By Naresh Mitra
GUWAHATI: The temple of Assam's pride — Kaziranga National Park — is fast losing its sanctity with poachers killing its famed one-horn rhinos with sophisticated weapons almost every other day.
The state, which houses two-third of the world's one-horn rhinos, has lost nine pachyderms since January this year and eight of them were killed in Kaziranga, a World Heritage Site, alone.
Wildlife crime experts have attributed the spurt in poaching to the soaring prices of rhino horns used to make traditional medicines in China, Vietnam and other South East Asian countries. The 430-sq km Kaziranga National Park, which is one of the most densely populated rhino habitats in the world, has always been on the radar of an international poaching racket spread across Africa, Nepal, West Bengal and Assam, along with other rhino habitats.
According to experts, most rhino horns make their way to Myanmar through Dimapur in Nagaland and Manipur's border town of Moreh. But, of late, a new route through the Arunachal-Myanmar border is also being used by smugglers.
Poaching has assumed alarming proportions in the last four years, with Kaziranga bearing the brunt. During this span, rhino-habitats in African countries also witnessed a rise in poaching. South Africa was the worst-hit with over 1,000 rhinos being killed in 2013 alone. In 2014, Kaziranga lost 27 rhinos to poachers.
According to 2013 estimates, Kaziranga alone had 2,329 rhinos against the world population of about 3,000.
People of Assam are up in arms against the spurt in poaching that has triggered a political war in the state. Assam governor PB Acharya had hit out at the state government by saying that a handful of poachers were challenging the authority of the forest department. He said if the forest department was unable to stop the killings, it should surrender. Chief minister Tarun Gogoi, in an apparent reference to the governor's criticism, shot back saying that everyone has to stick to constitutional limits.
In the run-up to the last Lok Sabha polls, Narendra Modi had made rhino poaching one of his electoral issues in the state. He had promised to check the menace if BJP comes to power. "We are yet to see the Centre's steps as promised by Modi before the Lok Sabha polls. Poaching of rhinos is a serious issue and New Delhi should address the problem," said environment activist Rohit Choudhury.
While the state government is saying that the Centre should give more help, the state BJP is criticizing Dispur for failing to stop the scourge. "I don't want to say anything on politics over the issue. My thrust is on strengthening our anti-poaching strategies. We have decided to institutionalize intelligence-gathering mechanism for pre-empting poachers from killing rhinos," forest minister Atuwa Munda told TOI.
Conservation activists, on the other hand, blamed the 'widening gap' between forest department and the people residing on the fringes for the inability to curb poaching. In Kaziranga, most rhinos are killed with the help of locals. A poaching gang generally comprises three to four members out of which one or two are sharpshooters from states like Nagaland and Manipur. The rest are locals who act as guides. A local, who helps a sharpshooter, fetches anything between Rs 80,000 to Rs 1 lakh for the killing of one rhino.
In recent times, the involvement of militants from Karbi Anglong district has thrown up a challenge to park authorities. One horn fetches over Rs 15 lakh in the international market and is a source of money for militants to buy arms. Militants' involvement in poaching came to light after empty cartridges of AK-series rifles were found on the spot. While conventional poachers use .303 rifles for killing a rhino with a single shot, rebels carrying automatic firearms kill the pachyderm by spraying bullets.
According to activists, many poachers who gave up the crime have resumed their activity as they felt they did not get alternate livelihood opportunities from the forest department. "Without the help of fringe villagers, it is virtually impossible to take on poachers. The locals have to be taken into confidence by the department in conservation efforts. Surrendered poachers are a vital source for collecting information and their help is crucial in anti-poaching drives," said honorary wildlife warden Uttam Saikia.
Munda said there is a need to cement department-public trust and find livelihood options for Kaziranga's fringe dwellers. "We have planned to revamp the eco-development committees that are not functioning properly at present. Once these are activated, locals will have many livelihood options," added Munda.
Even by conservative estimates, about 10 poachers have resumed their work again. Golap Patgiri of Belluguri village in Assam's Dhemaji district is one of the most wanted poachers. Patgiri, who surrendered to the forest department in 2010, has resumed poaching and is now absconding. Many arrested poachers are indulging in the crime after managing to jump bail. Low conviction rate is also one of the factors why the accused are emboldened for repeated crimes.