Media Mission Safeguards Indian Forest Minister Over Rhinos


It may be vital for many to save the endangered rhinos in Assam’s celebrated parks, but for a section of media persons in Northeast, it seemingly becomes more important to safeguard the forest minister. While wildlife lovers around the globe rail against the authority of Kaziranga National Park for its failure to protect one horn rhinos, a section of journalists in Guwahati continue manufacturing stories glorifying the initiative of the State forest minister.

Those journalists, representing national and inter-national news agencies, tried their best to project a different picture where the minister has been praised lavishly for his immediate actions against the poachers in Kaziranga. But those stories really missed the public furies, local media’s concern and wildlife activities’ sustained voices against the ongoing poaching in the park, which had recently celebrated a hundred years of success in preserving the precious inmates.

For the record, Kaziranga lost 20 rhinos during 2007 to poachers and it is an all time high in the last decade. The new year began with more sad news. Within the fifth week of 2008, four rhinos fell prey to the poachers in the same park, which was long identified as a safe heaven for the rhinos. A census in 1984 showed that Kaziranga, which was declared a National Park in 1974, had 1,080 rhinos. The number was found increasing up to 1069 in another census during 1991. The census in 1999 provided more optimistic result as the number of rhinos soared to 1,552. The last census in 2006 revealed the number of rhinos as high as 1,855 in the park. Amazingly Kaziranga gives shelter to almost two third of the total population of one horn rhinos on Earth.

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 71 of them lost to poachers (the rest died natural deaths). In fact, the poaching of rhinos reduced in the last few years. Statistics reveal that altogether only five rhinos were killed during 2006. The previous year (2005) witnessed the slaughtering of seven rhinos. During 2004, four rhinos become victims of poaching. It was again less in 2003, where poachers killed only three rhinos, four in 2002, eight in 2001, four in 2000, four in 1999 and so on.

Called black ivory, the 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.

But veterinarians, say that’s nonsense. It is nothing but superstition. 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, said a Guwahati based animal physician.

Even so, the rhinos are still being slaughtered for their horns. The poachers use various methods to kill the giant animal. The easiest way remains shooting it with guns (many times fitted with a silencer). There are reports that the poachers often use telescopic rifles that can fire bullets from a long distance. Sometimes, the poachers come inside the park during the night (Kaziranga has no fencing or walls on the boundary) and dig a hole on the path, which rhinos often use. One very interesting aspect of the rhinos’ habit is that the animal defecates at a particular place continuously for many days. The poachers first identify the path littered with the heap of dung and plan accordingly. In fewer occasions, high-tension electric lines are also used to kill the pachyderm.

The park director Suren Buragohain argues all the time, “The poachers are equipped with 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. Incidentally, Buragohain earns brickbats from the wildlife lovers as his tenure witnessed the rapid increase in rhino poaching at Kaziranga. Statistics reveal that during his term (still to cross 12 months) as the director, Kazirnaga lost the highest number of rhinos in a decade.

As the director was clueless to the grave threats to rhino poaching in Kaziranga, the State forest minister showed an equally insensitive and callous approach to the issue. All the time, the young minsiter in Tarun Gogoi’s cabinet, preferred to ignore the matter. It finally compelled the All Assam Students’ Union, an influential students’ organization in the Northeast to come to the streets. AASU activists staged a State-wide demonstration on February 2 to protest against the authority’s failure in protecting the rhinos. The venues included the offices of the forest departments in all parts of Assam. The AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya went on demanding the immediate resignation of Rockybul Hussain as the forest minister of Assam ‘for failing to take adequate steps to stop this heinous crime against a national treasure’.

Earlier, the conscious citizens, political party members and media editorials expressed their deep anguish against the continued slaughtering of rhinos in Assam, particularly at Kaziranga, in the last few months. The newspaper readers and television viewers had a shocking experience in January, when they were exposed to a horrible visuals of a wounded rhino at Kaziranga. The mother rhino had already lost her calf. Probably she tried in vain to save her calf, which was killed by the poachers for its horn. Then it was her turn to fall victim in a more tragic away. The poachers cut her horn, when she was alive and took it away. For the nest two days the rhino fought with death with her severe wounds on mouth and finally succumbed to her injuries.

