Save the Rhino

A spate of killings of the rare species of one-horned rhino in Kaziranga has shocked Assam, but the state government plays blind

Ravi Shankar Ravi Guwahati

The beautiful one-horned rhinoceros is the pride of Assam. Hence, an attack on the rhinoceros is an attack on the pride of Assam. But looking at the way these rhinos are being hounded, attacked and killed in Kaziranga National Park, this proud sanctuary can no longer be considered safe. Recently, a female and her young cub were brutally killed by the poachers. She bled for 24 hours after the poachers barbarically cut out her horns while she was unconscious. The dead cub had not developed the horns as yet. On January 7, 2008 there was another attack on a male rhino, and the poachers escaped. The District Forest Officer of Kaziranga National Park, Bankim Sharma, explains: “Some non-professionals have entered the poaching business as professional poachers do not kill the young ones whose horns are not developed.”

 Ironically, Kaziranga is known for this rare species of the rhino which attracts wildlife lovers from all over the globe. Last year, poachers in Kaziranga killed 22 Rhinos. According to a survey in 2006 there were approximately 2,000 single-horned Rhinos in this park, which is 60 per cent of the total population in the world. Some rhinos are also found in Pavitra Park and Manas National Park in Assam.

 One of the fastest disappearing species, a rhino's horn is worth Rs 30 lakh in the international market. With the increasing demand of the horns, poachers are on a spree. By selling one horn they earn up to Rs 5 lakh which sells as high as Rs 30 lakh in the international market. Countries like China, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand use it for 'medicinal purpose' and the clandestine trade of animal parts (including poached tigers) from India has reportedly been spreading, especially to China, Tibet and Taiwan.

There is a nexus of poachers who are politically protected. Some poachers from Nagaland and Manipur also come to hunt the rhinos. A Manipuri poacher was shot dead at Kaziranga in December 2007. It is easy to kill rhinos during floods as they move to high ground to escape the rising waters, and hence become predictable and vulnerable. Floods also make patrolling by forest officials difficult. It is easier for the poachers to hide in the tall grass during the monsoon. However, this time, poaching did not stop even after the monsoon. The poachers continue to flex their muscles, kill the rhinos, and get away.

The clueless Congress-led state government has no concrete policy for the protection of rhinos. The funds, collected by the central government and NGOs, are used for other purposes by the forest department. Assam's Wildlife Protection Chief SC Malakar blames lack of modern guns and equipment to deal with the criminals. The poachers use silencer guns whereas the security still fights with vintage .303 rifles, which often fail to fire. Three poachers have been killed in encounters in the past one year.

S Bargohain, Director of Kaziranga National Park, says, “To protect the rhino the government must provide us better facilities and arms to deal with poachers. Lack of modern equipment, vehicles and surveillance gear makes the task difficult. As the park is adjacent to the Brhamaputra river, the water percolates inside the park easily during monsoon. The poachers use this opportunity and enter the area on boats and kill these magnificent creatures for quick bucks. The security doesn't even own a speedboat which could make the chase easier. At times the guards use elephants for patrolling, as it is difficult to drive on these roads.”

Kaziranga should follow the Manas example. At Manas National Park, the Bodoland Territorial Counseling (BTC) administration has been successful in making self-help groups of youth to help the security. Most of these are former Bodo rebels who, after the Bodoland agreement, are now involved in creative, social work.  This has helped them earn money and get involved in the cause of saving wildlife. Says Khampa Basumtary of the BTC forest department: “Forests and wildlife cannot be protected and rescued without the active participation of people. The natives will take an initiative only if it helps them earn. This experiment was successful in Manas and as a result poaching has come to an end here.”

 The Assam government has shown utter insensitivity and inefficiency. Forest Minister Rakeebul Hussain's reaction to the spate of rhino killings has been indifferent and cold. He has not even taken an inspection tour of the park. Environmentalists call it “shameful and disgusting”. “How can the forest minister and the chief minister of Assam remain so indifferent while the pride of Assam is being butchered at Kaziranga?” they say. There is huge public outrage in Assam. Save the rhino is the new slogan. The question is, who will do it?