On the road from Guwahati to Dibrugarh, just as you are about to reach Kaziranga, a unique sight greets you. In a sprawling field just across the road, you can see rhinos grazing in the open, like cows set out on a meadow.
The rhino is to Assam what the Taj Mahal is to India-- its pride, joy and marker of identity. But, because of its high visibility around Kaziranga and inside the national park there, it is under constant threat from poachers.
The reason for its high demand is the price a rhino horn commands in the market. People in many countries, especially in the East, believe a rhino horn can cure various ailments — including cancer — and that it works as an aphrodisiac.
It is of course a myth. The horn is composed primarily of keratin, the main component of hair, nails and hoofs. If gulping potions made of keratin could have cured ailments and increased sexual appetite, people would have been consuming their own nails and hair in large amounts by now. But, the belief remains unshakable among consumers, especially in Chinese markets.
Because of its high demand, a rhino hair is worth around Rs 1 crore in the international market. The price is high also because Naxalites of the region use it as a currency to buy arms from smugglers. Obviously, killing a rhino for its horn is a lucrative trade, a pursuit that has turned Kaziranga into a favourite destination of smugglers and poachers from the Northeast and Nepal.
Stopping poachers has always been a challenge for authorities of the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. But, the current administration seems to have taken its efforts too far by reportedly issuing shoot at sight orders to forest guards, committing an illegality that needs to be probed immediately.
According to a BBC documentary, forest staff in Kaziranga have been given the license to shoot anybody they suspect to be a poacher. Armed with the carte blanche, the staff has reportedly turned trigger happy, preferring to shoot instead of bringing the suspects to justice.
The BBC film, Killing For Conservation, explores what it calls the “dark secrets” of Kaziranga and examines if its war on poaching has gone too far. It claims that forest guards have been given powers “to shoot and kill.”
The result, says the film, is that more people were killed by forest guards than rhinos by poachers: 23 people lost their lives compared to just 17 rhinos last year. In a BBC article introducing the film, Justin Rowlatt, the journalist who shot the film, also claimed that only two intruders were prosecuted while 50 were shot dead since 2014.
The Indian law is clear on poaching. For first-time offenders it prescribes at least three years of rigorous punishment and a Rs 10,000 fine. For a repeat offence, the term of imprisonment may extend to seven years with a minimum fine of Rs 25,000. Under no circumstances does the law advocate death penalty for convicted poachers.
If the Kaziranga authorities have allowed their guards to shoot intruders and suspects, it is a gross violation of the law, an illegality being perpetrated in the name of conservation. If guards have been killing with impunity in the fields of Kaziranga, they need to be prosecuted for extra-judicial killings and punished if found guilty.
The Kaziranga national park is surrounded by nearly 130 villages. Residents of these villages are poor and uneducated. According to local wildlife experts, poachers and smugglers take advantage of the poor living conditions and poverty in the area to lure them into setting traps for rhinos. These poor, uneducated villagers are the ones who are likely to be killed by guards allowed the liberty of shooting at sight merely on the basis of suspicion.
Reacting to the BBC expose, the Kaziranga authorities have argued that guards have not been given the licence to kill. They said the rangers and staff have just been allowed "immunity" in case they shoot a poacher. This is a ridiculous argument because the forest staff is under no threat from poachers and is under no compulsion to fire in self-defence. Effective monitoring, vigilance, modern equipment and prosecution of poachers can be much bigger tools in the fight with poachers. But, the department has given them the luxury of murder.
Unfortunately, instead of initiating a probe into the allegations of unchecked use of guns, the environment ministry has advocated action against the BBC. It has also proposed that its journalist Rowlatt be immediately black-listed.
Ironically, in the home of the rhino, the government is behaving like an ostrich.
Updated Date: Feb 15, 2017 19:04 PM