Central Funds To Kaziranga Remain Unspent, Other Trouble Brews
The authors write about routine, ‘under the radar’ issues that plague wildlife conservation. While the loss of rhinos is quickly (and justifiably) dramatised by the media, the causes and potential solutions are neither analysed, nor highlighted with equal emphasis. Yet, it is the plugging of just such loopholes in implementation that holds the key to the good governance vital to protecting our vanishing wilds.
Photo: Biju Boro.
Established in 1974, Assam’s Kaziranga National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site a little more than a decade later. Spread across almost 900 sq. km. of wetlands, grasslands, riverine habitats, and moist broadleaf forests, the park plays host to the majority of the global population of the vulnerable one-horned rhino. About 70 per cent, or 2,401 of the 3500 individuals that remain in the wild, are found here.
The mighty Brahmaputra, whose waters keep the park alive, comes into vicious spate in the monsoons, and swells up to alarming proportions as the rains intensify. The downpours this year were especially severe, and the overflowing waters of the Brahmaputra submerged more than two-thirds of the park. The floodwaters exacted a terrible toll on the region’s wildlife, causing the deaths of 20 rhinos amongst a long list of other wildlife casualties.
While Kaziranga’s field staff has undoubtedly worked with admirable will power to counter the impacts of the flooding, a series of applications filed under the Right to Information Act by Rohit Choudhury – a researcher with the EIA Resource and Response Center (ERC) – have exposed gaping lacunae in the park’s management.
Conservation Funds Unused
In response to an RTI application filed in March 2016, India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority revealed that Project Tiger funds, to the tune of Rupees 16.61 crores sanctioned for Kaziranga for 2016-2017 have not been released due to an unspent balance of Rupees 4.14 crores from previous years’ funds. According to the RTI response, signed by the Assistant Inspector General of the NTCA, the State Government has been asked to submit an “Utilisation Certificate of the amount so that further release may be made”.
Another RTI, filed on December 5, 2015, probed into the utilization of funds by the Kaziranga Tiger Conservation Foundation (KTCF) from 2009 till date. The application initially drew no reply from the park's Director, who is the authority it was addressed to. It was only after filing a second appeal with the State Information Commission that Choudhury received a response.
The RTI documents reveal that the funds were not only under-utilised but also lay unused. Moreover, inquiries into a variety of topics drew a complete blank, with ‘NO INFORMATION’ as the only written response. That the authorities of the Kaziranga National Park do not have information and clarity on where the funds have been spent, or for that matter why they have not been spent, points either to mismanagement, or political coercion leading to mismanagement. This is especially disturbing given that rhino poaching continues to be a serious threat in Kaziranga, with at least 17 individuals known to have been poached from the park in 2015 alone. When funds are available to spend on critical conservation measures but remain unused, the question that arises is whether the problem with the park is a shortage of resources… or lax leadership. That answers to the RTI inquiries into the utilisation of funds were not forthcoming until the intervention of the State Public Information Officer has also raised eyebrows in conservation circles.
In fact, authorities seem to have acted in violation of the notification on the ‘Rules of the Tiger Conservation Foundations already constituted for the Tiger Reserves in Assam under Sub Section 1 of Section 38 (x)’ of the Wild Life Protection Act (1972) issued by the state in 2010. Point 25 under this notification states that:
A. Funds released by the NTCA and other funding agencies shall be utilised for the specific purpose for which they are meant.’
B. The 90 per cent of the funds generated through tourist entry fee and other charges etc. shall be utilised for the activities mentioned below and 10 per cent of the fund shall be kept in fixed deposit as society fund.
1. Strengthening eco-development and village level committee/hamlet situated in and around the tiger reserves.
2. Undertaking eco-development activities in villages located in and around the tiger reserves.
3. Creating awareness in the local communities during annual fairs / cultural or religious functions.
4. Assisting the adjoining territorial divisions in strengthening their forest protection and anti- poaching efforts.
5. Formation of anti-depredation squads to mitigate human-animal conflict.
6. Providing incentives and legal assistance to permanent and temporary staff called as witness in wildlife cases.
7. Creating / or managing income generating assets for purpose of ecotourism by associating the local EDCs.
8. Supporting training activities of the field staff of the tiger reserves as well as adjacent territorial divisions.
9. Conducting wildlife and environmental education programme in areas around the tiger reserves, preferably by enlisting the support of NGOs active in this field.
10. Financially supporting the tiger reserves’ management in case of delay in allotment of funds for protection works and ex gratia due to damage by wildlife subject to the condition of return of the same when the funds are released.
11. Supporting human resources development initiatives in the area surrounding the tiger reserves.
12. Any other activity in the interest of achieving the objective of the foundation.
13. Administrative and official overheads.
These activities include the formation of anti-depredation squads to mitigate human-animal conflict, supporting training activities of the field staff of the tiger reserves as well as adjacent territorial divisions, and supporting human resource development initiatives in the area surrounding the tiger reserves. However, no information on fund utilisations was made available under these, as well as other, heads.
Altogether, a mere 21 documents detailing expenditure by the Foundation between October 2014 and December 2015 were shared. Of these, six documents pertained solely to printing, Xeroxing and spiral binding costs totaling Rupees 2,97,140/-. Another document pertained to an expense of Rupees 4,83,209/-, spent on advertising in print media to invite public opinion on the KNP Eco-sensitive Zone Proposal. Two documents concerned the construction of anti-poaching camps in Deusor and Amguri at a cost of Rupees eight lakh each, but a third document detailed the same expense for the same two anti-poaching, but at a cost of rupees four lakh each. It is unclear whether this expense was for different camps at the same location.
