Rhino Poaching Increases in India's Great Park

The depredations by poachers of rhinoceros horns in India's enormous Kaziranga National Park have grown so great that the government is expected to begin patrolling with a surveillance drone in the effort to combat criminals targeting the park's teeming wildlife.

The park lies in Assam, which is geographically close to the countries which have great demand for rhino horns. Kaziranga lost 22 of the prized animals to poachers in 2012. The pace is picking up. Another 17 have lost their lives and horns to rustlers just since Jan. 1. The Indian Union environment and forest ministry has thus now ratified a proposal from the Assam government for a conservation drone for the park, which shelters 2,329 one-horned rhinoceros. The great beasts are fast losing their habitat across the world because of climate change and human encroachment, making the park an enormously important sanctuary.

The 430 square-km reserve has more than150 anti-poaching camps located within it. Many forest guards have sacrificed their lives fighting the poachers, with so far 54 poachers killed. More than 550 have been apprehended by the authorities over the past decade.

In addition to the unmanned surveillance aircraft, the Assam government has also opted for satellite-based high power electronic-eye cameras to attempt to trace the movement of outsiders. Similarly the provincial government is waiting for approval from the Union home and defense ministries for operating the drones, which can be directed by their operators from offices on the ground. The drones can be programmed to fly at an elevation of nearly 200 meters, with their high-definition cameras helping forest officials to trace the poachers. But this series of drones does not have the capacity to strike, as do military drones.

"These drones will only transmit pictures, but finally they are expected to work as a great deterrent to the poachers," said the Forest Protection Minister. He also said many African nations including Kenya are actively considering using these drones in their forest reserves.

The use of drones has skyrocketed across a wide range of operations having nothing to do with their military uses, ranging from tracking animals, weather monitoring, measuring the health of plants and many others as the devices have grown ever more sophisticated. They can weigh anywhere from a few ounces to tons and can cost anywhere between US$2,000 and millions of dollars.

Kaziranga is an Indian national treasure, listed as a World Heritage site. It is a vast stretch of elephant grass and dense tropical forest crisscrossed by four major rivers including the Brahmaputra, one of India's greatest rivers. Various Assam forest reserves including Kaziranga support more than 2,500 one-horned rhinos and other prized wildlife. Kaziranga is refuge to not only the world's largest rhino population but was declared a tiger preserve in 2006. It is also home to elephants, water buffalo, swamp deer and is the home of a huge array of bird life as well.

Besides Kaziranga, Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park (100 rhinos), Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary (93 rhinos) and Manas National Park (22 rhinos) also support the animals. Surveillance has become more and more crucial. As rhino populations have shrunk across the world, the cost of their horns has risen to as much as US$100,000 per kg, nearly doubling since 2011 despite the fact that the horns, which are composed of nothing but compressed hair, have no known scientific value. The average fully-grown one-horned rhino, which can weigh from 1,800 kg to 2,700 kg, has a horn weighing up to 3 kg. Despite the fact that numerous tests have proven that rhino horn has no medicinal value, various traditional medicines prepared in China, Thailand and Vietnam, use rhino horn powder in the belief it can cure cancer and other ailments and has aphrodisiac value as well.

On at least three occasions in recent months in Kaziranga, the poachers chopped away the horns, leaving the animals to die. But contrary to the grave situation the Assam forest minister and his department have not patrolled aggressively, instead publishing occasional press statements about half-hearted initiatives to save his skin.

The Kaziranga reserve has remained in the headlines throughout recent years because of poaching incidents. In a recent session of the Assam legislature in Guwahati, the State Forest Minister acknowledged that more than 140 rhinos have been killed in Kaziranga over past 12 years and that the pace is picking up alarmingly.

Crying foul at the inability of the authority to prevent poaching across the State reserves, various wildlife NGOs, students' organizations, media forums and political party leaders have taken to the streets to protest the government's lack of commitment to preservation. On numerous occasions they have publicly burned and hanged effigies of the Assam Forest Minister. Editorials in Assam-based newspapers and talk-shows in Guwahati-based satellite news channels have highlighted the apathy of the authorities.

The news isn't all bad At the moment the beasts are still outbreeding efforts to kill them. The State forest department said the latest rhinoceros census in the park, conducted on March 24 and 25, established an increase of 39 of the animals in the last 11 months. The last census in the park during April 2012 showed the famed reserve giving shelter to 2290 rhinos. The rhino census, which engaged over 250 forest staff with NGO workers, revealed that there are 645 adult males and 684 adult females besides their cubs.