By Wasim Rahman
Poachers killed a rhino and took away its horn in the sixth addition (northern range) of Kaziranga National Park on the north bank of the Brahmaputra this morning, taking the toll of rhinos killed in the national park this year to six.
Dispur, which has been facing severe criticism for failing to tackle the menace of poachers, responded by suspending range officer Puspadhar Buragohain.
It also ordered a departmental inquiry to be headed by a chief conservator of forests and a magisterial probe to be conducted by Sonitpur district additional deputy commissioner Jadab Saikia.
The incident occurred at Gonai Tapo Sapori under Gohpur sub-division of Sonitpur district around 7.30am.
The poachers shot dead the adult male rhino and while removing the horn, mutilated the carcass.
An empty SLR cartridge and a machete were recovered from the site of the incident, Sivasis Das, divisional forest officer, (east division of Biswanath Chariali), said.
Forest and environment minister Atuwa Munda has been camping in Kaziranga since yesterday and holding discussions with various students', social and community organisations and NGOs involved in wildlife protection and to evolve strategies to tackle rhino poaching.
Today's killing was the first since Munda assumed charge as minister.
The minister today held a lengthy meeting with deputy commissioners and superintendents of police of Golaghat, Nagaon, Sonitpur and Karbi Anglong districts and the superintendent of police of the newly-created Biswanath Chariali police district (within Sonitpur).
It was also attended by the chief of the special task force (to curb poaching), additional director-general of police, A.P. Rout. The meeting decided to intensify operations against poachers and their accomplices.
Munda told The Telegraph this evening that the killing was "very unfortunate" as it has happened when efforts were on to tackle the problem by taking into confidence all sections of the society. He said it was decided in the meeting that patrolling and checking of vehicles would be done not only along National Highway 37 that passes through Kaziranga, but also on National Highway 39 and other roads that lead to Nagaland and Manipur.
Munda said the crackdown on illegal dhabas and parking of vehicles on roads within the vicinity of the park area would be intensified and any people from fringe areas of the park found trespassing in the park area would be dealt with firmly.
"We will make officials accountable. We will take action if the two inquiries find any lapse (on the part of those responsible for protecting rhinos) for today's killing," Munda said.
Munda asked the poachers to earn a living through honest means and said the government would offer whatever help possible in this regard.
Altogether 32 rhinos were killed last year and 41 in the previous year in Assam.
Most of these killings took place in Kaziranga National Park.
A sharp increase in rhino poaching in the past few years has triggered massive protests in the state.
During last year's Lok Sabha polls, Narendra Modi, as Prime Ministerial candidate, had criticised the Assam government on the issue while campaigning in Assam.
Rakibul Hussain, forest minister since 2006, had drawn severe flak despite the government raising an exclusive forest battalion to guard wildlife and even amending a forest law to give more powers to forest guards.
The portfolio was handed over from Hussain to Munda in the ministerial reshuffle effected by chief minister Tarun Gogoi in January.