Rhinos At Risk in India’s Celebrated Park


Authorities are at odds with inhabitants of fringe villages around Kaziranga National Park, the precious natural preserves of India, when poachers target the endangered one-horned rhinos to make the tally 20 during the bygone year, which is the highest in the last decade. The Kaziranga park in the northeastern part of India celebrated its centennial, three years back, with what was praised as a colossal success story – preserving, against all odds, a highly endangered species – the highly endangered one-horned rhino. But today the park, which shelters as much as 70 percent or more of the species, faces a crisis.

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 Ranjan Talukder, a Guwahati-based veterinarian, says that’s nonsense. “It is nothing but superstition,” he said in an interview. “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.”

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.

Although park authorities have repeatedly asked for sufficient manpower with better equipment to keep the poachers away from the park, they have not been succeeding. Long identified as a safe heaven, Kaziranga witnessed the killing of 20 rhinos during 2007, the park’s highest toll in a year since 1998. 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 five rhinos were killed last year (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. The previous years also showed shocking statistics as four in 2002, eight in 2001, four in 2000, four in 1999 and so forth.

The park director Suren Buragohain said, “They (poachers) have 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.

“But the arming of frontline staff with sophisticated weapons is not a very simple matter. Several issues like legal and technical feasibility are also required to be considered before taking any decision in this regard,” stated an official statement from the office of the Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Assam.

The poachers use various methods to kill rhinos. The easiest way remains shooting it with guns fitted with silencers. There are reports that the poachers often use telescopic rifles that can fire bullets from a long distance. Some times, the poachers come inside the park during the night (Kaziranga has no fencing or wall 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 animals.

The police and the park authorities suspect the poachers get help from surrounding localities including the river islands of the Brahmaputra. Although villagers are normally sympathetic to the animals, they also suffer when they destroy crops and other property.

“The duty of the authority in that situation would be to deal with the situation cleverly. You must promptly address the growing resentment of the victim families who have been living in the fringe areas of the park,” says Soumyadeep Datta, the director of Nature’s Beckon, an NGO based in Assam. “They (Kaziranga officials) love to talk about arming guards and finding more funds. But they show little interest in involving the local population in preservation,” he alleged.

He had more points to add. “Our members are working in the fringe areas of the park for the last decade. We often organize health camps and anti-poaching awareness campaigns among the poor and neglected villagers. Many of them got wounded by the wild animals (mostly by rhinos, elephants and buffalos), but nobody received compensation from the forest department,” revealed Datta.

The central government allocates compensation funds for victims’ families. Under the 100 percent centrally sponsored scheme ‘Project Elephant’, the government has propagated guidelines for the granting of ex-gratia payments for those families, who had suffered human losses and damage to crops (with other properties) by wild animals.

The scheme specifies various amounts of money (from Rs 1,000 to Rs 40,000) as an ex-gratia grant for the loss (fully or partly) ranging from dwelling hoses to crops to livestock to family members.

A letter (F.No.2-3/2002/P.E.) from Paryavaran Bhawan, New Delhi (under GoI) has mentioned about the funds sanctioned in favour of Assam government under the ‘Project Elephant’. It says that the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest had allocated Rs 116 lakh in 2002-03 (similarly Rs 94.50 lakh and Rs 45 lakh in previous fiscal years) for Assam.

Datta and others charge that forest officials siphon the money away. Activists belonging to Nature’s Beckon surveyed the areas a few weeks back and surprisingly found that nobody in the locality had received any compensation for the damage of crops and other house-hold properties (by the wild animals) from the State forest department. Facing enormous loss, the angry villagers even demonstrated their furies with agitation programmes against the Kaziranga authority and the forest department.

Of course, the State forest department termed the allegation of siphoning (of government fund) is baseless. “It is a fact that the fund allocated for the payment of ex-gratia against animal depredations is far less than the actual requirement for meeting the demand. Everyone knows that the government expenditures are absolutely transparent and can be incurred only after observing strict rules and procedures, which can be scrutinized or investigated at any time by any authority of the government, over and above the regular and normal audit by the Account General (of India),” stated in the recent statement signed by A.S. Laskar, an officer belonged to Assam’s forest department.

Speaking from a fringe village of Kaziranga, Sunil Das however complained that villagers belonging to No 1 Shildubi village had never received any compensation from the forest department. The village-head also alleged that the wild animals (buffalo and elephant) often destroyed their crops, but the authorities always turned a deaf ear to their grievances.

“You cannot save rhinos or any other wild animals by supplying advanced weapons to guards alone,” Datta said. “People living in the locality must be involved in the process. But if they feel neglected and cheated by the forest officials, why would they come forward?”

A forest official, who asked not to be named, opined, “The intelligence network in the fringe villages must be foolproof. We should be aware of what is happening inside a park or a sanctuary, but at the same time, we must know what is going on outside the area too.” He acknowledged that local communities often turn hostile to the authority as the wild animals repeatedly pose a serious threat to their livestock, crops and houses.

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