Uneasy lies the head with the horn

Kaziranga is a great conservation success, so forest officials get upset whenever poaching intensifies
Thursday, January 12, 2012

Assam's Rhinos have almost always spelt good and bad news for wildlife officials. The doggedness with which conservation has been pushed ahead in the last few decades is paying off. The present count of the great Asian one-horned rhino in Kaziranga, a World Heritage Site, is around 2,000, accounting for 70% of its total population in the world’s wild.

But a spurt in poaching in the last few years has, once again, sounded the alarm bells. This year, some five cases of poaching have already come to light in Kaziranga. In 2005 and 2006, poachers slaughtered seven rhinos each; in 2003, that number stood at three; and in 2004, four had been slayed. In 2007, the count was reportedly higher compared with previous years’ record. Gloom also struck Pobitara Wildlife Sanctuary when it witnessed the first poaching incident in five years in June 2011. Two more killings were reported within a month’s span in October-November. Things aren’t any better at Manas National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where the decomposed carcass of the first rhino, translocated from Pobitora under India Rhino Mission 2020, was discovered deep inside the woods last month.

The present count of the great Asian one-horned rhino in Kaziranga, a World Heritage Site, is around 2,000, accounting for 70% of its total population in the world’s wild. But a spurt in poaching in the last few years has, once again, sounded the alarm bells.

Officials say the problem has been made worse by a lack of wildlife wardens. Kaziranga is a great conservation success, so they are upset whenever poaching intensifies. And poachers these days are very well-equipped. They bring down high-tension wires during power cuts and lay them on beaten tracks of rhinos to kill them with massive electric shocks and then axe the horns using chainsaws. All in a matter of minutes before the miscreants vanish. Police investigations also suggest the use of telescopic rifles, fired long distance with special armour-piercing ammunition. The culprits are said to have local “collaborators” who know the forest zone well, giving rise to fears of a global poaching racket in Kaziranga.

Poachers bring down high-tension wires during power cuts and lay them on beaten tracks of rhinos to kill them with electric shocks and then axe the horns using chainsaws. Investigations also suggest use of telescopic rifles with special ammunition.

The rhino horn, considered an aphrodisiac, is highly valued in Asia and fetches nearly $40,000. Used for medicines and ceremonial purposes as well, it is believed to be smuggled out to China and Southeast Asian countries. Poachers, who mostly come from Karbi Anglong and Nagaland, abandon the area once their mission is accomplished. The recent rise in militant activities, especially that of Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers, have reportedly added to the woes of authorities. “We have asked the SDPO and OC of Burapahar to help us,” said D Gogoi, DFO of Kaziranga National Park.

There were hardly 20 rhinos left in Kaziranga at the turn of the 20th century, when the British declared it a game sanctuary in 1916. By 1966, their number had gone up to 366. In 1974, the Indian government declared Kaziranga a national park and placed more resources for their protection. Five to 10 rhinos have been killed on an average every year for the past decade. That’s a sharp fall though from the early 1990s, when up to 50 rhinos were killed a year. Then, Assam’s leading separatist group, United Liberation Front of Assam started attacking poachers and even executed a few of them after trying them in “people’s court”.

Five to 10 rhinos have been killed on an average every year for the past decade. That’s a sharp fall though from the early 1990s, when up to 50 rhinos were killed a year. Then, Assam’s leading separatist group, United Liberation Front of Assam started attacking poachers and even executed a few of them after trying them in “people’s court”.

The army, while chasing the guerrillas, also confronted poachers and killed them, suspecting them to be linked to armed rebels. The forest department has asked for more armed guards, better weapons and additional watchtowers to check poaching. Forest officials say they have not got what they want because of the state’s chronic budgetary constraints. There are casualties even due to the devastating floods.

Nonetheless, Kaziranga has been able to add some teeth to its anti-poaching operations by introducing Belgian Shepherds — Jorba and Czarina — under an initiative of Aaranyak and animal lover Kaushik Barua. With the breed being successfully used by US Navy Seals to hound out Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, officials are confident of curbing the menace to quite an extent. “They are track and prey dogs and very precise in the forest. They can sniff out poachers. Their body structure and agility enhance their efficiency in combat operations. They are the best in the world,” said Baruah, owner of 26 pedigrees. He added that the dogs would also be used at Orang National Park.

Costing Rs 2 lakh each, the canines — one from David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and another from Barua — will get bullet-proof vests. “The dogs would fill the demand for sniffers in the anti-poaching squad. They won’t replace forest guards but will help them as and when needed. Jorba can detect bear bile, elephant tusk and tiger bones too,” said Bibhab Talukdar of Aaranyak.

Rhinos are not the only animals in Kaziranga. It has a high concentration of Royal Bengal tigers, Asiatic elephants and Asiatic buffaloes. The number of tigers is more than that in Ranthambhore and Kanha tiger parks of north India put together. Experts have said the buffaloes here are the purest breed anywhere in the world.

The focus first fell on the one-horned brigade way back in 1905, when British viceroy Lord George Nathaniel Curzon’s US-born wife, Mary Curzon, had pushed for declaring Kaziranga a forestry reserve. Legend has it that Assamese animal spotter Balaram Hazarika took Mary, a great wildlife enthusiast, around Kaziranga when she visited the area with her husband in 1904. Hazarika, also known as Nigana Shikari, is said to have convinced the viceroy’s wife that something had to be done to save the rhinos. The decision to declare Kaziranga as a reserve forest and later national park proved life-saving for the animal. That vision of more than a century has to be kept alive to keep Assam’s pride intact.

This write up was provided by the Seven Sisters Post under a content sharing agreement.

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