Today there are five species and 11 sub-species of rhinos surviving on earth. Two species occur in Africa, while three species (Indian, Javan and Sumatran) occur in Asia. Many species of rhinos, like the Woolly Rhino, are now extinct. With less than 50 Javan rhinos and fewer than 15 Sumatran rhinos surviving in the wild, the future of this species is uncertain, if not doomed.
The Kaziranga National Park today has a population of over 1,500 rhinos
The Great Indian One-Horned Rhinoceros, Rhinoceros unicornis, is an ancient species. Seals show that rhinos existed during the Mohenjodaro era about 5,000 years ago in the plains of the Indus river, in what is now west Pakistan. The region was then green and fertile, but cutting and over-grazing caused it to lose its natural vegetation, and over the years the climate also changed.
Interestingly, Kashmir also had rhinos once — records show that Emperor Timur hunted and killed many rhinos on the frontier of Kashmir in 1398 AD. In the 16th century, there were rhinos in the western parts of the Indian subcontinent and as far west as Peshawar, now in Pakistan.
Due to massive hunting and capture (kings also used to indulge in the sport of rhino fights and this fact has been recorded in many royal houses like Baroda), and also because of destruction of their habitat for settlements, agriculture and expanding urbanisation, the rhino gradually disappeared in the west and then later in the Ganges Valley. By 1900, there were but a handful surviving in Assam, north Bengal, Bihar and Nepal. The Brahmaputra Valley, which was — and remains — the rhino’s stronghold in the last century, was mostly covered with thick grass and jungle, but was massively cleared up for tea cultivation and other plantation crops; thus, the rhino became scarcer in this region too.
The saviour of the Indian rhino can be said to be Lady Curzon. She visited the Brahmaputra Valley in 1904, as she had heard a lot about the rare fauna there from a distant relative, named Forbes, who ran a tea garden called Naharjan very close to the present-day Kaziranga Park. As the story goes, she did not see the rhino, but only a series of strange pugmarks with three toes on each foot. She was convinced that they were very rare. She persuaded her all-powerful husband to prohibit the killing of the rhino, and not only that, in six months the government issued a notification declaring an area of 57,273.60 acres of forest close to Naharjan as the Kaziranga Proposed Reserve Forest.
 The Kaziranga National Park
A hundred years later, Kaziranga has become synonymous with Assam and the one-horned rhino is the most recognisable symbol of the state. But it hasn’t been easy going — it has taken much effort, the dedication of legendary officers such as A.J.W. Milroy and Miri Chandran Miri, and the sacrifice of many forest guards and officers, as well as strict protection, to make the conservation of India rhinos a success story.
From a handful at the turn of the century, Kaziranga today has a population of over 1,500 rhinos. Kaziranga has been declared a tiger reserve and is also designated as a World Heritage Site, and is the best and, perhaps, the last stronghold of the Greater Indian One-Horned Rhinoceros, though there are a few rhinos in other protected areas, including Chitwan in Nepal. Two male rhinos from Assam and five females from Nepal were translocated to the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh, and their numbers have now grown to a little under 20.
Besides habitat destruction, the gravest threat to the rhino is poaching. Its horn is used in the illegal trade for Traditional Chinese Medicine for its alleged healing and aphrodisiac qualities. The rhino horn commands top dollars in the market. The horn, along with other prized wildlife products such as ivory and tiger skins, has been used to finance militancy in the north-eastern states of India, which has caused local extinction of rhino populations in protected areas like Manas Tiger Reserve, though there is a programme on currently to reintroduce the rhino in Manas.
The one-horned rhino is protected under Schedule-I of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) or the World Conservation Union.
 References and Sources
- The Wildlife of India, E.P. Gee
- The Kaziranga Inheritance, Ranjit Barthakur and Bittu Sahgal
- The King and I: Travels in Tigerland, Prerna Singh Bindra