‘For those who have never seen the rhino in its natural habitat, the first sight of this pachyderm is ecstatically uplifting’ The one-horned rhino that has put Assam on the world map is gasping for life in the Kaziranga National Park (KNP). A recent lead article in a news magazine from the Northeast titled, “Poaching is my business, business is good,” is a horrible indictment of the nonchalance exhibited by the government of Assam to a mammoth crisis.
The quote has unfortunately not been attributed to any single poacher but it can be assumed that those are the words of a paid sharpshooter. Although there is no definite scientific proof that the keratin inside the rhino horn is an aphrodisiac or that it can heal high blood pressure and fevers (according to the Chinese), the superstition that the person using it would derive aphrodisiacal powers has driven the poaching perverts crazy since there is big money out there in the international markets for the rhino horn.
While many in Assam are quick to point accusing fingers at the sundry militant groups in state such as Ulfa, the Karbi and Dimasa outfits for being involved in this nefarious activity, others feel that poaching on such a scale is not possible without collusion from within the system. Why would poachers have a field day inside the sanctuary day after day and the entire system not budge an inch?
After the latest rhino killing incident, the CBI will be stepping in to unearth the real reasons for this largescale poaching of rhinos inside the KNP. This park is perhaps one of the most frequented by national and international wildlife lovers.
A CBI inquiry is important to set at rest allegations flying thick and fast that there is a huge nexus within the system itself and that people in positions of authority are in league with the poachers.
In March this year, I happened to visit the KNP with a few students of journalism from the Journalism Mentor Foundation, Mumbai. For those who have never seen the rhino in its natural habitat, the first sight of this animal is ecstatically uplifting.
The other wild animals around the park seem a shade uninteresting, except if a tiger were to be sighted. This is because the KNP is known as the sanctuary of the one-horned rhino. And that is what most people come here to see! If you wanted to see tigers, deer and other fauna there are other sanctuaries across this country. But the one-horned rhino is our pride and joy. Yet this poor animal is being hounded because of human greed, and those in charge of safeguarding their lives such as the forest minister of Assam and the entire department of environment and forest seem ill-equipped to deal with this crisis.
I also wonder why the plethora of wildlife protection NGOs, like Aaranyak and Nature’s Beckon have not demanded that forest minister Rakibul Hussain step down. Surely there is a system of accountability somewhere and that should begin at the highest level! Someone has to pay for this repeated onslaught on the one-horned rhino (17 killed between January and April 18 this year) Alas! No one has lost his job so far! What does this suggest?
I recall a wildlife NGO putting up on Facebook the picture of a dead rhino with its face bloodied after the murderers made off with its horn in the most brutal manner by sawing it off the animal’s face. This picture created an uproar across the universe. But hunters always seem to get away lightly even when arrested. No wonder poaching is not just a sport but a money-spinning business for many. In this regard one must appreciate the keepers of the Orang wildlife sanctuary who have not allowed a single rhino to be poached this year.
This raises some fundamental questions about the vigilance adopted in the two wildlife sanctuaries. What is Orang doing differently that KNP is not? When one enters the KNP, the forest guard posted at the entrance sits on his chair reading the daily newspapers, quite oblivious of who comes or who goes. We captured this picture on our cameras because we found it strange that a guard would not even put up a posture of being up and about his work.
The image that one carries back is that of a slothful worker with no passion for his work. He is only doing a job and there may be many like him in the park!
While one would not like to pass judgement on the entire wildlife protection framework on the basis of this solitary person’s attitude to his work, this is perhaps an indication of how the system functions. Coming back to the Orang Park it was heartening to read that four poaching attempts were foiled by the park authorities and one poacher was killed by forest guards. Both parks are close to Dimapur — the commercial hub of Nagaland and the bazaar for illegal trade in wildlife parts. Firearms are aplenty in Nagaland and Nagas are traditional hunters. Many are paid big money by the poaching mafia to hunt the rhino for its horn which is smuggled across the Indo-Myanmar international border via Moreh in Manipur.
A hunter who was commissioned to kill a rhino but was arrested told the media that a kilogram of rhino horn fetches Rs 30 to 35 lakh in Dimapur. He said the price increases several times over in the international market. There are several websites that speak about the dangers posed to rhinos even in South Africa and how the international wildlife protecting agencies are trying to tackle this more cohesively.
But as long as the demand for the rhino horn remains, protecting this poor animal is going to be a monumental challenge. Apart from being used as a traditional Asian aphrodisiac, the rhino horn is also used for dagger handles in Yemen and Oman. Interestingly, the rhino horn is now used as the party drug of choice among rich Vietnamese kids and is said to be more expensive than cocaine. They apparently grind the rhino horn into powder and mix it with water or wine. One Vietnamese news website described rhino horn wine as “the alcoholic drink of millionaires”.
The latest news that the government has asked for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to track down poachers and that this proposal is awaiting the nod of the defence ministry should bring a ray of hope to the poor rhinos. Recently, the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the Assam forest department, the Wildlife Institute of India and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International (Switzerland), had conducted four-day trials of UAVs over the KNP. Before this the government had also created the Assam Forest Protection Force (AFPF) which is armed with automatic weapons to deal with poachers.
It is true that all this while the forest guards were not well armed or well paid. If some of them were carrying out their duties with a passion it was out of love for their work. Unfortunately there are not too many with that same zest to save the rhino.
Many succumb to bribes and collude with the poachers. There is need to incentivise those who guard our threatened wildlife species.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)