Rhinos at Risk in Indian Preserve (story and slideshow)

{smoothgallery}

Two years ago, Kaziranga National Park in India’s strife-torn Assam State celebrated its centennial with what was praised as a colossal success story – preserving, against all odds, a highly endangered species – the great Indian one-horned rhino. But today the park, which shelters as much as 70 percent or more of the species, faces a crisis.

Called “black ivory,” rhino horn is prized as an aphrodisiac and a cure for many ills in traditional Oriental medicine, selling for thousands of dollars per kilogram. A single horn can fetch as much as $40,000. Rising incomes across Asia mean that demand for powdered rhino horn is on the increase. And sophisticated poachers are ranging farther and farther to fetch it although there is scant scientific evidence that powdered rhino horn has any medicinal or sexual value.

Having been in Chinese medicine texts for thousands of years, the horn is supposed to help cure maladies ranging from fever to gout to typhoid, carbuncles, food poisoning and more. Rhino horn is also believed by some to rouse desire, apparently because the hulking beast enjoys great sexual power, with a mating time that lasts at least 45 minutes. Many believe the powdered horn can deliver up that kind of sexual power, a kind of traditional Viagra.

But Ranjan Talukder, a Guwahati-based veterinarian, says that’s nonsense. "It is nothing but superstition,” he said in an interview. “The horns are nothing but compact masses of agglutinated hair and rhinos use them for defense against other animals. There is no scientific analysis that the rhino horn powder could stimulate human sex."

The park is a veritable paradise for multiple species besides rhinos. It teems with Asiatic elephants and buffalo, bengal tigers, Indian bison, swamp and hog deer, sloth bears, leopards and other jungle cats, otters, gibbons, wild boar, jackals, pythons and monitor lizards. It is a refuge for nearly 500 species of birds, both domestic and migratory, including endangered species like the Bengal florican and the great Indian hornbill.

Into this verdant sanctuary, poachers armed with high-powered rifles fitted with telescopic sights and silencers invade at night. Rhinos usually defecate in the same place for many days and once the poachers locate a heap of dung, they lie in wait. Once they kill their prey, they use power saws to take away the horn. On some occasions, they have used high-tension lines to execute the magnificent animals, which can weigh as much as 2,000 kg.

Although park authorities have repeatedly asked for sufficient manpower with better equipment to keep the poachers away from the park’s estimated 1,800 rhinos, they have not been succeeding. Long identified as a safe heaven, Kaziranga witnessed the killing of 10 rhinos within the first seven months of this year, the park’s highest toll in a decade. In recent days, two more were killed, bring the total to 12. The park normally loses 10 to 15 rhinos annually from natural causes and poaching. Rhinos live an average of 40 years, and in the last 10 years 705 rhinos have died, only 67 of them lost to poachers. The other 638 died natural deaths.

Lady Curzon’s visit

The park has its roots in the days of the raj, when the American-born wife of the British Viceroy visited the area in search of the fabled rhino in 1904. According to local legend, an Assamese animal spotter, Balaram Hazarika, took Lady Mary Curzon to Kaziranga and later convinced her that something had to be done to save the rhinos. There were only about 20 animals left at the time.

She appealed to her husband, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, who declared it a preserve in 1905. The decision proved crucial to saving the rhinos and their population gradually swelled. Curzon is also remembered angrily by some locals as the man who first ordered the partition of Bengal the same year, an act that remains a grievance for local nationalists to this day.

Until recently poaching has been under control at the 430 square km park, which is situated on the finger of India that lops over onto the eastern side of Bangladesh on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra River. The subtropical monsoon delivers 1,300 mm of average annual rainfall and summertime temperatures rise to 38° C, a combination that produces swamps and elephant grass that make it an ideal habitat for the rhinos, which are vegetarian.

In 2005 and 2006, seven rhinos were killed each year, up from only three in 2003. Park Director Suren Buragohain said, "They have sophisticated weapons. But our forest guards lack the proper arms to counter them." The park, he says, badly needs more guards with advanced arms and ammunition.

Police and the park authorities suspect the poachers get help from surrounding localities including the river islands of the Brahmaputra. Although villagers are normally sympathetic to the animals, they also suffer when they destroy crops and other property. In the 19th century, the government offered bounties to kill rhinos, which would eat their way through tea plantations, a factor that helped lead to their virtual extinction before conservation efforts took hold. Wild animals occasionally also kill villagers.

At odds with villagers

"The duty of the authority in that situation would be to deal with the situation cleverly. You must promptly address the growing resentment of the victim families who have been living in the fringe areas of the park," says Soumyadeep Datta, the director of Nature’s Beckon, an NGO that organizes indigenous youth to help preserve the environment in the strife-torn northeast, where the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) has battled authorities for decades. He is critical of the park authorities.

"They love to talk about arming guards and finding more funds. But they show little interest in involving the local population in preservation," Datta said. "Our members have been working in the fringe areas of the park for the last decade. We often organize health camps and anti-poaching awareness campaigns among the poor and neglected villagers. Many of them got wounded by the wild animals (mostly by rhinos, elephants and buffalos), but nobody receives compensation from the forest department."

The government allocates compensation funds for victims’ families, but Datta and others charge that forest officials siphon them away. Nature's Beckon activists surveyed the area recently and found that nobody has received any compensation for damage to crops and other property from the Assam government’s forest department.

"You cannot save rhinos or any other wild animals by supplying advanced weapons to guards alone,” Datta said. “People living in the locality must be involved in the process. But if they feel neglected and cheated by the forest officials, why would they come forward?"

Originally there were four other protected sites for rhinos in Assam — Orang National Park, Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary, Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuary and Manas National Park. Today, Orang has nearly 100 rhinos, with another 100-odd surviving in Pabitora. But the rhino populations in Laokhowa and Manas have been wiped out. Locals have refused to give authorities information on the poachers because of mismanagement, critics say.

A forest official, who asked not to be named, agreed. “The intelligence network in the fringe villages must be foolproof. We should be aware of what is happening inside a park or a sanctuary, but at the same time, we must know what is going on out side the area too,” said the officer.

Lady Curzon would doubtless be appalled if her good works were to come undone a century later.