India’s ‘Brutal’ Protection Plan Saves One-Horn Rhino
None killed in 2022
By: Nava Thakuria
India’s vast Kaziranga National Park, which boasts an astonishing array of wildlife from tigers to elephants to water buffalo to swamp deer to a panoply of lesser fauna including the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinos, appears to have gone an entire year without a single rhino killed since a female rhino was shot on December 28, 2021 inside the reserve. The park boasts arguably the world’s most successful program to thwart poachers.
The success hasn’t come without cost. Human rights organizations estimated in 2016 that as many as 50 poachers had been shot and killed in what has been described as a brutal protection program. How many have been killed since is unknown, because the park has clamped a ruthless hold on attempts to report on the anti-poaching program? In 2017, after a BBC documentary reported that as many as 20 people a year were being killed in the name of rhino conservation, the news service was kicked out of the park for five years.
Beyond that, however, the park’s conservation program is the envy of the world. Ground staff inside protected forest areas has been augmented and increasing public awareness in the fringes of the park and wildlife sanctuaries across the northeastern state of Assam have positively impacted the mission to save the giant beasts, which can weigh up to 2,000-3,000 kg and measure 3.8 meters in length and stand 1.5 to 1.8 meters at the shoulder. Unlike other parts of the globe, common people of Assam irrespective of their political, ethnic, or religious differences, maintain a strong will to protect the animals.
The only animal poached recently in the National Park and Tiger Reserve appears to have been killed in early December 2021 as a decomposed carcass was recovered without its horn. The animal was apparently hunted down, although it couldn’t be confirmed when exactly the rhino was killed.
Assam’s anti-rhino poaching task force chief GP Singh asserted in April 2021 that “till date, only one incident of rhino poaching had taken place.” Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was quick to respond with thanks for the acknowledgment. “Inspired by our PM Narendra Modi, we’ve launched aggressive programs to curb poaching,” tweeted Sarma, who belongs to Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Sarma in his latest social media tweet added that it was the first time in two decades that there had been no incident of rhino poaching, not only in the park but across the state. By contrast, 259 rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa in just the first six months of 2022.
Forest officials congratulated Sarma for his strong political will to safeguard wildlife. On World Rhino Day, 22 September 2021, Sarma ordered public destruction by burning more than 2,475 confiscated rhino horns from poachers over the last four decades to seek to raise awareness about superstition over the horns. He argued that it was a strong message to poachers and the consumers of rhino horn power in some Asian countries who believe that it can be used in traditional medicines to enhance human sexual power.
Native to the Indian subcontinent, the single-horn rhino, also known as rhinoceros unicorn, is one of the worst affected rhino species given its proximity to China, where people term it black ivory. A mature horn may fetch as much as US$400,000 per kilo, according to the World Wildlife Fund, although it is composed of nothing more than keratin, the protein found in fingernails and hair. There are no proven medicinal benefits from either product. The animal enjoys great sexual power, as its mating time may continue for 45 minutes, leading the uneducated to believe the powdered horn is an aphrodisiac. The horns are also believed erroneously to have other medicinal value including as a cure for high fever, stomach ailments, and cancer. Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East are also known to be huge markets.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence of medical efficacy, China legalized rhino horn and tiger bone in 2017 for medical research or traditional medicine although the animal specimens may be obtained only from farms, according to the announcement, leading conservationists to say the move could open the floodgates for a surge in illegal activity and threaten vulnerable animal populations as poachers hide behind the legalized facilities.
Rhinos are recognized as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and India’s wildlife protection act gives enormous power to the rangers for protecting the grass-eating pachyderms. The 1,100 sq km Kaziranga reserve, on the south bank of the Brahmaputra River, supports around 2,613 of the prized animals out of a global population of around 3,700. The UNESCO world heritage site also shelters more than 150 Royal Bengal tigers, 250 leopards, more than 5,500 Asiatic elephants, a sizable number of buffalo, different species of deer, birds, fishes, etc.
Besides Kaziranga, a spectacular expanse of elephant grass, marshland and dense tropical forest bisected by four major rivers, other Assam forest reserves including Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary (around 107 rhinos), Orang National Park (125) and Manas National Park (50) also support rhino populations to bring the total count to more than 2,650 living animals, with about 100 rhinos dying from natural causes. Assam expects to increase the rhino population to 3,000 as incidents of poaching have decreased following the deployment of ground forces with sophisticated weapons and other modern gadgets.
There was a time when Assam lost distressing numbers of animals – 27 each in 2013 and 2014. The count fell to 17 in 2015 and 18 in 2016. The trend declined to only seven in 2017 in 2018, three in 2019, and two each in 2020 and 2021. No less than 55 poachers were arrested last year, with four killed in encounters. The development attracted praise from Prime Minister Narendra Modi who complimented the government and people of Assam for maintaining efforts to conserve the critically endangered species.