BBC documentary has grossly misrepresented facts, says Kaziranga director Satyendra Singh

Kaziranga National Park does not follow a shoot at sight policy against poachers, director Satyendra Singh tells Firstpost.

Rashme Sehgal February 17, 2017 15:26:02 IST
BBC documentary has grossly misrepresented facts, says Kaziranga director Satyendra Singh

Satyendra Singh, director of the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, finds himself in the eye of a storm with the screening of the BBC documentary film titled, Kaziranga: The park that shoots people to protect rhinos.

In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Singh described the documentary as being a complete falsification of facts and has hit out at the filmmaker Justin Rowlatt accusing him of having distorted facts.

BBC documentary has grossly misrepresented facts says Kaziranga director Satyendra Singh

Kaziranga National Park. Reuters

In 2013, there had been a sharp escalation in rhino poaching with over 23 rhinos killed in one year alone. We were informed that much of this killing was being triggered by syndicates operating at the behest of some Naga groups. How far was that assessment correct?

Yes, in 2013, 23 rhinos were gunned down by poachers. There had been an escalation then but in 2016, the number of rhinos killed were 16 while in 2015, 15 rhinos were killed.

Forest officials told us that these poachers who came to the Kaziranga park were often armed with AK 47 rifles?

I cannot talk about that period because I moved here in June 2016. But my experience has shown that poachers who come from the northern side are armed with 303 rifles whereas those who come from the southern side, and who are sometimes militants or have close links with militant groups, are carrying AK47s and INSAS rifles.

What are the forest guards armed with and how do they match the AK47s?

Our guards are equipped with SLR rifles. We definitely cannot match the firepower of the poachers and feel our rangers need to be given more sophisticated arms.

The recent documentary by the BBC has accused the forest guards of following a shoot at sight policy. How far is that assessment correct?

The BBC documentary has grossly misrepresented facts. I thought the BBC possessed some kind of credit worthiness but I am afraid I am extremely disappointed about how they have deliberately distorted details. I must strongly emphasise that we do not follow a shoot at sight policy. Our forest rangers have been provided immunity in the use of firearms under the code of criminal procedure Section 197. Given the circumstances under which they are working, especially with the rise of militancy in the North East, they need to be given immunity but this is not the same as stating they are following a shoot at sight policy.

BBC presented a synopsis to us wanting to know about the lives of forest rangers, the circumstances under which they work and details about their patrolling at night. But then, for them to have coached some of the people they interviewed and asked them to dramatise details (as we learned afterward) is also to falsify facts.

Are you saying the filmmakers coached these villagers in what kind of replies they should give?

Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. They coached them into what kind of slant should be given in their answers.

But the documentary highlighted how a young boy had been shot in the leg by a guard and left disabled?

This event happened when it was dark and the guard, who was a casual worker, mistook the boy for a rhino and shot him. That was indeed a mistake. He used a shotgun and a number of pellets went into the boy’s leg. He has been arrested. We have borne all the boy’s medical expenses and also given the family a compensation of Rs 2 lakh.

I would like to emphasise that we are very aware that we need to work with the local tribal community living inside the Kaziranga park. There are presently 38 villages located inside the park and they are strong supporters of our conservation efforts.

There is a strong local sentiment to support the rhino population in the park. These communities talk about rhinos with a strong sense of pride. They are also our eyes and ears and provide us information about poachers and also if other anti-national elements who enter the park. This local population desists from collecting firewood from the forests and we in turn support them in several ways. So, I would like to emphasise that this is not an antagonistic relationship.

What is the population of these communities?

I cannot say exactly but there are between 150 to 200 villagers living in each village. Both the Ministry of Forests and Environment and the Assam government have asked for clarifications from BBC and I for one would not be surprised if they have some kind of ulterior motive in the slant they have given.

What exactly is the rhino population in Kaziranga?

The last rhino census held in 2015 showed there were 2401 rhinos. This is a far cry from the early part of the twentieth century when the rhino population in 1905 was down to 20 rhinos.

But the question that is being asked is that while in 2015, 23 poachers killed as opposed to only 17 rhinos?

I must emphasise that poachers enter the park in groups, they do not enter the park alone and when they do, they more often than not seek the help of some local people to help them. Poachers come in groups of four to five people. There are some local people who help. During the last three years, 50 poachers have been killed.

This continuous poaching is obviously linked to the fact that the price of rhino horns has risen exponentially and is said to be more expensive than gold?

We don’t know details about these things. People say that in the local market, a rhino horn fetches Rs 50 lakh but in the international market the prices are over Rs 3 crore per horn.

How much have you been able to control poaching?

It's less now. We have had three cases of poaching in the last two months.

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