By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Many, many years ago in India, when the state-owned telephone system was the only one available with private players and cellular operators still a distant dream, any consumer complaint was tackled with just one solution. Surrender your telephone connection, and in those days getting one was a cause for a huge celebration. For, it took years before one got a phone.
Today, the Indian attitude has hardly changed. If you have a problem, there is little effort to address it. Head on.
So, it is not surprising that the Government of Assam (in north-eastern India) has a classic answer to rhinoceros poaching. Remove the horn from the animal, since that is what poachers are looking for.
Found in the luscious forests of Assam, the one-horned rhino has been part of Indian folklore. A mighty creature that could have escaped the natural catastrophes of the pre-historic age, the rhino was once famously described by Rudyard Kipling as a beast in armour.
Unfortunately, it has not been able to shield the animal from the deadly two-footed criminals – armed with cunning, a superior intelligence and lethal weapons.
Poachers in India have always had an upper hand. If tigers have been decimated to alarmingly low numbers for their body parts which some people foolishly believe cure them of ailments, including sexual impotency, the rhino horn is the new magic potion for tackling diseases.
Nothing could be farther from truth. But men have, since time immemorial, been victims of superstition, naively believing in the curative ability of black magic, and, now, animal parts.
Encouraged by this human fallacy, the poachers have had an easy run in India, given that forest guards are not only ill-paid – and so prone to monetary temptation – but also ill-equipped.
They often have only “lathis” and no vehicles, sometimes no proper footwear. In comparison, the poachers have state-of-the art automobiles night-vision glasses and sophisticated guns. So, if the guards cannot be silenced with bribes, they are just killed along with the rhinos.
What is absolutely ludicrous is the Assam government’s proposal to check this crime. A special committee suggested that the rhino be de-horned, thus removing, at one master stroke, the source of the evil called poaching.
This is so much like the state-owned telephone company of yonder days that asked – nay ordered – you to give up your hard won connection the moment you had an issue!
Admittedly, poaching is rampant in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, one of the best protected wildlife sanctuaries in the country for rhinos. The horn of the animal, which is seen as precious as gold and cocaine in the illicit market, merely drives the evil determination.
Eleven rhinos have been killed this year, and the poachers are not going to sleep till the last of these creatures are butchered. Like tiger poachers in India, and elephant poachers in Africa.
Pushed to the wall, Assam wants to cut the horn off. It could regrow, but this depends on the way the excision is carried out.
A similar exercise was carried out in African countries, but the poachers there were so enraged that they slaughtered de-horned rhinos. These men were so consumed by violence and hatred that they started getting vengeful the moment they were challenged.
In any case, de-horning may not be the answer to poaching. Can a rhino sans its horn lead a normal life? The horn is used in foraging for food, and so presumably the role of the horn has been poorly understood.
Certainly, this kind of intervention is no good for the ecology. If one were to de-horn the rhino, one may as well de-tusk the elephant. Will the poacher then pack his bags and leave? In all probability, he would move on to other species.
The key to poaching does not lie in getting rid of the horn, but in strengthening surveillance, paying the guards better, arming them with proper weapons and making sure that the poachers are caught and punished.
In India, there has hardly been any conviction. The legal system is slow, corrupt and full of holes. All these need to be corrected.
Cutting off horns is not only cruel – maybe as cruel as killing itself – but also a clear case of tampering with Nature.
India’s hills look brown, trees having been felled and stolen by timber thieves. The nation’s forest cover has depleted to frighteningly low levels, thanks again to pilferage of wood.
And now if we are going to let our rhinos look bare without their symbol of pride, India must hang its head in shame at its sheer inefficiency and callousness towards ecological well-being.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed firstname.lastname@example.org