Tribal Peoples NGO Decries Kaziranga Shoot-on-Sight Policy

Survival International, the London-based NGO that seeks to protect the rights of tribal peoples, is calling on the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to condemn so-called “shoot-on-sight” conservation policies that were the subject of a March 16 Asia Sentinel story on India’s Kaziranga National Park.

In a letter to the Special Rapporteur, Survival International said “shoot on sight policies directly affect tribal people who live in or adjacent to ‘protected areas’… particularly when park guards so often fail to distinguish subsistence hunters from commercial poachers.”

Allegedly more than 100 people have been executed at the park over the past 20 years, including a disabled native who had wandered into the park to retrieve cattle that had strayed.

The park, on the banks of the Brahmaputra River, boasts the world’s biggest population of one-horned rhinoceroses, more than 165 tigers, 5,600 elephants, 1160 swamp deer and 248 leopards. as well as also houses 167 tigers, 5,620 elephants, 1,169 swamp deer and 248 leopards along with other wild species.

A park spokesperson said 18 rhinos have been killed in the park in the past year and that 123 rhinos died in India’s various parks and wildlife sanctuaries during 2016. More than 90 poachers have been arrested by security forces trying to kill the animals for their horns, which have no therapeutic medical value but which can sell for as much as US$300,000 for smugglers seeking the horns for use in traditional Chinese medicine.

Kaziranga guards, according to Survival International, have effective legal immunity from prosecution and have acknowledged that they are instructed to shoot poaching suspects on sight, with serious consequences for tribal peoples living around the park.

India isn’t the only country practicing shoot-on-sight policies, the NGO noted. Other countries, notably Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana shoot to kill those they suspect are after the animals.

The NGO quoted poaching expert Rory Young from the organization Chengeta, who called the policy “stupid. If we had been shooting on sight during this latest sting operation we would have shot a handful of poachers and that would have been the end of it. Every single poacher is an opportunity for information to get more poachers and work your way up the chain to the ringleaders.”

Survival has asked the Special Rapporteur to clarify that shoot-on-sight violates the fundamental rights enshrined in the UN’s Civil and Political Rights Covenant and other international conventions. It also urges the UN to enquire about the policy with the Indian government, and the government of Assam state, where Kaziranga is located.

The park justifies the shoot-on-sight policy because it is said to help deter poachers. However, Survival International said, there have been several recent cases of guards and officials at Kaziranga being arrested for involvement in the illegal wildlife trade themselves.

Survival International is leading the fight against these abuses, and calling for a new conservation model that respects tribal peoples. Targeting tribal people diverts action away from tackling the true poachers – criminals conspiring with corrupt officials. Targeting tribal people, the NGO said, actually harms conservation.

“If any other industry was guilty of this level of human rights abuses, there would be an international outcry,” said Survival’s Director, Stephen Corry. “Why the silence when conservationists are involved? Torture and extrajudical killing is never justified – the law is clear on this. Some people think that the death of innocents is justified, that ‘collateral damage’ is necessary in the fight against poaching. We ask them, where is your humanity? Of course, there’s a racist element at play here: Shoot on sight policies would be unthinkable in North America or Europe.”