Save Assam’s Rhinos!
April 2013: In 2012, 21 rhinos were reported dead in Assam, the majority poached in and around the Kaziranga National Park. In the first two months of 2013 alone, 12 rhinos were slaughtered – 10 from Kaziranga, and one from Manas, both World Heritage Sites – and one, which possibly strayed out from the Orang National Park and was killed in the Chitalmari char area within Morigaon district of Assam.
About the Campaign:
If this continues, projections estimate that as many as 60 rhinos could be lost this year in Assam alone. Many experts agree that unless the Assam state government’s request for automatic weapons is accepted, its forest guards will stand no chance against poaching gangs that are funded and armed by insurrectionists, in league with the global wildlife trade. Further, besides sophisticated arms, the Assam Government should immediately take steps to fill up frontline forest staff with young blood to boost patrol and vigil of the forests that are falling prey to sophisticated poaching.
WWF-India underscores this by stating that, “the proximity of the state to India’s international borders with her neighbours, like Bangladesh and Myanmar, enables poaching gangs to gain access to the illegal wildlife trade networks operating across those borders.” It went on to add that: “Many of the rhinos killed this year in Assam were gunned down by AK rifles. Use of such lethal weapons enables poachers to kill the rhinos quickly, cut off their horns and flee before the forest guards can get to the scene.”
Kaziranga is an international Biosphere Reserve, with the largest, unspoilt grassland of its kind in northeast India. With its diverse habitats, ranging from floodplains and grasslands to evergreen forests, it is ideal for the ‘big five’ – the Indian one-horned rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis, the Asian elephant Elephas maximus, the wild buffalo Bubalus bubalis, the tiger Panthera tigris and the swamp deer Cervus duvauceli. The largest one-horned rhino population in the world is found here, unfortunately making the region attractive to poachers.
The rhino’s horn is made of a fibrous keratin, the same material as fingernails. It is worth its weight in gold due to its use in traditional Asian medicine, erroneously believed to be a cure for everything from hangovers to cancer. Even though China remains a top consumer of rhino horns, according to a report by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, at present, Vietnam is driving the “rapacious illegal trade in rhino horns.”
The Assam Environmental NGO Forum, comprising 29 non-governmental organisations, has been drawing public attention to the unabated rhino poaching in Assam, especially in the Kaziranga National Park. A preliminary investigation conducted by them revealed not only systematic failures in the Forest Department, which is currently experiencing a leadership crisis, but the fact that not all poaching incidents are being reported to the authorities, indicating that the actual wildlife death toll could be far higher. This element of denial was a key reason that tigers vanished from the Sariska Tiger Reserve. The state goverment has taken preliminary action but a thorough enquiry either in the form of a Judicial Enquiry by a High Court or Supreme Court Judge or from the CBI, is necessary.
Photograph by D.J. Saha.
N.K. Vasu, an extremely effective Indian Forest Service Officer who broke the back of poaching gangs during his earlier tenure at Kaziranga is back in the saddle as the Field Director of the park. And Pankaj Sharma, a Sanctuary Wildlife Award winner who was honoured for bravery beyond the call of duty in Kaziranga, has been appointed as the Assistant Conservator of Forests (ACF), Eastern Assam Wildlife Division, Bokakhat. Good leadership will revitalise the brave field staff of Kaziranga. They have the support of conservationists and wildlife-lovers across India.
Sanctuary readers are urged to support this campaign by writing to the Prime Minister of India, and the Chief Minister of Assam. Please make the following points:
1. Assam has a long history of conservation and the rampant poaching cases emerging from the state will derail years of effort made to protect wildlife, particularly the one-horned rhinoceros.
2. The state and central government must expedite allotment of AK-47 rifles to forest guards in the state along with proper training to use these new assault rifles. Unarmed, forest guards cannot protect wildlife under siege, and are in grave danger themselves.
3. Vacancies in the Forest Department must be filled and able officers must be rewarded for their efforts. The government must also improve intelligence networks and deliver swift sentences to poachers to deter more poaching.
Letters can be mailed to:
Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, Raisina Hills, South Block, New Delhi – 110011. Fax: +91-11-23019545 / 23016857.
Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson UPA Government, 10 Jan Path, New Delhi. Fax: +91-1123017047/ 23018651.
Tarun Gogoi, Chief Minister of Assam, Janta Bhavan, Dispur, Guwahati – 781006.
First appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXIII No. 2, April 2013.