The Priceless Value Of One
On a visit to the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation in Assam, Pranav Capila finds himself drawn into a world of wild orphans and unorthodox surrogate mothers.
Photo: Idris Ahmed/IFAW-WTI.
They know. The house geckos that hang out in rooms near the jungle know.
I've often wondered why they laugh so much. Is it some inside joke they share as they line up their insect prey? Probably. And I think I know what it is.
“Watch me, I'm a rhino!” says one to other as it goes after a bug, snapping its jaws. And the other can't resist: “hyuck-hyuck-hyuck” it chuckles, “hyuck-hyuck-hyuck.
"I imagine that joke having been passed down through millennia, over gecko grapevines to parts of India where rhinos have never even lived, so internalised by now that no gecko who's ever heard it can hunt without the meme popping into its head and drawing an involuntary chuckle: “hyuck-hyuck-hyuck, I'm a rhino, hyuck-hyuck-hyuck”.
Geckos, you see, have long known the incongruity inherent in the Indian rhino's peculiar biting habit. I know it too now, having almost been bitten by one.
Photo: Pranav Capila.
The Centre for Last Chances
"These elephant calves, they eat like elephants!" laughs Wildlife Trust of India’s Dr. Rathin Barman with his own version of an oft-repeated inside joke. But it's true, they do, and he would know. For Dr. Barman has overall charge of the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC), the only facility in India where orphaned and injured wild animals of several species are treated, hand-raised if required, and rehabilitated into the wild. Located in the Panbari Reserve Forest near Kaziranga National Park, Assam, CWRC is run by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) with support from the Assam Forest Department. There are 22 animal 'inmates' here at present; 11 are elephant calves, quaffing down milk formula to the tune of Rs. 10,000 a day. "There's always a crisis of funds in a place like this," Dr. Barman says. "But underfunded or understaffed, we get things done. We have to – so much of what happens here is a matter of life and death."
There's a line of thought in conservation circles that declares facilities like CWRC to be intrinsically wasteful. To focus on the health and welfare of individual animals, it is argued, draws valuable conservation dollars from wide-angle initiatives with the potential to save entire species. I understand the argument but reject its imposed binary. If only one path could be chosen then of course one would lean towards the greatest good. But conservation is not necessarily an either-or. While in Assam, I also visited a WTI project in the Karbi-Anglong Hills where villagers had voluntarily relocated their homes so that a vital corridor benefiting several wild species could be secured. There is that, and there is this.
In its near 14-year history some 4,322 wild animals have been brought to CWRC (up to March 2016); 2,465 of these, a healthy 60 per cent, have been successfully rehabilitated into the wild. Given the landscape in which the centre is located, a fair number would have been Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered species. Which of these interventions, I wonder, could be described as 'wasteful'?
Should the three female rhinos hand-raised at the centre, now grazing in Greater Manas and proud mothers of born-wild calves, never have been given a chance? What of the three leopard cubs rescued after their mother had been killed by a poacher, less than nine days old when they were brought here, their eyes still closed? Or the four hoolock gibbons whooping in celebration of each new dawn, due for post-monsoon release into the Panbari Reserve Forest? Or, indeed, the four orphaned elephant babies, all less than a year old, who tried to suckle at my fingers when I tagged along for their bedtime feeding with the animal keepers last night?
"Bringing an animal here, removing it from its natural habitat, is not a decision taken lightly. It is always a last resort," Dr. Panjit Basumatary says. "In fact, even when we're called in for a rescue we assess whether we really need to step in. Whether for long-term rehabilitation or short-term treatment, wild animals should be handled by humans as little as possible."
Panjit, the head veterinarian at CWRC, is a rather solemn, inscrutable kind of guy. He is younger than I am but has a disconcertingly school-masterish way of asking questions. "So what did you learn," he quizzes me as I follow him around the centre on his daily inspection, "from the rhino rescue this morning? Why do you think we didn't intervene?"
Photo: Pranav Capila.
The Price of Poking Rhinos
He is referring, of course, to the rhino that almost bit me.
We had travelled by boat... wait, let me get this out of the way first: you cannot say 'I was almost bitten by a rhino' without it sounding ridiculous. 'I was charged by a rhino' – now that sounds serious, hope you're okay. But while I accept that the Indian rhino has a great set of incisors and this biting proclivity must have served it well down the ages, there is something completely incongruous about an armoured behemoth of an animal with a hard pointy thing growing on its nose, choosing to come at you with its chompers. (But don't go by what I say; ask the geckos.)
So... the rhino that almost bit me – and 'me' here is pure self aggrandisement, since CWRC veterinarian Dr. Samshul Ali, animal keeper Raju Kutum, the Bagori Range Officer and three forest guards were quite literally in the same boat – did so under grave provocation, having been poked with a bamboo pole.
