Several diverse species of rhinos have existed through the different stages of their evolutionary history spanning 30-34 million years. The largest and one of the first known rhino species to occur was the Paraceratherium which weighed up to 20 tonnes and stood 5 m. tall at the shoulder. It is known to be the largest land mammal to have ever lived! The origins of rhinos can be traced back to the group of animals called perissodactyls which were odd-toed hoofed animals or ungulates. Interestingly, the perissodactyls also happen to be the ancestors of present day horses, zebras and tapirs!
According to reports, up until the early 20th century, nearly 500,000 rhinos roamed the grassy savannah habitats in Asia and Africa. Today, between the five existing rhino species – black rhino and white rhino in Africa and the greater one-horned rhino, Javan rhino and Sumatran rhino in Asia – only 27,000-30,000 individuals remain. Rampant poaching for the horn, rapid habitat loss and climate change now threaten to wipe away these last vestiges of the glorious rhino lineage forever.
Closer home, on the Indian subcontinent, the greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) finds itself restricted to a few, small and scattered alluvial grassland pockets in north and northeast India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Historically, it occupied a much larger range that stretched all the way from northern Pakistan, northern India, Nepal, northern Bangladesh, Bhutan up to Myanmar. But, this was to change dramatically as rapid habitat loss and hunting for sport and horn would end up decimating the rhino population down to a trickle by the turn of the 20th century. Only 75 one-horned rhinos remained in India by 1905. It took gargantuan national and transboundary protection and conservation efforts by India and Nepal to turn this near-extinction debacle into a laudable conservation story.
While historically, trophy hunting caused major rhino population decline, today, the insatiable demand for rhino horns in Traditional Chinese Medicine is largely driving the brutal poaching of rhinos in both Asia and Africa. The scourge of the illegal rhino horn trade to feed the two main black markets in China and Vietnam respectively, continues to threaten the remaining one-horned rhino populations.
The Kaziranga National Park in the state of Assam, unarguably the species’ foremost stronghold in the world, has long borne the brunt of poachers to meet the rising demand for rhino horn in unscientific traditional medicine and as decorative items in China and several other Asian countries. Rhinos were being slaughtered by their hundreds. But, improved and dedicated rhino protection efforts by the Forest Department and sustained crackdown on poachers led to a stark decrease in rhino poaching incidents in Kaziranga. Today, more than 2,000 rhinos call this park home.
India’s anti-poaching strategies have often been engulfed by controversies with sharp criticism, especially for the misconstrued and sensationalized ‘shoot-at-sight’ policy in Kaziranga. People fail to convey or understand that forest guards have not been bestowed with unchecked power to shoot any and everyone trespassing the park. It is a self-protection measure for the forest rangers who are often pitted against trigger-happy, Kalashnikov assault rifle-carrying poachers. Stringent measures have been necessary to combat the ruthless killings of the rhinos, whose horns are brutally axed off and are left to suffer lingering, painful deaths.