They may be animals but they got royal treatment as they travelled more than 300 km to their new home -- a wildlife sanctuary in Assam.
The Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) shifted two buffalo calves, an endangered animal, from the Kaziranga National Park in Golaghat district to deep inside the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Tinsukia district.
Wild buffaloes are under threat in India due to genetic contamination by hybridization with domestic buffaloes. The entire exercise of moving them from one place to another took two days, with the animals travelling in two trucks, two boats and two palanquins to reach their destination.
"We have translocated many animals including rhinos and elephants, but this was the most complicated exercise," said veterinarian Anjan Talukdar.
The calves, named B1 and B2, were raised at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) adjacent to the Kaziranga National Park.
B1, a male, came to CWRC as a five-day old calf Aug 8, 2002. It had been orphaned after being swept away in the floods. B2, also a male, was brought in Nov 19, 2003 after being found abandoned in the forest.
B1, which weighs a ton, and B2, which is about 700 kg, were sedated around 5 p.m. Dec 25 and loaded on to separate mini trucks.
"We lined the sides with banana trunks and put a mixture of mud and straw on the floor, to protect them from injuries," said Rathin Burman, manager of WTI's Wild Rescue division and in charge of the operation.
"It was important that their journey, which was pretty long, was comfortable and peaceful. We decided to transport them at night when the traffic was sparse," he said.
After loading them and waiting to check if the animals were stable, the trucks moved around 7.30 p.m. on their 310-km journey.
However, just two hours later, Talukdar found to his horror that the calves were waking up.
"This was certainly not on the script and we had to give them additional sedation so that they did not wake up disoriented and injure themselves," Burman said in a statement.
Suitably fortified, the caravan moved at a slow pace to reach the Saikhowa range Dec 26 morning.
"From here the calves were loaded on to a boat at a makeshift jetty made for them. But before that they had to be put into boxes, which was quite a difficult task," Talukdar said. The boat journey lasted about 45 minutes.
"And from here they went like medieval princesses in palanquins carried by 30 people each through a three-kilometer slushy and muddy path that took over three hours to cover," Burman said.
By 2 p.m. they had arrived at the special enclosure created for them on a river island in Kalia camp of Saikhowa range. It had been prepared more than a month in advance and had a lush cover of grass.
There is an anti-poaching camp there as well with a watch tower for a round the clock vigil. The WTI project team has also set up a field station here and would also stay on the island.
"After the reversal drugs were administered, B1 was the first to show signs of waking up and trying to stand up. B2 was still very drowsy around 4.30 p.m. But by late evening both had revived and started grazing hungrily, which was a very happy sign and showed that they had completely recovered and were beginning to accept the new environment," said Prabal Sarkar, WTI's senior field officer and in charge of the re-introduction project.
"The buffaloes will remain in their enclosure for at least two years, to get habituated to their new surroundings before their ultimate release into the wild," he added.