We had travelled up a waterway near the Bagori Range Office in Kaziranga to the Gorakati forest camp, tip-toed on stilts in a vast, marshy floodplain. The rhino, an aging male, had reportedly got himself stuck while wallowing in the marshlands about 100 m. upstream of the camp. On our first pass in the Forest Department motorboat we watched him, submerged up to his nose, tired, struggling to gain a foothold and haul himself out of the water. On our second pass we yelled at him, clapped our hands, made some noise. On the third a forest guard lobbed a firecracker in his direction. On the fourth he was nudged with a bamboo pole. And then all hell broke loose.
He turned on a dime and came at us, matching the motorboat's frantic acceleration, jaws snapping, inches away from upending us. I fell backwards into the boat as it swerved, clutching at someone's face as I went down. The rhino turned towards shore and hauled himself out of the water. Samshul pointed to a redness on the creature's backside: "Rectal prolapse," he said; "it happens with older rhinos. But it will probably subside naturally, we don't need to upset him further by trying to tranquilise and treat him."
There was nervous laughter as the boat wound back down the waterway. A forest guard nudged me, pointing at his face and making a chomping motion with his jaws: 'did you see?' he gestured. It was several hours before I could bring myself to find it funny.
Just about everyone who works at CWRC has stories of fortunate near-misses. A few have stories of unfortunate injuries. A fortnight before I arrived at the centre Panjit, Samshul, Raju and Tarun Gogoi (another animal keeper) had a close escape when a female elephant they were helping to extricate from a mud pit near Diffloo Tea Estate suddenly rose up and charged at them. They scattered down the hill they were on but a local volunteer was injured and had to be hospitalised.
"There is a sense of fear when we go out on rescue calls," Raju says; "wild animals are unpredictable and of course, they don't know that we're trying to help them. But it's not just the animals; we're often at risk from the public as well."
Accompanying Samshul and Raju on another emergency call the next day I discover just how difficult it can be to manage a crowd even in a relatively low-key rescue situation. We travel to an expansive, expensive ashram on the banks of the Brahmaputra in the Jorhat district of Assam. A Burmese python was discovered the previous evening coiled around its clutch of eggs in an outdoor shed used to store cattle feed. When we reach the ashram we find people milling around the area. The python is gone, one of the eggs has been smashed and the viable hatchling, about 25 cm. long, killed – supposedly by 'some local fisherman'. As Shamsul and Raju set about finding the python and securing the eggs (leaving them where they are is clearly not an option), onlookers both in saffron and mufti refuse to fall back, jostling for a view, taking photographs with their cellphones.
The female python is found nearby, rescued and brought back to CWRC, where a makeshift nest is created for her to incubate her eggs. Burmese pythons, it must be mentioned, are afforded the highest level of protection under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, so this one rescue could be the saving of 30-odd Schedule I lives. (At the time of writing, two hatchlings have emerged from their eggs, raising hope that more could soon be on their way.)
Photo: Pranav Capila.
Profit and Loss
A prominently-displayed stencil board in the CWRC office building breaks down the centre's history into simple statistics, its own version of a balance sheet: Total Cases Handled, Outcomes, Current Inmates, etc. One sub-category catches my eye, in matter-of-fact white letters though it is, like all the rest: 'Died During Care'.
I ask Hemakanta Nath, one of the animal keepers on night duty, that quintessential nightly news question: "How do you feel when an animal under your care dies?" "It is heartbreaking," he says simply; "I have mourned each one of them in the four years I’ve been here. And when they are being released into the wild I have felt anxious for them. It's like sending a child out into the world, you teach it the best you can but you still worry."
On my last evening at the centre Panjit finally, reluctantly, agrees to let me take some pictures of him with his charges. We head out towards Section 'A' – the outdoor section closest to the surgery, nurseries and office buildings – where he stops to examine one of the rhinos for signs of an eye infection. As we turn to leave he looks over at Section 'B' where the youngest elephant calves are browsing. One of them is on its side on the ground, completely still. "I can't see any movement," Panjit says. "Can you? Can you see its ear moving?" There's a catch in his voice. He moves forward quietly to the solar fence and lobs a piece of earth at the calf. Then another. It wakes with a start and gets up. "Sorry," he says to it and raises a hand in rueful apology. He turns and with a grin that shines past his natural reserve, walks back towards the office.
Everyone here, you see, the keepers, the veterinarians, the administrators, understands. They know the importance of balance sheets. But they have their own ideas about profit and loss. They know what counts; they know the priceless value of one.
Author: Pranav Capila, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 8, August 2016.