Can Kaziranga National Park combat rhino poaching by going high-tech?

By Nandita Sengupta

Guwahati: It is official now. They are not just a bunch of criminals with hand-made guns -- the poachers killing the famed one-horned rhinos in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam comprises militant groups equipped with sophisticated arms such as AK series rifles and silencers.

A recent detailed report prepared by Assam forest officials in the national park has cited the involvement of militant groups such as Karbi People Liberation Tigers (KPLT) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (S), easy availability of illegal arms around the park and rising prices of rhino horns in the international market such as Vietnam as the new challenges to check poaching of the rhinos.

 Can Kaziranga National Park combat rhino poaching by going high-tech?

Endangered. Reuters

"Poaching is on the rise internationally and Kaziranga is no exception. But the local issues such as porous border all around, lack of sophistication and growing population around its fringe areas have always been challenges while tackling poaching. But the new issues such as rising prices of rhino horns in the international market, easy availability of illegal arms, involvement of militant groups, use of sophisticated arms such as AK series rifles and silencers, counter fire on forest staffs, poor intelligence network must be fully addressed to make Kaziranga a poaching free national park," the report said.

Kaziranga National Park—a World Heritage Site—hosts two-thirds of the world's great one-horned rhinos and it has the highest density of tigers among the world's protected areas. The park is the only natural habitat for one-horned rhinos in India. Apart from rhinos and tigers, the 800 square km-park has elephants, wild buffalos, swamp deer, hog bears, sambhars, wild boars among other animals and birds. The number of one-horned rhinos in the park had increased to 2,325 in 2013 from 2,048 in 2009 and the number of tourists visiting the park, too, has increased.

"Poaching has seen a rising trend mainly due to rising prices of the rhino horn in the international market. If one goes by pure statistics and area, the poaching pressure is higher in Kaziranga National Park than the Kruger National Park in South Africa. However, Kaziranga lacks sophistication and infrastructure of Kruger," the report said. The detailed report was recently submitted to Gauahati High Court, following an order of the court in March this year.

Porous border with neighboring hilly state Nagaland makes the park vulnerable to poaching rackets. The inter-state gang of poachers is well-networked with rhino traders who transport the horns through the India-Myanmar border in Manipur and Nagaland to South East Asian countries where they are used in preparation of traditional medicines and aphrodisiac. “This has led to escalation of prices in the international market. Today, the rhino horn is costlier than gold and platinum. A rhino horn could fetch $300,000 per kilogram,” the report said.

Poaching of the rhinos has always been a concern for conservationists but the government department engaged in protection of the famed animal has have invited much criticism as poaching of rhinos has increased in the past few years. Assam government recently said that during the period from 2001 to 3 August 2014, a total of 126 rhinos have been killed by poachers in the Kaziranga alone. The rhino poaching toll in the national park increased to 27 in 2013 against killing of five rhinos in 2010. As many as 21 rhinos have so far been killed by poachers this year.

Assam government had amended the Wildlife (Protection) Act 2009 by raising the penalty for second offences against wildlife such rhino to minimum of seven years and maximum of life imprisonment and fines. The state government had also installed gadgets such electronic eyes, used dog squads and set up a special task force to protect rhinos but killing of the famed animal continues. Police and forest staffs nabbed 17 poachers so far this year and killed seven others during operations against poaching rackets. While environmentalists blames the forest department for the lapses in protecting rhinos, the detailed report prepared by the forest officials in Kaziranga informed the Gauhati High court that the state police was not giving enough priority to trans-national wildlife crime cases such as rhino poaching. "Once a wildlife crime—primarily poaching of rhinos—is committed inside the park, the horn is smuggled through human habituated areas, villages, highways, railways to neighbouring states for international export. So, the role of police is extremely important but the police do not provide enough priority to such trans-national crime. Majority of police personnel are unaware that wildlife laws define the duties of police along with forest staffs," the report said.

The report also cited the lack of coordination between police and forest officials which made the operation against rhino poaching tougher. “There is virtually no co-ordination between the enforcement agencies and the forest department of the neighbouring states which are the main conduits and houses majority of the rhino horn traders. Border dispute finds centrestage as far as co-ordination between the police forces of Assam and Nagaland is concerned. The park authorities do not have reach outside the park area, not to speak of influences outside the state," the report said.

The report also pinpointed the loopholes in police investigation into cases of rhino poaching. It said the crime scenes are often not preserved leading to tampering of evidence and wiping away of vital fingerprints. "As of now there is no practice of collecting samples at the crime scene for DNA tests of the criminals, ballistic analysis of the arms not done and there has been no conviction in rhino poaching case since 2009," it said.

The report, however, proposed infrastructure update, use of new technology and creating new habitats for rhinos, among others, following the high court’s order to suggest measures to protect rhinos in Kaziranga National Park.

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Updated Date: Aug 13, 2014 17:16:59 IST