Meanwhile, an active NGO of the region came out with a strong allegation that the autority itself was some how involved with the illegal trade of rhino horns. Addressing the scribes at Guwahati Press Club on February 4, Soumyadeep Datta, the director of Nature’s Beckon argued that the forest department of Assam has not preserved the rhino horns (with ivory and other wildlife organs) in their custody. Nature’s Beckon received some vital information (regarding the number of rhino horns and other precious wildlife organs) from the Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) of Assam exercising the Right to Information Act 2005.

As the CCF (Wildlife) MC Malakar informed that only 1498 horns are being preserved in the custody of the forest department till date, Soumyadeep Datta claims that it was too less. He revealed, “We have authentic information that till 1972 Assam forest department used to sell the rhino horns. We suspect, the department continued to sell rhino horns even after 1972, the year the government of India prohibited hunting of wildlife and their trade by enacting laws.

Poaching is a punishable offence in India with 7 years imprisonment. India is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since 1976 and hence bound by all its efforts to eliminate International trade in wildlife and wildlife parts, discloses Mr Datta. He added, “We suspect that a large share of the wildlife parts, which are being sold in the international markets every year, make their way from the forest department’s stock due to the manipulations and corrupt practices of some of the dishonest forest officials.” Hence we demand a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe to examine the entire issue of poaching and illegal wildlife organ (like rhino horn, ivory, skin of tiger and leopard) trading, stated Mr Datta.

But all the hue and cries of the concerned people of the region were not taken into consideration by a section of news agency reporters in Guwahati, who continued reporting the version of the authority and the forest minister. Taking his cue from the last incidence of rhino killing at Kaziranga on February 5, one senior reporter had gone to such extent of reporting, where he described the forest minister as seeking a CBI enquiry into the matter. The New Delhi based news agency, IANS on February 5 (contributed by a Guwahati based reporter) described – “We want a CBI to investigate the sudden increase in rhino poaching incidents at Kaziranga,” Assam Forest and Environment Minister Rockybul Hussain told journalists.

The question should have been aroused in his conscience, whether a minister has the moral right to seek an enquiry into his own ministry (not even after his resignation)? Will it simply not signify that the minister has no control on the authorities under his ministry (and so a useless minister)? Surprisingly, the reporter missed these vital points and parroted the version of the forest minister, maybe because of his ignorance. But in reality, the minister expressed his version as ‘we have no reservation against a CBI enquiry into the matter of increasing cases of rhino poaching’ in Kaziranga. Facing the heat, the forest minister also rushed to Kaziranga on February 6 to take stock of the situation.

Similarly, the Guwahati based reporter of AP, tried to paint a rosy picture of Rockybul Hussain, while narrating that the authorities at Kaziranga deployed 100 armed guards to check the poachers. It quoted the minister as saying, “We are alarmed at the seemingly organized poaching by gangs at the Kaziranga National Park.” Also added in the February 6 news, “We have decided to rush 100 armed guards to Kaziranga and to equip the existing forest guards with 200 better rifles to match weapons used by the poachers.” In reality, the news depicted the forest minister in such a way that nobody needs to worry about the poaching of rhinos, while Rockybul Hussain continues to be a minister.

Amazingly the news agency, based in New York, avoided the public furies against the forest department as well as the minister cleverly. Talking about the particular news item, released by AP and subscribed by a number of international media outlets, a serious reader may find it as a cleverly moulded piece by an experienced (and loyal) public relations official on behalf of his master. But if a journalist turns into PR personnel in their approach, a child in today’s world can understand that it was not without any personal and hefty gain.

A legitimate question that might arise here, whether a reporter has the right (under the Indian constitutional provision) to project a development with his very personal point of view that could even degrade the entire episode of saving the endangered rhinos to safeguard the minister of Assam from brickbats?

Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati (Northeast India) based journalist, who contributes to NewsBlaze and various media outlets throughout the world.