By Priya Ranganathan

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In the swampy grasslands of lowland Assam, the Indian one-horned rhinoceros is the undisputed king. This majestic creature is the only species of rhinoceros native to India and is fighting a battle to survive. Poaching and habitat destruction are the major threats to this species’ existence. But what makes the rhinoceros such an icon in the Indian landscape, filled as it is with wondrous animals?

To better understand the unique nature of the rhino, let us take a look at its unique habitat. Assam is one of the seven sister states of Northeast India, famed for its tea gardens, the mighty Brahmaputra River, and Kaziranga National Park. The floodplains here are formed when the Brahmaputra spills over its banks in the monsoon. Rich Himalayan sediment flows over the soil, leaving behind fertile nutrients that make this region an agricultural paradise. Countless species call these plains home.

A rhino in Kaziranga (Image: Nobin Raja)

Kaziranga is a biodiversity hotspot, a place where wildlife can be found in astonishing variety and numbers. The park has 35 endangered mammal species, 15 critically so. Bengal tigers prowl in the long grass, leopards sprawl in the evergreen forests in the park’s higher ground, and elephants sway across the green landscape. The Brahmaputra carves a path through this tiger reserve, separating two rare species of monkeys found only in this region – the Hoolock gibbon, India’s only true ape, and the golden langur. These species will never meet, thanks to this mighty river. Eastern swamp deer and the wild water buffalo are also found in Kaziranga, alongside the moody one-horned rhinoceros. Pangolins, sloth bears, small wild cats, civets, and nine out of India’s 14 primates call Kaziranga home. It is truly a jewel in India’s crown.

Image: Dr. G. Ravikanth

The rhino needs its unique habitat – the riverine forest and grasslands of Kaziranga – in order to survive. This is the second-largest land mammal in Asia, after the Asian elephant, and habitat destruction and climate change have slowly reduced its habitat. The Terai grasslands of southern Nepal, the Brahmaputra valley of Assam, and pockets of West Bengal bordering Assam are the last remaining habitats for this mighty herbivore. They require a swampy habitat to wallow in the hot daytime, and they are fond of water. Rhinos have poor eyesight and are known to be short-tempered, often charging at other animals, humans, and even vehicles. The only predator of the rhino, other than man, is the tiger, which sometimes preys on rhino calves. However, poachers are the biggest threat to this mammal, chasing down rhinos for their horn. The horn is used in traditional medicines and thought to have magical powers. Another major threat is disease. Nearly 70 percent of the world’s one-horned rhinoceros population lives in Kaziranga. Should a disease break out in the park, this would spell disaster for this incredible animal.

We must salute the stalwart forest guards and workers at Kaziranga National Park, who tirelessly patrol the park to keep the rhinos safe. They are the ones we must thank for truly making steps in saving India’s last rhino population and preserving an entire species.