The growing affluence of Asian consumers in China and Vietnam – and Australia – who can afford to pay astronomical prices for rhino horn is having an alarming effect on the greater Indian one-horned rhinoceros in eastern India’s reserve forests.
To a greater extent, the spotlight has fallen on South Africa, where more than 1,000 rhinos were killed in 2013, a jump of 50 percent over the previous year as appetite for rhino horn, particularly in Vietnam, takes its toll. Demand is so high that a kilogram of the horn is now worth the equivalent of US$65,000.
But the pace is picking up in the Assamese forests as well. By the third week of March, nine rhinos had been killed in the state’s reserves. In 2013, 40 rhinos were killed in various Assamese forest reserves compared with 22 in 2012.
Assam is becoming a previously undiscovered gold mine for poachers. More than 2,550 rhinos are in various protected reserves including Kaziranga National Park (2329), Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary (100), Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park (95) and Manas National Park (22). Elsewhere in Asia, the Sumatran rhino is critically endangered, with only 100 animals believed remaining in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Another critically endangered species, almost on the brink of extinction, is the Javan rhino, only 44 of which exist in Indonesia's Ujung Kulon National Park. The last Javan rhino outside of Indonesia was killed in Vietnam in 2010 by poachers.
Despite the fact that the horn is nothing more than solidified hair and that scientists have determined it has no medicinal or aphrodisiac value, powdered rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine in a mistaken and tragic attempt to cure devil possession, typhoid, headache, colds, arthritis, rectal bleeding melancholia, infantile convulsions and a long list of other ailments.
As the horns fetch such huge amounts of money, more people are risking their lives to take them. European police say Australia has become a major waypoint for smugglers with black rhino horn from South Africa. At least 32 horns and carvings have been offered for sale in Australian auction houses over the past three years, according to The Australian in a March 2013 story.
Although Assam's animals are protected under India's powerful 1971 wildlife protection act, the response from Assam’s authorities remains frustrating. As public fury has grown following poaching incidents, the environment & forest department has declared stopgap measures to satisfy grievances but hasn’t addressed the basic problem. Initially it was the declaration of a special force with modern weapons dedicated for wildlife protection in Assam. Then the government proposed green drones and erecting “thermal eyes” in the forest reserves. More recently the government toyed with the idea of dehorning the rhinos to save the animals from the poachers, a tactic used in Namibia and other countries with mixed success.
While there has been some indication that dehorning has saved rhino lives, poachers in African countries have killed the beasts either out of vengeance after tracking them because the dehorning has left a valuable stub, or because poachers didn’t see the horns were removed.
The huge beasts, a pre-historic bulky vegetarian, are fast losing their habitat because of climate change and mostly rampant human encroachment. Wildlife experts argue that the rhinos 'in evolutionary terms' are 50 million years old. The animal maintains primeval habits including defecating in the same place, which makes them vulnerable to poachers.
Though having largely failed in protecting the wildlife, Assam adopted an ambitious program called Indian Rhino Vision 2020 that aims to increase the rhinos' population up to 3,000 in the next six years.
Under the project, the local government has shifted 22 rhinos to Manas National Park since 2008. A Unesco World Heritage Site as is Kaziranga National Park, Manas nonetheless witnessed at least five incidents in which poachers killed rhinos- all translocated from the Kaziranga and Pobitora forest reserves.
As the poachers continue targeting the Kaziranga forest reserve, also home to around 100 Bengal tigers, 1,150 Asian elephants and 1900 buffaloes, the authority has engaged 300 elite forest protection force personnel in the 430 sq km reserve. The highly protected reserve on the south bank of the Brahmaputra river has 153 anti-poaching camps managed by 1,200 government forest officials.
The Assam government has announced a cash prize of Rs100,000 (US$1,663) for information about the poachers. The forest department has taken initiatives to install eight thermal cameras at selected locations inside Kaziranga reserve to detect the movement of poachers during the night.
However, the Kaziranga authority did not receive the permission from the Indian Union defense ministry to use green drones as a surveillance tool. The drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, were proposed to use in Kaziranga to monitor the movement of both animals and the poachers and a test flight was conducted in Kaziranga in April 2013. But so far no permission has been forthcoming.
The latest initiative to trim or dehorn the rhinos has been denounced by many nature conservation groups. Nature's Beckon, an activist wildlife protection group of northeast India came out with strong reactions to the theory of dehorning or even trimming with caution that it might have “huge negative implications for the breeding of rhinos in the days to come.” Using available research, the group argued that the horn of the rhino has its specific role in the ecology and behavior of the species.
“It cannot be distinguished as a vestigial part of the body, Soumyadeep Datta, Nature’s Beckon director, told Asia Sentinel. “Though the evolutionary significance of horns in rhinos is not entirely clear, and may include mate choice or anti-predator defense."
Rhinos use their horns for several behavioral functions, including defending territory, defending calves from other animals, maternal care including guiding calves and foraging behavior, such as digging for water and breaking branches, Datta said.
"The act of dehorning (of rhinos) is debated for more than a decade across the world, but the efficacy of the process remains unknown. Rather the dehorning of rhinos in Africa has shown negative implication on the biological growth of the animal," Datta asserted.
Aaranyak, another leading biodiversity conservation group of the region echoed similar views. Bibhab Talukdar, secretary general of Aaranyak argued that dehorning should be the last option to protect the animals.
"We feel that protection measures must be strengthened on a priority basis to protect the rhinos and other wildlife. Dehorning is not the ultimate solution to check poaching, but it may be a strategy to buy time like the African nations," Talukdar said. He added that dehorning would only shift the problem from a few dehorned individuals to those not dehorned.
Student and civil society groups have condemned the authority for its failure to protect the animals in various forest reserves. The chorus has been joined by political parties in street demonstrations, burning effigies of State forest minister Rockybul Hussain and also chief minister Tarun Gogoi frequently to raise demands for a high level probe into the poaching of wildlife in the region.
"Political will is essential for protection of wildlife here in Assam,” said Rupam Barua, the president of the Journalists' Forum of Assam. “Just look at our neighbor Nepal, which has recorded no poaching of wildlife in the last 12 months even though the country has limited resources and has faced severe socio-political crisis for many years."
Nepal, which has 100 one-horned rhinos with other wild animals, enjoyed 'a zero poaching of tigers, rhinos and elephants' during the period between February 2013 and February 2014. Barua added that compare to Nepal, India's Assam province is largely peaceful and is financially supported by the Union government, but it lacks much needed political will.