By Rakesh Soud
Despite changing social attitudes and eco-political understanding within people, the cruelty on rare vertebrate species such as Indian rhino continues. Indian conservationist believe that rhino poaching had drawn the attention of Assamese nationalists in recent past. The notion and awareness among Indian conservation community is that withdrawing human elements from large rhino reserves may help curve the rate of poaching or illegal killing of large mammals in forest systems. However, in Assam, the northeast state of India, the debate multiplied on basic attitudes towards wildlife in general and Greater Indian One-horned rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis in particular. Apart from the translocated animals of Manas National Park, the Kaziranga National Park, Orang National Park and Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary are lone natural refuge for the rhinos in Assam. In these parks poaching is the major threat to the rhinoceros population. Therefore, anti-poaching efforts had been accelerated through multi-faceted efforts. The process involves an understanding of the ecological limit of the rhinos, social and cultural issues and dynamic nature of the community based human intrusion. These in turn require conservation fund. The authority and NGOs working on such issues had never involved local intelligence in terms of community support and cohesion. Moreover our state mechanism dealing with the problem fail to resolve these intricately complex socio-conservation issues.
It have been witnessed that the recent technological intervention in terms of unmanned aircraft to monitor the park has been measurably failed and is criticized as loss of public money. Prior to that some NGOs had also tried to use imported sniffer dogs to trace the movements of poachers. The author of the article in the past had disparaged these short term measure to attract the views of larger scientific fraternity of conservation science and his work was published in Asian Journal of Conservation Biology [Vol. 2 (1), pp. 82–83\. The author pointed out the root cause of the failure of anti-poaching measures stem from lack of communication and social linkage between the government authority and NGOs.The recent development of conservation science implies the importance of community engagement to a larger extent. However, the ongoing experiments of various tools and ideas to safe guard the rhinos seem to be a deformation of scientific ethics and proper engagement of research routines. The best example can be cited from the state forest department’s arguments on feasibility of removing the horns of rhinos in order to decrease the poaching intensity. The national media revealed that the proposal was discussed at a meeting of Indian Rhino Vision 2020 program in January to review the translocation of rhinos to Manas National Park. The move is being considered an anti-poaching measure after seven rhinos were killed in Manas since 2011, threatening the success of the ambitious project. However, there are pitfalls in the security assessment of the habitats before trans-location of rhinos can take place. Also the community involvement in the process of security assessment and trans-location were inadequate and lacked transparency. Moreover, the discussion completely ignores the baseline research of the possible outcome and previous studies adopted on the dehorned rhinos. As this will be the first case of dehorning in India, the expert panel should review the studies of black rhinos dehorning in Africa. Horn removal from African rhinos has been conducted in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Swaziland to deter poaching. Our experts in favour of dehorning took the partial support from the African story. But, we need a strong base before implementing the choice of dehorning. We can understand that the situation of Africa and Assam may fluctuate to a broader angle and the results may also diverge but the possible effects can’t be overlooked.
One of the best study, I had seen in last couple of days is well written by Carol Cunningham and Joel Berger in their book Horn of Darkness: Rhinos on the Edge. This book is not only a journal of the gritty trials and small triumphs of two professional and dedicated naturalists. It is also a story of the cutthroat world of conservation politics, of the conflict between nationalistic impulses and Western science, in other words, of the complexities of trying to save endangered large mammals in Africa. As in Assam here, the solution of the Namibian Save the Rhino Trust is to remove the horns from live animals to eliminate any incentive to kill them. The authors find that the dehorned rhinos were vulnerable to predators like lions or hyenas, or even whether poachers distinguish between animals with horns and those without them. They further argued that that dehorned females were unsuccessful in protecting their calves. Being a student of conservation science, I can understand that the horn of the rhino has its specific role in the ecology and behavior of the species. It cannot be distinguished as a vestigial part of the body. Though the evolutionary significance of horns in rhinos is not entirely clear, and may include mate choice or anti-predator defence. It is known that rhinos use their horns for several behavioral functions, including defending territories, defending calves from other rhinos and predators, maternal care (including guiding calves) and foraging behavior, such as digging for water and breaking branches. Further, I can refer to some other studies under taken by Janet Rachlow on white rhinos and her studied found that about 90% of the dehorned white rhinos were poached within 18 months as the horns in grow back very quickly. This is attributed to the stub of horn that is left after removal. If the horn is cut too close to the germinal layer, this could damage the horn base and lead to deformed horn re-growth or death of the individual for blood loss or shock. Assam had a similar experience in Majuli, where a rhino died after its horn was surgically removed by forest authorities without proper expertise in the month of March last year. So, during any dehorning exercise a stub of horn will remain. It was clearly mentioned by Joel Berger, Carol Cunningham, A. Archie Ggawuseb, Malan Lindeque in their publication in Conservation Biology [ Vol. 7(4), pp. 920-924\ , that neither horned nor hornless rhinos differed in their vulnerability to poachers more than four years after the initial dehorning.
This act of dehorning is debated for more than a decade, the efficacy of “dehorning” remains unknown, in part due to an absence of data and more specifically the ecology of rhinos in this part of earth is not been studied seriously till now. In such a situation taking measures like removing a vital part from body can’t be justified. If government is serious enough and want to save the rhinos from poachers and ego-ignorant politicians and NGOs, legal authorities have to create a people’s participatory approach taking local villagers into strong confidence. I denounce the dehorning as a conservation tactic without proper research, and marshal an argument that such radical actions were not intended as a long-term conservation solution. Therefore, dehorning cannot be judged solely as management criteria; economic and political environments will always mediate the success of any long-term conservation plans. It is impossible to success in protecting Pachyderm is any conservation discourse, which identifies people as a powerful enemy of nature. These measures taken as a partial outcome of western practice only implies deforming the ethics of conservation science. In case of Assam, it is clear that without achieving the community faith and concern, conservation would have a long way to go before it can achieve its goal.