Kaziranga National Park is under siege, with gun-toting poachers killing nine endangered rhinos, the state emblem of Assam, in the first two months of the year. The last fell to bullets on February 28, raising the toll in the state to 13. The giant herbivores once enjoyed a habitat spread across a large swathe of the Indian subcontinent, till they began to fall prey to the greed of mankind, first for the pleasure of hunting and then for unscrupulously acquired lucre.
There is such demand for the horn of the animal in countries like China and Vietnam for its allegedly aphrodisiac and medicinal properties that a kilogram of the horn fetches nearly $60,000 in the international market. The poachers earn only a modicum of what the middlemen or end-level players get, but that is still enough to make them gamble their lives on inhospitable terrain.
Rhinos were also killed in other sanctuaries in Assam like Manas (one), Orang (two) and Morigaon (one) this year, but nowhere have the attacks been as incessant and clinically precise as in Kaziranga. While it is true that the 890 square kilometre area of Kaziranga, comprising hills, grassland and the Brahmaputra, is difficult to monitor, the park’s director, N.K. Vasu, said that the rhinos’ tendency to stray has compounded the problem. Since the last killing, however, two battalions of the Assam Forest Protection Force have been formed under commandants in the rank of superintendent of police, Vasu added. A census last year said of the 3,300 rhinos in the world, Kaziranga is home to 2,290.
The Assam government has initiated a CBI inquiry into the unabated killings while the environment ministry mooted aerial survey by unmanned drones. But no amount of pressure by environment and wildlife groups or burning of effigies is having the desired impact because the demand for the horn is growing by the day. Besides the aphrodisiac the Chinese seek in it, a rumour that a minister in Vietnam was cured of cancer with ingredients found in rhino horn has dealt a lethal blow to the ‘save rhino campaign’.
With Nepal and Bhutan managing to clamp down on poaching, Assam has now become the favourite hunting ground of poachers. The insurgent outfits of the Northeast have a stake in this grisly game. The poachers usually hire ‘shooters’ from outside, sometimes from militant ranks, to kill the rhinos before they gouge out the horns.
There have been instances when alert forest guards have been able to give chase and the poachers have escaped without collecting the horn, but not a single injured rhino has survived. The fact that the gangs use silencers on their guns makes it almost impossible to locate them. Since last year, 67 poachers and horn traders were apprehended in Assam. Their interrogation provided vital clues about the network and the route: from Assam to Southeast Asia via Manipur and Myanmar.
Militant nexus notwithstanding, the proscribed United Liberation Front of Asom has always decried poaching of the state’s mascot. But the solution it offered was radical to the core. Off with their horns, it suggested, to remove the very source of temptation. Intensifying vigil with satellite-based electronic eye towers, better co-ordination between security forces and the forest department and rewarding dedicated ground-level workers would possibly be more effective in tackling the problem.
With Kaziranga being a popular tourist destination, the rhinos have ceased to be suspicious of human presence. If only they could live up to the adage about their tough hide and render it bulletproof! Or drill some sense into homo sapiens that their horns have no medicinal value, as laboratory tests have already proved.