Searchlights scan the rainy night in north-eastern India’s Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary as the tension rises among the armed security men: Radios crackle and reinforcements are requested.
The security teams are preparing for an operation against insurgents, previously unheard of in the tranquil nature park.
Over 1,200 guards at this World Heritage Site in Assam are battling not only poachers but a growing onslaught by militants in recent months.
Rebels are increasingly raiding wildlife reserves in India’s north-east, to cash in on the surging demand for protected animal parts from China and South-East Asia.
“From kidnapping and extortions, militant groups in India’s most insurgency-ridden region have taken to plundering open treasures,” said Bibhab Talukdar, Asian coordinator of the International Rhino Foundation.
Rare rhinos are facing the worst threat in over two decades. At least 44 have been killed across Assam this year, the highest since the early 1990s.
Thirty alone were slaughtered in Kaziranga, the world’s biggest reserve of the endangered one-horned rhinos, while Manas, Orang and Pobitora sanctuaries also reported killings.
Rhinos are targeted for their horns, known as black ivory, which gram for gram are worth more than gold, fetching as much as 80,000 dollars per kilogram. The horns are prized as an aphrodisiac or cure for anything from hangovers to cancer in Chinese traditional medicine.
“In a new trend, militants are taking to poaching using automatic weapons like AK-47s. It is a very serious threat,” said SK Seal Sarma, Kaziranga’s main forest officer. Spread over 400 square kilometres near the banks of the Brahmaputra River, Kaziranga is home to 2,300 of the world’s 3,000 one-horned rhinos.
State police have confirmed that several militant groups were active in Kaziranga, he said, including local groups and others from the neighbouring states of Manipur and Nagaland that have links with international poaching syndicates. More....