Launched in 2005, the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 aimed to boost the population of rhinos in Assam State and expand the species’ range within the state from three protected areas to seven.Manas National Park was the first to receive translocated rhinos. The animals appeared to adapt well to their new home, but poachers repeatedly struck the park.The program then turned to Burachapori Wildlife Sanctuary, but the rhinos moved there grew sick and died.Conservationists still believe the overarching goal of boosting the state’s rhino population to 3,000 by 2020 is achievable. On the evening of Jan. 13, 2013, Deba Kumar Datta was on his way to a remote camp inside Manas National Park, a 500-square-kilometer (193-square-mile) protected area in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. Datta was excited that Sunday. It was the beginning of the Magh Bihu harvest festival in Assam. The day also marked Datta’s fifth anniversary at Manas National Park. As a senior project officer with WWF India, he had spent the last five years tracking the movements of greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) that had only recently been reintroduced to the park. Many of these rhinos—brought in from different parts of Assam—were thriving in their new residence, and Datta was keen to celebrate his joy with some forest guards. But his happiness was short-lived. Datta had barely driven 100 meters when a villager called him to say that a rhino had been killed a few kilometers away. Datta’s team rushed towards the location of poaching with the forest department staff. There, in front of them, was Iragdao — an adult male rhino, lying dead on his side. “It was a brutal scene,” Datta told Mongabay. “Poachers had removed Iragdao’s horn, some part of his legs and nails. We all lost our appetite that night.” For conservationists, Iragdao’s death was tragic. He was one of the last adult breeding males in the park at the time of his death. He had also been one of the first two Indian rhinos to be reintroduced to Manas as part of a high-profile translocation project. A greater one-horned rhino in Assam State’s Kaziranga National Park. Photo by Udayan Dasgupta for Mongabay. A new vision for rhinos This ambitious project, called the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020), was launched in 2005 in response to the declining population of rhinos in Assam. By the late 1990s, poachers had wiped out hundreds of rhinos across the state. More than 90 percent of Assam’s rhinos were now concentrated in just one park — Kaziranga National Park— with small populations in Orang National Park and Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. This was worrying. With the distribution of rhinos limited to a handful of protected areas, the species was at heightened risk of being decimated by threats like diseases, natural disasters or poaching. In 2005, when Assam was celebrating 100 years of conservation in Kaziranga National Park, the state government and conservationists came up with an elaborate plan to change the status quo. Kaziranga had nearly 1,855 rhinos then, with an additional 68 in Orang National Park and 81 in Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary. Experts believed they could increase this number to 3,000 within the next 15 years. This overarching goal led to the birth of IRV 2020 — a collaboration between the Assam Forest Department, the Bodoland Territorial Council, WWF India, the International Rhino Foundation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and various local conservation groups. The IRV 2020 strategy called for expanding the species’ range from three protected areas within the state to seven. This would involve translocating wild rhinos from Kaziranga and Pobitora to parks that no longer harbored these animals: Manas National Park, Burachapori and Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuaries and Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. IRV 2020 aimed to establish or strengthen rhino populations in seven protected areas across Assam State. Base map courtesy of Google Maps. To achieve this, IRV 2020 would continue to boost the protection of existing rhino populations in the state and better manage their habitats. After a series of preliminary checks to assess the current state of security and habitat in Assam’s various protected areas, and the support they would need in the future, the state’s newly instituted rhino task force made its decision: Manas National Park would be the first protected area to be restocked with rhinos and Datta’s team would monitor the animals. Manas, located at the Himalayan foothills, had its own thriving population of more than 100 greater one-horned rhinoceros until the beginning of the 1990s. It was even declared a World Heritage site in 1985 by UNESCO. But a spate of poaching incidents during a decade of civil unrest between 1989 and 2001 wiped out every single rhino from the park. The experts believed that by boosting security and prepping the habitat, Manas could be turned into a haven for rhinos again. “Manas had the highest potential then,” said Amit Sharma, WWF India’s senior coordinator for rhino conservation. But reintroducing rhinos to Manas — and keeping them safe — was not going to be easy.