Rhinos Slaughtered in India’s Preserve

Newspaper readers and television viewers in India were horrified in January by live pictures of a wounded and dying female rhinoceros in the country’s most protected preserve. The beast, whose calf had already been killed for its horn, was shown falling victim to poachers who had cut the horn off while the animal was alive. For two days the rhino suffered from severe wounds on the mouth and before finally succumbing to injuries.

That is the latest in a string of poacher depredations in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam, long recognized as a safe haven for the world’s largest population of endangered one-horn rhinos.

The park has come under serious attack by poachers, who have slaughtered 26 of the beasts since January 2007, including two just last week. Armed with modern weapons such as AK47 automatic rifles and power saws, the poachers strike fast and get out fast. Forest guards discovered the bodies of the later kills, one of them a calf, inside the park, with their horns already chopped off. Tigers feasted on the body of the rhino calf as forest guards witnessed them. So far in 2008 six rhinos have fallen prey to poachers.

Kaziranga shelters almost two-thirds of the earth’s population of one-horned rhinos. A 1984 census showed that the park, which was declared a national park in 1974 and won acclaim as a World Heritage site, had 1,080 rhinos. Their number increased to as many as 1,855 in the 2006 census, the latest.

Rhino horn enjoys great demand in international markets as it is considered an aphrodisiac although biologists say the horn is nothing more than keratin, which is similar to compressed hair or fingernails. Nonetheless, the heavy animals, which can weigh up to 2,700 kilograms, enjoy great sexual power. Their mating time can last for 45 minutes, much longer than any other animal, leading to the mistaken idea that the rhino’s horn is a kind of traditional Viagra. The horns also have value in Chinese traditional medicine, supposedly with the power to cure fever and stomach ailments. China, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea and the Middle East are known to be huge markets for the horns, which can fetch thousands of dollars per kilogram.

Although civil societies and advocacy groups in Northeast India have protested the killing of the rhinos for their horns, Kaziranga Park authorities and the Assam state government appear to be overlooking the public resentment.

But even in the face of escalating public resentment, the state government remained silent. Assam’s usually outspoken chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, continued to avoid the issue.

The controversy is all the more troubling because Kaziranga has been recognized as one of India’s greatest natural treasures, providing shelter to a wide variety of wild species in an area some of nearly 860 square kilometers, spread across portions of two districts of Assam. The rhino program has been considered one of the country’s most successful preservation programs.

As the controversy gained momentum, another rhino was slaughtered at Kaziranga on February 5, creating a huge public uproar. Under pressure, Rockybul Hussain, the Assam forest minister, rushed to the park and ordered the deployment of an additional 100 armed guards.

"The poachers are equipped with sophisticated weapons,” said the park director, Suren Buragohain. “But our forest guards lack the proper arms to counter them." Buragohain has earned brickbats from wildlife advocates as the recent increase in rhino poaching has occurred during his tenure. Statistics reveal that during his year-long tenure as parks chief, Kaziranga lost the highest number of rhinos in a decade.

Student unions, environmental activists, journalists’ organizations and political figures have been leading demonstrations against Buragohain and Hussain. Protests started in October last year with Nature's Beckon, a local environmental nongovernmental organization, and have spread to ordinary citizens and opposition political parties. The All Assam Students Union, an influential student body, has staged street demonstrations against forest departments throughout the Assam region, with calls for Hussain’s resignation. Additional demonstrations have followed, with a demand for a high-level probe to catch the real perpetrators.

The director of Nature’s Beckon, Soumyadeep Datta, charges that the Assam forest department itself is involved with the illegal trade.

"We have authentic information that the Assam forest department sold more than 300 rhino horns even after India adopted the wildlife protection act in 1972,” Datta said. “We can give the relevant statistics of the sold rhino horns in detail, year by year.”

Datta first sounded the alarm to the media in early February, saying that "We suspect that a large share of the wildlife parts which are being sold in the international markets made their way from the forest department's stock due to the manipulation and corrupt practices of some dishonest forest officials. So we want to a probe (preferably by the Central Bureau of Investigation) on the stock of animal parts in the custody of the Assam forest department.”

In India, poaching is a punishable offence with up to seven years' imprisonment. India has been a member to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since 1976 and hence, in principle at least, is bound by its efforts to eliminate the international trade in wildlife and wildlife parts, he added.

"We think volumes have been written and spoken about the ineffectiveness of the present measures to protect the rhinos in KNP and other sites,” said Rajen Barua, the leader of Friends of Assam & Seven Sisters, in an interview from New York. “Now it is time to act. We urge an immediate CBI investigation into the ongoing killings of rhinos, and take disciplinary actions against the officials and individuals responsible for the lack of protective action." "Since the state government has failed miserably in its duties, the administration of the KNP should immediately be placed under military rule for the time being with strict orders to treat the poachers as terrorists. More over, a citizen's vigilance committee should be formed to monitor the situation on a regular basis in the national parks."