India’s Treasured National Park Under Fire

India’s Kaziranga National Park, a stunning forest refuge on the banks of the Brahmaputra River south of the Himalaya mountain range, has become the center of worldwide concern over charges that it is a killing field of tribal people in the name of protection of park animals.

Survival International, the London-based tribal rights organization, issued a statement a year ago that was largely ignored, expressing concern that Kaziranga forest guards were killing poachers with impunity in their campaign to safeguard precious single-horn rhinos, which have become a major target because of the enormous value of their horns in Chinese medicine.

The organization asserted that more than just poachers, the armed guards were shooting first and asking questions later of innocent tribal people who inhabit the park’s boundaries. Few listened to the NGO at the time, as Kaziranga authorities continued to celebrate their success in preserving almost two thirds of the world’s one-horned rhino population.

The rhinos were identified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its 2008 red list. In 1986, the animals were listed as endangered. Poachers continued killing the rhinos for the horns, which feed growing demand as Chinese, Vietnamese and other Chinese populations grow rich enough to purchase them for medicinal uses. In fact, although they have no scientific therapeutic value, the horns sell for as much as US$100,000 per kilogram, meaning a single horn, which is nothing more than tightly wound hair, can produce as much as US$300,000.

According to the state’s forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma, Assam lost 22 rhinos to poachers (18 in Kaziranga alone) last year. She added that 123 rhinos died in various parks and wildlife sanctuaries during 2016.

The minister said more than 90 poachers were arrested by security forces from different parts of Assam since Jan. 1. 2016. Kaziranga authorities also assisted in arrests of more than 70 poachers in the vicinity of the park itself.

Spreading across over 800 sq km on the south bank of the Brahmaputra and classified as a UNESCO world heritage site, the park is a kind of magnificent ark against wildlife destruction. According to several censuses over the past decade the park is home to 2,431 rhinos. It also houses 167 tigers, 5,620 elephants, 1,169 swamp deer and 248 leopards along with other wild species.

The issue of killing people in the name of wildlife conservation gained momentum after a recent BBC news feature in which the journalist Justin Rowlatt interviewed forest officials and frontline guards who said they were prepared to kill anyone inside the park who wasn’t supposed to be there.

The BBC news feature claimed that since 2013, guards have averaged almost two killings per month, with 2015 witnessing the killings of 23 people in Kaziranga in contrast to 18 rhinos poached by the criminals.

Innocent villagers, mostly tribal people, have been caught up in the conflict, with park rangers indiscriminately applying brutal force, with immunity from prosecution.

“The park has killed, maimed and it is alleged that it even tortured people. There is no question that rhinos should be protected. But at what cost? This is the inside story of an Indian national park and those killed in the name of conservation,” commented Rowlatt, the BBC’s South Asian correspondent.

Rowlatt, who lives with his family in New Delhi, said that neither the environment ministries in New Delhi nor Dispur (responsible for the protection of forests and wildlife), the National Tiger Conservation Authority or the Assam Forest Department responded to his queries.

The BBC aired the program, titled “Our World: Killing for Conservation” on Feb. 11, setting off a firestorm in which the government and people of Assam raised serious concerns over its content, arguing that the Kaziranga guards were legally empowered to take stern actions against the poachers.

Protection groups scolded the news channel for allegedly propagating a skewed image of Kaziranga to international audiences. They organized impressive public rallies arguing protection of the rhinos and other wildlife required all effective means.

The government subsequently banned Rowlatt from filming any Indian tiger projects. The tiger conservation agency charged that Rowlatt had “misled government officials into giving permission to film by submitting a false synopsis. They then went on to produce a documentary which shows Indian conservation efforts in poor light, contrary to the synopsis submitted.”

The BBC and Rowlatt, the tiger project said, violated four preconditions, claiming the global news channel filmed in Kaziranga after sunset, didn’t screen the documentary before a committee of Union environment, forests & climate change ministry and deviated from the original synopsis submitted to the external affairs ministry and the tiger conservation authority.

The BBC ban provoked Survival International to launch a campaign to boycott the park as long as it retains its shoot-on-sight policy. In a statement issued on March 2, Survival International charged that more than 100 people have been killed at Kaziranga in the past 20 years.

It also highlighted the case of Akash Orang, a tribal boy who was shot by accident by a forest guard in July 2016. Akash received serious injuries to his legs and is still under treatment. Following local outcry, the Kaziranga authority suspended two guards. Besides Akash, there are other victims of the shoot-to-kill policy, which has attracted severe criticism from conservation groups for encouraging violence rather than effectively tackling the criminal networks behind the poaching.

Survival International said it was writing to more than 130 international tour operators in 10 western countries in pursuing the boycott. Its director Stephen Corry asserted that the Kaziranga authorities had been practicing extrajudicial killings for years and could no longer ignore the problem.

On the ground, Assam’s tourism minister Himanta Biswa Sarma vowed to carry out a vigorous drive to attract foreign tourists to various forest reserves. Speaking in the State Legislative Assembly recently, Sarma asserted that the government would continue its zero-tolerance policy against poaching and that nature-loving people across the globe would support the endeavor.

Meanwhile, wildlife non-government organizations working in and around the park denounced the allegation that the Kaziranga authority was using excessive force. The NGOs issued a statement that the state government had to enhance protection measures to ensure the protection of the rhinos. They argued that continuous pressure from citizens to protect the wildlife compelled Kaziranga to take action.

“The propaganda launched by the international organization to boycott Kaziranga is without merit and totally uncalled for,” the NGOs said. “Be it Kruger or Kaziranga, or any other rhino-bearing area in the world, to protect their rhinos all of them have to strengthen their security and by no means is Kaziranga the only rhino-bearing area where gun battles between protection forces and well-armed poachers occur and casualties are accounted for due to such occurrences,” said the statement.

However, local residents on the park’s periphery extended support to Rowlatt and demanded the ban on the BBC journalist be lifted immediately.

Jeepal Krisak Sramik Sangha (JKSS), a farmer-laborers’ body based near Kaziranga, criticizing its harsh conservation methods, urged the government to institute a high-level probe into the reported deaths of tribal people in and around the park.

JKSS adviser Soneswar Narah, speaking to reporters, argued that the Kaziranga authority is hiding information. He alleged that the forest department was silently violating human rights in the name of conservation.

“We demand adequate compensation to the families of victims, who either got killed or sustained major injuries,” Narah said. “Moreover, the forest department must understand that in the process of conservation, the fringe villagers should be taken into confidence.”

The forest department is yet to contradict the content of the BBC feature. With a defunct public relations department the department is killing time, as if the program had never happened.

Nava Thakuria is an Assam region-based environment journalist