The Son of a Poacher who became a Ranger- Part II

The day, my father gave up poaching upon seeing a dying and helpless mother serow crying out for her dead calf – both killed ruthlessly by us; everything changed. Today the reason, I am a Ranger is not just because I knew my calling was in this field from a young age; it was also because my father – who is now a devout Buddhist practitioner- wanted me to become a wildlife protector which, perhaps was a small act of redemption, for he knew I also bore a share of complicity for the sins we had committed, almost two decades ago.

My journey to this unsullied biodiversity rich protected area – the Royal Manas National Park, which is also my first job placement, has been nothing less than a dream come true for me.  While many foresters dreaded from going to Manas, supposedly because of the security risks and harsh climatic conditions, I always wanted to work in Manas. The beauty and the grandeur of the national park is unparalleled; some of the most breathtaking beauty that can be witnessed by man, the Royal Manas National Park boasts breathtaking landscapes, magnificent emerald rivers, pristine and diverse wildlife habitats and species abound. The sauntering of barking deer and sambar along the lush alluvial grasslands, water buffaloes frolicking in the puddle with no cares in the world, the rhythmic crooning and humming of innumerable birds, the loud trumpeting sounds of wild elephants, and the intimidating roar of the elusive and stealthy tigers from the dense jungle of Manas, if privileged to see and hear one are some of the wonders that never ceases in the RMNP. The day I got posted in Manas Range in July 2011, I knew then, the forest and wilderness of the RMNP were to be part of my life forever.

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Jampel Lhendup along with his fellow foresters patrolling along the southern foothills of the Royal Manas National Park

Over the last seven years in Manas, a lot of the management practices have changed and evolved: the patrolling method has made headway into a powerful wildlife enforcement and patrolling system through SMART, wildlife research and monitoring has become a salient tool for protected area management, transboundary collaboration has been reinforced through many joint conservation initiatives, and there is an increasing support from the communities towards conservation, as the park strengthened its support through livelihood and ecotourism activities ensuring there is correct balance exist between pressure and needs, conservation and enhancement, and opportunities.

The major turning point in my career as a Ranger took place in 2013, when I was assigned as one of the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) focals for our national park. The SMART is designed to improve anti-poaching efforts and overall law enforcement effectiveness in established conservation areas and management zones. Realizing the growing need for strengthening patrol efforts based on informed decisions, and for gauging the efficiency of wildlife enforcement and patrols, and site based conservation activities in the protected areas, SMART was first introduced in our national park in 2013 to all the frontline rangers by a team of expertise from Enforcement and Capacity building network under World Wildlife Fund, Bhutan Program.

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Handsets are important for the purpose of communication in the national park

The new improved patrolling system has dramatically improved the effectiveness of our wildlife patrols. SMART transformed the way I do my job. Using the SMART approach, we are able to adapt to changing conditions and make decisions about when and where to best deploy our patrols, improving efficiency in mobilization of limited park resources. The data has become a source of intelligence for me. For instance, the SMART patrol report for March 2015 showed threats in certain points of the park. We patrolled those areas and within two days, we arrested two poachers and three fishermen. Our SMART patrol results from 5 years show that the overall threat occurrence has markedly decreased given constant patrol effort, and there is an upward trend in the observation of wildlife and their indirect signs by the year, which clearly goes to show that SMART has been highly efficient in allocating patrol effort, and resources across critical areas of the national park based on strategic planning, and team synergy that enabled more effective and rapid operational responses.

What is even more exciting for the patrolling team is that we get to interact and work together with the frontline rangers of our neighboring counterpart – Indian Manas National Park – on a regular basis through synchronized SMART patrolling which was identified as one of the important conservation priorities in curbing poaching and other illegal activities in the Transboundary Manas Conservation Area (TraMCA) landscape. Before venturing out the in the field, a meeting between the patrol leaders would be held to plan on the meeting points, set spatial targets, and pass information on any threats or presence of poachers. The poachers cameras which are installed by the enforcement team in Indian Manas National Park has been a breakthrough for both the protected areas in providing real time information on the movement of poachers in the landscape. The first synchronized patrolling was a huge success. Based on the tip-off, we got from our counterpart; we marched off towards Manas East in the wee hours of the morning. The thought of scouring the suspected areas and ambushing poachers was enough of an adrenaline rush to ramp up the excitement and fun. The patrol teams from both the protected areas, that day, apprehended three Bhutanese poachers and two Indian poachers.This joint initiative has certainly empowered and strengthened my resolve including that of my field colleagues to strengthen site-based protection of our critical wildlife habitats in TraMCA landscape. Sometimes, I wonder, had SMART been there when my father and I were poaching, the rangers could have easily caught us. My life could have turned out very differently.

Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is matter of choice; I am a Ranger today not by chance but because my father and I decided to choose this noble path of protecting our ‘Mother Nature’. I continue to look forward to working in the Royal Manas National Park and dedicate my service to protecting our country´s rich natural heritage and tsa-wa-sum.  I have loads of fond memories from this national park – of working together with my colleagues hand in hand, encountering wild animals and poachers, getting lost in the forests – some memories are unforgettable, remaining ever vivid and heartwarming. I know that the journey at times may be physically and mentally demanding involving many challenges:risks from getting attacked by wild animals, risk of getting into an accident, risk of encountering insurgents and poachers, and the trials and tribulations of working in the rugged terrain and harsh climatic conditions may be profound but I also know that there is nothing like the happiness and contentment you get, when you know you are making a meaningful difference in protection and conservation of wildlife and their spaces. When passion meets purpose, it becomes much more than a job, and I hope I have made my father proud.

“Don’t have bad feelings against me because my forefathers killed without knowing the value of you, as an individual on our mother Earth. Forgive me. Now I am protecting your children. I will continue to give protection throughout my life and when the time comes, pass this honorable task onto future generations”Jampel Lhendup, Senior Forester/SMART Focal,  Royal Manas National Park

Jampel’s  article on‘The Son of a Poacher who became a Ranger- Part I’ can be viewed on the website: http://www.rangerfederationasia.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/rfa-newsletter-2016.01-hires.pdf

 

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Arrival of a Greater One-horned Rhinoceros in the Royal Manas National Park after more than a decade

What was once believed of this species – the greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) as almost locally extinct in the Royal Manas National Park (RMNP) was photo captured during the annual tiger monitoring in 2018 for the first time. Its last sighting was in 2001. This remarkable discovery of the highly vulnerable rhino taking refuge in the upland forest and grassland habitats of Deomari in Manas East is a clear attestation of the possibility of rhino slowly coming back in the rich flood plain and forest tracts of the RMNP.

Brief history on rhino distribution and demography and the causes for their decline in the Royal Manas National Park and across Transboundary Manas Conservation Area (TraMCA)

While there has not been any scientific research conducted on the rhino population in the RMNP till date; based on the anecdotal evidence, a sizeable population of greater one-horned rhinoceros was believed to have flourished in the alluvial grasslands and flood plains of the Royal Manas National Park before the 1990s. The rich sub-tropical, tall wet grasslands also called as the ‘Terai-Duar Savannas and Grasslands’ located in the southern foothills of the national park is identified as one of the most biologically outstanding grassland ecoregions on earth, and these grasslands are among the most productive terrestrial ecosystems in the world. It is home to some of the globally endangered species such as the Indian tiger (Panthera tigris), the Greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), Asian elephant (Elephus maximus), Asiatic wild buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), gaur (Bos gaurus) and hispid hare (Caprolagus hispidus), and supports a high biomass of grazing ungulates.

The mahouts-most of whom have been working to take care of the elephants in Manas since the 1980s shares many detailed accounts of the encounter with rhinos in the RMNP. Poko Das – one of the longest serving mahouts in the RMNP states that ‘it was during of one of those hot autumn days in the 1980s, while collecting elephant fodder, we sighted two rhinos wallowing in a grassland puddle at the base of Gelongkhola. The river meandering across the flood plains in the monsoon which had buried grasslands in more than a meter of silt, and these areas buried in silt had returned to tall lush riverine grasslands by the end of following monsoon providing habitat favorable for the rhinos’. Dukdan Das, the younger brother of Poko Das also recalls seeing the magnificent rhinos in Manas. ‘ A small herd of rhinos used to frequently visit the low land marshy areas above the forest guest house in Manas campus, perhaps to avoid the stifling heat and cool themselves from the niggling parasites and sunburn. On other days, while on the way to collect elephant fodder along Moromanas and Budinakhola in Manas central, the tracks of rhinos were seen regularly,’ was his statement. The last report of rhino based on an indirect sign was made in 2001, after which there has not been any account of rhinos being seen in the national park.

Notwithstanding that the RMNP has enough space for persistence of rhino population in the wild, its population gradually declined as a result of ethnic unrest in the neighboring country between 1988 and 2001 resulting in relentless poaching pressure, and also gradual loss of suitable habitats. The quality of grasslands in the RMNP had declined considerably over the years, largely as a result of uncontrolled burning, and to an extent, climate change as well, resulting in the reduction of native perennial and palatable grasses from their formal range. The improper grassland management practices gave way to invasion by alien species such as Chromolena odoratum,Lagerstroemia parviflora, Wrightia arborea, Urena lobata and Leea asiatca etc. causing extensive damage to grassland habitats.This is also evident from the land use land cover maps of 1972 and 2010 showing a notable decline of almost 50% grassland coverage in the national park.

