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SAVE THE HORN

There’s a debate perched on the horns of a dilemma: Should the one-horned Indian rhinoceros be dehorned to save them from poachers?

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, addressed a rally in Assam’s Dhemaji last Monday, saying: “Those who are conspiring to finish off rhinos, they should listen to this carefully. Aren’t rhinos the pride of Assam? These days there is a conspiracy to kill it. After May 16, they will be taken to task one by one.”

For the apolitical rhinos, this assertion could be a godsend, since the Assam government is contemplating removing the horns of the species translocated to Laokhowa Burhachapori wildlife sanctuary. Wildlife experts and NGOs have been vocal in their opposition to the idea, but the state government, unable to curb poaching in national parks like Kaziranga, Orang, Manas and Pobitora in Assam, are trying to take the easy way out.

Over the past few days, the views of the international conservation community, including of rhino experts like Dame Daphne Sheldrick, Belinda Wright, Christy Williams, Johnny Rodriguez, among others, have been highlighted in the media. They assert that dehorning is like a “temporary band-aid effort” because rhinos with stubs are also a target for unscrupulous poachers. A rhino without its horn is shorn of its identity, a fact evident from one such inmate in Singapore zoo, which looks decidedly incongruous alongside its “normal” companions. Animal behavioralists say removal of the rhino horn results in disorders and impacts the animal’s chances of survival.

Rhino poaching is rampant across Asia and Africa. Countries like Zimbabwe, and to a lesser extent South Africa, have opted for large-scale dehorning of their rhino population, but poaching is still rampant. The only country where the operation (pun unintended) appears to have worked is Namibia. In neighbouring Nepal, which has nearly 100 rhinos, poaching has been kept in check only because of the strictest vigil.

The idea of dehorning rhinos in Assam was broached by the proscribed United Liberation Front of Asom following a spurt in poaching last year. This had sparked a sense of outrage because the rhino is regarded as a mascot in Assam and an emblem with its most distinguishing feature missing would definitely not assuage hurt sentiments. It enjoys pride of place in Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

According to the latest census (March 2013), there are 2,329 rhinos in Assam, up from 2,290 the previous year. A dozen of them (11 in Kaziranga and one in Pobitora) have fallen prey to poachers this year alone. When we deal with the ethics of intervention to save species in the wild from poachers, the initial effort should be to protect the animal by training security personnel, enhancing vigil, beefing up intelligence, improving infrastructure and spreading awareness.

Dedicated forest staff in national parks like Gir (Gujarat) and Kanha (Madhya Pradesh) have been able to minimize poaching of lions and tigers with stringent vigil. Like the foresters of Assam, they are ill-equipped in terms of weapons (compared to the poachers who are armed with AK series rifles). But these rangers brave the threats and love the animals with exemplary zeal.

The Assam government was the first in the country to issue shoot-at-sight orders against poachers. The commitment of its forest staff is unquestionable, with many vigilantes risking their lives to save the rhino. Whatever the verdict of the expert committee on the dehorning of rhinos, any move to rob these creatures of their keratin mass will be defeating the very crux of conservation. In this season of campaigns, our vote goes to the Rhinoceros unicornis, not to unwarranted intervention by homo sapiens!