual maturity is reached at an age of 9 years for males, and 4 for females. The life-span is about 40 years.

Conservation Status and Threats

The great Indian rhinoceros is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) (1996). The main source of danger for this (and all) rhinos is the Oriental belief that its horn, among other parts, has medicinal or magical properties. The Indian rhinoceros was already considered a ‘vanishing race’ by the beginning of the 20th century, primarily due to the conversion of alluvial plain grassland to cultivated fields. Hunting, was also a factor in the decimation of the population. Despite protection measures, poaching remains a serious threat today due to the demand for rhino horn in Oriental medicine; in 1994 for example, a kilogram of rhino horn was worth approximately US $ 60,000.

Pic by Siva A. N.

 
References: The Book of Indian Animals by S. H. Prater, Wikipedia, Arunachal Front – 24/2/2008
 
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http://delhigreens.com/2008/03/10/whither-the-wilderness/
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