Forest workers stand near one of the rhinos killed by poachers in Kaziranga on Wednesday. (PTI)
Jorhat/Guwahati, Aug. 21: Kaziranga National Park suffered a double blow today with poachers killing two rhinos in the wee hours of the morning and the Union defence ministry turning down a proposal of deploying unmanned aircraft at the world heritage site.
The rhinos were killed at the Burapahar range of Kaziranga National Park around 3am. The poachers managed to remove the horn of the female rhino before fleeing.
Forest guards responded and there was a shootout with the poachers after which four cartridges of AK-47 rifles were recovered. Today’s incident takes the number of rhinos killed in the park this year already to 18. Last year, the park had lost 17 rhinos.
The ranger of Burapahar, Jinaram Bordoloi, said shots were heard by the forest guards of Sirang forest camp, 250 metres from the spot, around 3.02am. The guards immediately retaliated. “We pursued the poachers who fled to the hills, but kept firing at us. We were in the open and they were at an advantageous position. Behind the park lies the Karbi hills and most likely they made a getaway under the cover of darkness,” Bordoloi said.
He said the female rhino was spotted first with its horn chopped off. While they were returning they saw a mound nearly 25 metres away and stumbled on the body of a male rhino with its head partially buried in the soil.
The ranger said the two rhinos — a male and a female, both aged between five-and-a-half and six years, had crossed over to the park from Salna forest range in Nagaon district and were going around in a 15 to 20m circumference in what is known as a pre-mating courtship chase.
“The poachers managed to gouge out the horn of the female rhino but could not take that of the male one. We, however, could not save their lives,” Bordoloi said.
After the poachers stopped firing, a search of the hillside revealed four spent cartridges from AK-47 rifles. “Most likely there were four poachers with at least two rifles as two cartridges were slightly different,” he added.
Bordoloi said this was most likely the first incident when two rhinos had been shot together. “Our men retaliated immediately but the poachers managed to flee as it was still dark,” said S.K. Seal Sharma, divisional forest officer, Kaziranga National Park.
Robin Tumung, in-charge of Bagori police outpost, under which the range falls, said they had conducted search operations in the Deosor and Deosar Sang villages nearby and questioned villagers but had not got any clues.
Forest department officials also questioned the owner of a dhaba which overlooks the spot where the rhinos were killed.
Currently, 1,200 security personnel, comprising forest guards and personnel from the recently raised Assam Forest Protection Force, patrol the 880 square km park, after it was extended from 430 square km.
Assam forest minister Rakibul Hussain said in Guwahati this evening that militants were involved in poaching. He said forest department personnel who achieve success in operations against poachers would be rewarded.
“The defence ministry has informed us that the unmanned aircraft request has been turned down owing to security reasons,” the forest minister said. The project, to be implemented with the technical expertise of the Wildlife Institute of India, was to provide real time pictures for effective monitoring of Kaziranga. “We have asked the defence ministry to review the decision,” the minister said.
On April 9-10, test flights were conducted using a Hobby Model unmanned aerial vehicle and some pictures were also taken. Hussain said a committee is being constituted to explore the feasibility of fencing parts of Kaziranga National Park to check rhinos from straying. The fence will cover an area of 50km and will be set up in phases.
The minister said the Centre has agreed to provide arms and ammunition to boost the state forest department’s firepower.
In another development, 10 rhinos will be translocated to Laokhowa-Burhachapori protected area from either Pobitora or Kaziranga by January next year.