The remaining expenditure documents deal with the preparation of micro plans, the purchase of four sewing machines for female members of an EDC, the construction of a boundary wall and road in Laokhowa, a general awareness meeting at the Rhino Land Park, Ghorakati, a public hearing on the ESZ of the park, loans without interest to pay ex-gratia, and the construction of a temporary camp at Kaliabari Chapori. Finally, an amount of Rupees 10,000 per person was disbursed to 11 members of staff for commendable service.
No expense documents were shared for 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. Clearly frustrated by the responses he has received, Choudhury says, “More than the lack of funds, it is the lack of will of the Assam Forest Department that is causing mismanagement of the park. The funds available to the Kaziranga Tiger Conservation Foundation are supposed to be used for the welfare of people living in the fringe area of the park, but have been utilised for other purposes. In fact, at the time of high rhino poaching, loans were given to other forest divisions from KTCF funds.”
Park Short Staffed, Poachers Unconvicted, Tourism Suffering
Choudhury’s second RTI application, which posed questions about the park’s manpower, revealed worrying inadequacies in the strength of the park personnel. This is especially true of forest guards and game wardens, who serve as the first line of defense against unrelenting threats from armed poachers and encroachers.
According to the park management’s own observations, the combined strength of the park’s staff should be 1,549, as against its existing strength of 458. Disturbingly, an estimated 100 rhinos have been slaughtered by poachers in this under-staffed park, since 2010.
Photo: Manash Pratim Gogoi.
However, the state does seem to be trying to address this issue. Acting on the orders of the Guwhati High Court, a proposal sanctioning an increase in the manpower of Kaziranga, to make up for its deficiency, was sent to the state’s Chief Wildlife Warden and the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests on June 16, 2016. In the same letter, a bifurcation of the park into a north and a south zone has also been proposed to facilitate better management.
A third RTI application reveals a possible reason why convictions in rhino poaching cases in Kaziranga are low. In the past five years, not a single search warrant has been issued against any arrested poachers, by any of the authorities empowered to do so. However, it must be noted that under Section 50 (1) of the Wild Life Protection Act (1972) certain Forest Officers are empowered to enter, and search any premises, vehicle or vessel without warrant, and may require any person to produce any animal, animal article etc, or any permit or other documentation required by the Act. Thus though no search warrants may have been issued that does not mean that no searches have been conducted. Whatever be the case, the point is that convictions in rhino poaching cases remain elusive.
In an interview to Mongabay, Amit Sharma, WWF-India’s senior coordinator for rhino conservation said, “If you go by the arrests, maybe during 2016 you’ve had more than 60 arrests of poachers that happened. But if we go to the convictions, to the court of the law, we see that nothing has happened as yet. There is a lot of lag in the legal front. Firstly, it takes a lot of time and secondly, there are a lot of loopholes. The convictions are not happening. And so the legal part is not becoming a deterrent for the poachers.” In an email to Sanctuary, Belinda Wright, well-known conservationist and Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, elucidated on the issue, “In our experience good leadership makes a big difference to both good enforcement and higher convictions rates. Convictions are important not just to punish individual wildlife criminals but in the larger picture they act as a deterrent for anybody who is tempted to commit a wildlife crime. Where conviction rates are low there is little for criminals to fear, as even if a crime is detected it is likely to go unpunished.” Advocate Kartik Shukul, a Nagpur-based lawyer who often represents the Forest Departments of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra adds, "To increase the conviction rates, it is important that prosecutors dealing with wildlife crimes are trained in the intricate details of the Wild Life Protection Act, since it is a special act and normal rules of criminal jurisprudence do not necessarily apply to such acts."
While the park grapples with its internal shortcomings, the issue of tourism is also a cause of serious concern. This year, the park inexplicably opened its gates to tourists an entire month before its standard opening date of November 1st. Conservationists say that this move has put local fauna under duress, and is creating a negative experience for tourists as well who have to bear the brunt of dysfunctional roads, damaged park infrastructure and unfinished repairs. This move has also forced an already understaffed team of forest guards to keep one eye on managing tourists and the other on securing the park’s wildlife, still recovering from the debilitating effects of a harsh monsoon.
In a strongly-worded letter to Bishan Singh Bonal, head of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Sanctuary Asia’s editor Bittu Sahgal expressed the same concerns. He appealed to the NTCA to intervene in the matter and take corrective action. Other concerned bodies such as the Assam-based Balipara Foundation, working to promote human and ecologically conscious economic initiatives, have echoed the sentiment in separate letters to the NTCA. “This decision may have benefits in the short run in the form of increased visitations and thereby more revenue, but in the long run could come at the cost of the ecology, road and river network, increased noise an air pollution due to increased footfall, and might even make the animals more ‘zoo-like’, and hence tamer, taking away the sense of adventure that attracts tourists to the Kaziranga National Park,” wrote Ranjit Barthakur in his letter to Pramila Rani Brahma, Minister, Environment and Forest, Assam.
Unless authorities are held accountable for the administrative shortcomings in Kaziranga’s management, issues of poaching, conflict and irresponsible tourism will continue to plague the park.
Cara Tejpal works with Sanctuary Asia. Indranil Datta is a final-year journalism student who is currently an editorial intern at Sanctuary Asia.
Note: Grammatical errors in quotes from Government documents have not been corrected.
The NTCA has been emailed for a comment on the situation in Kaziranga. This report will be updated if there is a response.
Author: Cara Tejpal and Indranil Datta.