The Indian Manas National Park also designated as a world heritage site was also once home to a population of more than 180 rhinos but the entire population was exterminated during the ethnic unrest between the 1988-2001. The entire population of Manas was rendered as locally extinct. The disparity between the former abundance and the sudden extermination of entire rhino population in the landscape was truly staggering. Following the upturn of political upheaval in the region after 2001, restoration of rhino conservation efforts took place, one of which was reintroduction program of rhino in Manas under the aegis of Indian Rhino Vision-2020 project, is considered as one of the greatest conservation milestones and a landmark in the history of rhino conservation in Assam, India.

From 18 rhinos that were translocated to Indian Manas National Park; today the national park has 30 of the wild population with 14 newborn calves, which constitutes 0.8% of the global rhino population. The reasons for this remarkable achievement are many: availability of rich alluvial grassland and riverine habitats, stringent protection of core areas and effective anti-poaching efforts, greater conservation awareness at the local level on the conservation value and rarity of the species, and bold and dedicated leadership to carry out such a mammoth yet significant task of successful translocation of rhinos to bring back the rhino population to its former glory.

Importance of TraMCA landscape for persistence of rhino population

TraMCA is perhaps one of the best examples for proving that bold and tireless landscape level conservation can help secure metapopulation of tigers and other important landscape dependent species like Asian elephants and rhinos in the wild.

The successful management of transboundary conservation area between the Royal Manas National Park and Manas Tiger Reserve, India today, bears testimony to a special friendship based on mutual understanding, trust and cooperation, and the shared passion and conservation goals, which made TraMCA into what it is today: promotion of international cooperation and collaborations at different levels, effective research, reinforcement of site-based protection and landscape level interventions for the benefit of people and wildlife. The joint scientific monitoring of tigers between two protected areas, which started since 2010, and the reinforcement of site-based protection of critical wildlife habitats through synchronized patrolling are unarguably a paradigm of a successful transboundary level conservation effort to safeguard tiger and other wildlife populations across the Indo- Bhutan Transboundary Manas Conservation Landscape. This is a shining transboundary conservation effort and achievement for the entire world.

Given the presence of vital mosaic of biologically outstanding conservation spaces, strong transboundary cooperation, initiation of scientific management of wildlife habitats, and effective wildlife law and enforcement patrols in the region – TraMCA has all it needs for endangered species like tiger and rhino population to persist into the landscape.

Way forward for rhino conservation in the Royal Manas National Park

The sighting of the greater one-horned rhinoceros in upland forest and grassland habitats of RMNP after more than a decade, gives a glimmer of hope and a reassurance that possibly rhinos can slowly rebound into the wild, given proper site-based and landscape-level conservation interventions. The resilience of the rhinoceros; and their persistence traits over evolutionary time-large body size, high mobility, invulnerability to non-human predators, and its ability to change seasonally between browse and grasses, and their resilience to thrive in areas of high disturbance also provide this vulnerable species- an edge for its survival in the wild.

An attempt to reinforce rhino conservation effort through a translocation program in the RMNP was decided during the Indo-Bhutan Transboundary Manas Conservation Area meeting in 2015, but however, the program could not be materialized due to the complexities involved in obtaining seed population, and the need for government-level dialogue. While, this program is imperative to restore and maintain viable rhino population in the national park, the precedence at the moment should be given in creating favorable conditions through mostly site based interventions for rhinos to thrive. The revival of degraded grasslands through sound management as it is successfully done in Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary in India is of utmost importance, and will form an important benchmark of the potential for the long-term protection, and where possible, the restoration of the grassland ecosystem in the national park. The greater one-horned rhinoceros flourishes in what is arguably the world´s tallest wet grassland – the alluvial plain grasslands.

Stronger wildlife enforcement and SMART patrol is equally important to ensure wildlife habitats are rich and pristine, have enough food and space and protection against threats of poaching. Although, the wildlife law enforcement and monitoring in RMNP has evolved and adapted to improved cutting edge technologies over the years-from simple undocumented patrols, driven in an-adhoc and reactive manner to be able to store, assess and strategize patrol efforts based on the information in time and space on illegal activities and wildlife, and to evaluate ranger performance using SMART; there is still so much more to do. Additional recruitment of forest rangers, appropriate skills and equipment for crime detection, anti-poaching operations, stronger informant and intelligence network, efficient communication system, and infrastructural development for strengthening protection are crucial, and need immediate attention.

The realization of these conservation interventions and the species translocation program in the future, if need be, are within the realm of possibility, if we ensure that our collective actions are both site-based and, at the same time work together beyond boundaries and politics, for wild animals transcend all man-made boundaries.

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Rich alluvial grassland in Deomari, Manas East