Poachers Target India's Greatest National Park

Kaziranga National Park, one of the world’s greatest national preserves, this year has faced rampant poaching against the world’s biggest population of one-horned rhinoceros, losing some 60 of them so far, 20 by poachers who escaped with their horns and 40 in floods.

The poaching has kicked off a furious attempt to put the perpetrators out of business and has resulted in a political debacle for the Assam government, particularly after one shocking incident where poachers cornered a female which sought to escape the floods and sawed off her horn, leaving her to die. The beast, discovered on Sept. 25, eventually succumbed to blood loss two days later despite attempts by veterinarians to try to save her.

The good news, however, is that Assam, with a human population of 30 million, supports a growing population of nearly 2500 rhinos in three major reserves. The 430 sq km Kaziranga, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is recognized as the biggest major refuge of the ponderous beasts in the world. However, with the reserve, which sits on the south bank of the Brahmaputra River, inundated by recent floods, the animals were forced toward the hills of Karbi Anglong district across National Highway 37, providing an opportunity for poachers for their relatively easy prey.

The park is a safe haven for an astonishing array of wildlife including Asiatic elephants, buffalo, Bengal tigers, Indian bison, swamp & hog deer, sloth bears, leopards and other jungle cats, otters, gibbons, wild boar, jackals, pythons and different species of birds, both domestic and migratory, as well as endangered species like the Bengal florican & the great Indian hornbill.

The incident in which the female bled to death resulted in enormous hue and cry among the Assamese, with frontline wildlife protection organizations coming to the streets to demand the resignation of Assam forest and environment minister Rockybul Hussain. Political parties, students’ organizations, farmers’ bodies and environment forums all came out with unanimous statements that the Assam government headed by Tarun Gogoi had failed in its duty to preserve the wildlife in the protected forest reserves.

India has been somewhat lucky.Some 80 to 85 percent of the world population of rhinos have been slaughtered, most of them in Africa, where the population of the Black Rhino has crashed from 65,000 in the late 1960s to fewer than 3,500 today.

The one-horned rhino, a schedule 1 species under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, is primarily targeted for its horn, which can be worth nearly US$20,000 on the illegal international market, which is dominated by Chinese and Vietnamese traditional medicine users who continue to believe against all scientific evidence that rhino horns contain aphrodisiacs.

A one-horned rhino (scientific name is Rhinoceros Unicornis) weighs around 1,500 to 2,500 kg with 3 to 4 meter length and is 1.5 to 2 meters high atthe shoulder. Its single horn can measure up to 60 cm in length.The rhinos are primarily grazers and survive ongrasslands and riverine forest habitats.

Authorities swung into action in the wake of the outrage, with police arresting as many as 17 suspects from two trafficking gangs. An axe, a AK-47 rifle, 37 rounds of ammunition, two .303 rifles, and one gun were seized from the suspects.Seven more were arrested allegedly in the middle of making deal with the leader of the Karbi Peoples Liberation Tigers (KPLT), a militant group.

The leaders and workers of Bhartiya Janata Party, All India United Democratic Front, Asom Gana Parishad and the influential All Assam Students Union, and other groups organized separate protest programs against the poaching. They have burnt the effigies of chief minister Gogoi and his forest minister Hussain on many occasions.

Facing the heat, the government is taking considerable new steps to attempt to protect the park. The Union environment and forest minister Jayanthi Natarajan paid a visit to Kaziranga on Oct.10 to announce a grant of Rs10 million (US$182,000) to the park authority ‘for taking immediate measures to repair the damages caused by three successive waves of floods in the rhino sanctuary.’

She also assured Assam that the Union government in Delhi would provide an ‘un-manned remote-controlled aircraft and an electronic surveillance system’ for Kaziranga. The electronic surveillance system is expected to include a series of towers with remote-controlled electronic cameras including night-vision and thermal imaging devices in and around park to detect the presence of poachers.

Earlier, the Union minister Ms Natarajan on September 27 ordered an investigation into the incidence of rhino poaching in Kaziranga to be carried out by a team of Wildlife Crime Control Bureau officials. Gogoi also ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation probe, reportedly to cover the previous three years from now. Gogoi additionally declared that anybody giving clues about the poachers would be rewarded with a cash prize of Rs 500,000.

Earlier the Journalists’ Forum Assam (JFA) demanded a high level probe (preferably by Central Bureau of Investigation) into the poaching. Expressing anger at the attitude of the State forest and environment minister Hussain and his department in their mission to protect the wildlife, the JFA president Rupam Barua also insisted that ‘a forensic test should be conducted on all the rhino horns (approximately 1000) under the custody of the forest department. The journalist forum suspects that many of the stored horns are being replaced with fake ones as those had already been sold in illegal international markets, Barua added.

Bibhab Talukdar, a wildlife expert based in Assam argued that rhinos need to be protected both within and outside the protected areas.Every successful rhino poaching increases the morale of the poachers as well as the wildlife smugglers and the key is to break their morale by enhancing the protection, intelligence gathering and action against poachers and wildlife smugglers leading to conviction under the existing laws, he added.

While lauding the efforts of the State forest department for the increasing population of rhinos, the conservation biologist also warned that we must also not forget the two bad eras in rhino conservation in Assam during the 1980s, all rhinos in Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuary were exterminated by poachers taking advantage of socio-political unrest. That was followed by another total extermination of rhino population from Manas National Park during the1990s to early 2000, again due to socio-political unrest, Talukdar said. Not only the poaching and flood, Kaziranga has more odds now to face from the stone crushing units operating in its outskirt illegally. Rohit Choudhury, an Assam based activist alleged that over 50 stone crushing units are in full operation near the park. “Officially the noisy crushing units are located in different districts, but those are adjacent to Kaziranga park. Hence regular blasts of those quarries as well as humans’ continued interventions will put tremendous negative impact on the wildlife,” Choudhury said.

Speaking to Asia Sentinel, the young activist also alleged that the State forest department issued a number of permits to stone crushers in Kaziranga, violating the 1996 notification of Union Environment and Forest ministry.