Kaziranga: A villager buying a bottle of mineral water near Kaziranga is a sign poachers are planning to strike the home of the Indian rhino in Assam.
Can politicians read this signal?
When the sun sets on Kaziranga, several gangs of poachers start roaming the villages with plans of poaching a rhinoceros. They come armed with rifles, pistols, tranquilizers and even AK-47s.
Can politicians take on poachers?
No. But, on the election trail in Assam, political parties are shedding tears for the rhino, promising they will stop their poaching in Kaziranga if voted to power.
The rhinoceros is to Assam what the Taj Mahal is to India. For the native Assamese people, it is their pride and identity, something they can showcase to the world.
The animal is under constant threat since the Maoists became powerful in Assam.
A rhino horn is worth almost Rs one crore on the international market. Till a few years ago, the Chitwan reserve in Nepal was the top target of smugglers. But since Maoists took over reins of governance in Nepal, strict anti-poaching measures have forced smugglers to focus their attention on the only other home of the one horn rhino: Kaziranga.
Since 2008, incidents of poaching have gone up dramatically. From just three that year, the number rose to 28 last year. Around 200 rhinos have been killed in the past 15 years.
A few days ago, while addressing an election rally at Bokakhat, 20 kilometres from Kaziranga, Prime Minister Narendra Modi slammed the Congress for ignoring the threat to rhinos. Since then, the rhino has become an election issue in Assam.
Just as you cross Nagaon, around 120 km from Guwahati, and hit the road to Kaziranga, the rhino pops out of a huge banner put up by the BJP. The text with a caricature of Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi reads: "When we remind him of the poaching of rhinos, the CM shrugs his shoulders, waves his hand and replies, 'oh, leave it'."
The Congress, meanwhile, claims credit for the growth in the number of rhinos. It says the number of rhinos has increased every year since it came to power. Their current population is 2,401 after a decade's growth of almost 30 percent.
Assam's fauna is unique.
Cows in the state are marginally taller than goats, who, in turn, are shorter than street dogs in most parts of India. Canines look like felines, who, it can be safely presumed, must be the size of the XXL mosquitoes that buzz around in large numbers.
It is a big surprise then, considering that most other animals look like miniatures of themselves, that Assam is the land of rhino, a three-tonne beast that you can spot grazing in the meadows near Kaziranga, like cows on Indian streets.
Since it roams freely, the rhino is always in danger of being killed for its horn. The horn is made primarily of keratin, the main component of hair, nails and hoofs. But people in many countries, especially in the East, believe the horn can cure various ailments — including cancer — and that it works as an aphrodisiac.
Rationalists argue those who believe a horn can cure an ailment may just as well mix their own hair or nails in medicines. But the myth appears incurable.
As a result, it is in high demand, fetching a fortune for smugglers.
"It is in demand also because it is used as a currency by militant groups in the Northeast. When they buy weapons, instead of money, the suppliers seek animal parts. The horn is a favourite, says Uttam Saikia, an honorary wildlife warden at Kaziranga. Saikia advises several agencies for the conservation of the Indian rhino.
Saikia says since terrorists have started taking interest in rhino poaching, Dimapur in Nagaland has become the hub of poachers. "Terror outfits like the NSCN run a parallel government in Dimapur. They protect and facilitate rhino poachers and smugglers."
Politicians, obviously, are not aware of all this. For them, rhinos are an election issue that could get them a few extra seats.
Activists like Saikia believe poaching is rampant because of the support smugglers get from people in the villages that ring Kaziranga. There are 128 villages in and around Kaziranga. "Poachers pay more than Rs 50,000 to villagers to lure them into guiding them in the forests. They use them to buy food and bottled water during the operation, he says.
The other problem is that there are just around 150 guards watching the rhinos. They are armed with primitive weapons, work long hours and get a pittance, sometimes as low as Rs 3,000 per month. The guards need SLRs and automatic rifles to take on the heavily-armed poachers.
A lot needs to done to protect Assam's Taj Mahal.
Politicians telling voters that the rhino can be saved just by the simple expedient of an electoral victory is similar to what hippos do with their open mouths.