- Ten rhinos have been killed already this year at Kaziranga, as opposed to the five all of last year
- Poachers executing stealth operations, using upgraded weapons
- Rhino horns, known for medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties, sell at upwards of Rs 3 lakh a kg.
- Since there is no local market for rhino horns, they have to be sold outside. Poachers have to have international linkages at some level.
***Life usually is a peaceful haven for the Great Indian one-horned rhino (rhinoceros unicornis) at the famed Kaziranga National Park in eastern Assam. But sometimes the stillness of this Eden is rent through by sudden violence—and another unsuspecting pachyderm falls prey to predatory poachers, succumbing either to gunshots or falling into a pit carefully laid out for it.
It was no different last fortnight at the makeshift jetty along the Dhunsiri river, near the park. Park director S.N. Buragohain, ranger D.D. Boro and a few other wildlife officials were on an inspection tour aboard a brand new mechanised boat when their walkie-talkies crackled and cellphones rang. It was forest guards informing them that they had heard gunshots. To the patrolling officers, it was a call to action: there could still be time to save a rhino.
Recalls Buragohain: "We changed direction and headed towards Bagori, one of the ranges inside Kaziranga. We had to act because the poacher gang was yet to actually hit its target." Divisional forest officer Utpal Bora and his team were already in the area but couldn't do anything as they were unarmed. The poachers escaped. Later that evening, forest guards laid ambushes at 10 places and lay in wait. The gambit paid off. The poachers emerged around 7 pm. A shootout followed in which one of the poachers was killed but his two accomplices managed to flee. The dead poacher turned out to be a Karbi tribal, perhaps from the vicinity of the park, where the community has settlements.
This year, poachers have already claimed 10 rhinos in Kaziranga—nine of them were fired at and the latest, on July 20, was trapped in a 7 ft x 3 ft feet pit. The count has been 650 in the past 40 years. What is cause for worry is the spurt in poaching in the past few months, especially since only five rhinos were poached inside the park last year. M.C. Malakar, Assam's chief conservator of forests (wildlife), voices a steadily growing opinion. "It is possible that international poaching syndicates have turned their attention to Assam after authorities have put up stringent anti-poaching measures in Nepal's Chitwan National Park where poachers had a field day targeting rhinos," he says.
Authorities talk of funds flowing in to attract shooters to kill rhinos for their horns and do not rule out poaching syndicates from within India and abroad backing this fresh campaign in Kaziranga. Rhino horns are in great demand globally, and in Southeast Asia in particular, for their perceived aphrodisiacal and medicinal properties, and sell for anything upwards of Rs 3,00,000 per kg in the clandestine black market. "There is no local market for rhino horns," says Malakar, "and therefore the horn has to be sold outside. This automatically implies that poachers here have international linkages at some level." He points to two possible routes being used to smuggle the horns out: Dimapur (Nagaland)-Moreh (Manipur)-Myanmar, and Siliguri (West Bengal)-Nepal-Tibet.
Not just this, poaching methods too seem to have become more sophisticated. In April, the police near Kaziranga recovered a silencer-fitted rifle from two poachers killed in a shootout. The recovery indicated that poachers were executing stealth operations, and upgrading their weaponry. The silencer's origin was traced to the office of the Nagaland chief conservator of forests (wildlife), and investigations are on.
Kaziranga, 225 km east of Guwahati, has been a World Heritage site since 1985 and is one of India's biggest conservation success stories. It has come a long way since it was notified at Lady Curzon's instance as a reserved forest in 1908, then to a game sanctuary in 1916 and a National Park in 1950. The rhino population in Kaziranga increased from a few dozen in 1908 to some 1,080 in 1984, and 1,100 in 1988 to 1,855 at last count in 2005 to perhaps over 2,000 now. This despite the massive floods that wrought havoc in 1988, submerging 70 per cent of the park, and claiming 38 rhinos, including 23 calves.
It's a situation not uncommon at well-run wildlife reserves around the world. "We seem to be faced with a problem of plenty," says Malakar. "Our successful conservation efforts over all these years has led to its own attendant issues—today the pachyderms are found even on the periphery of the park, making it easier for poachers to target them."
Success could also be breeding official complacency. As against the required strength of 487, the forest protection staff numbers only 377. The park has 125 camps which have to be manned by at least two guards each. This requires a total of 250 men at any given point of time. But factor in guards reporting sick or being injured in encounters with poachers, and manpower shortage is almost perennial. The sudden rise in poaching has prompted some emergency measures—50 personnel have been transferred from other locations to Kaziranga and casual workers too have been engaged. But these can only be ad hoc solutions: many of the newly posted personnel are not even trained to handle weapons.
The infrastructure facilities at the park too continue to be poor. Only two mechanised boats are in working condition. The allocation for infrastructure and development activities at the park in 2006-2007 was just Rs 38 lakh. This included food and other needs of the 48 elephants Kaziranga maintains for patrols as well as to ferry tourists inside.
Raise all this before Assam's environment and forest minister Rockybul Hussain, and he promises things will improve. "The rhino is Assam's pride and we are bent on protecting this rare animal," he declared after a recent review of the situation at Kaziranga. "We have decided to display photographs of known local poachers at all police stations and have formed wildlife crime control committees involving the police and wildlife officials."
Conservationists see only one way out: involve people in the park's vicinity in protecting the rhino. "Once you have villagers around the park in the rhino protection campaign, the battle is nearly won," says Soumyadeep Dutta, who heads Nature's Beckon, a conservation group. On July 24, it was villagers who helped forest guards capture a local poacher. More such coordinated efforts and poachers can hopefully be kept off the park forever.