Guwahati, Aug. 7: When two rhinos die in Kaziranga National Park on an average every month, Anwaruddin Choudhury is the last person to develop a thick hide.
Choudhury’s NGO, The Rhino Foundation for Nature in Northeast India, is going back to the rhino habitat it helped protect throughout the mid-nineties to assist beleaguered forest staff in combating the resurgence of poachers.
The statistics speak for themselves: Kaziranga has lost 14 rhinos since the start of the year, 11 of them to poachers and two only yesterday. Floods have made surveillance even more difficult at the wildlife sanctuary, a Unesco-designated World Heritage Site.
Choudhury said in Guwahati today that the rate at which rhinos were being killed this year was indicative of a long-term problem for Kaziranga, which celebrated its centenary only last year. “We have decided to refocus on Kaziranga. If rhinos continue to be killed at this rate, the species will be wiped out from the face of the earth in no time.”
Kaziranga director Surendra Nath Buragohain quickly accepted the rhino foundation’s offer to rejoin the conservation campaign. “What we need most now is help from an organised network to fight poachers, and we feel that the rhino foundation is the best in the field,” he said.
Founded in 1994 with British conservationist N.E. Wright as its chairman, the foundation works exclusively for the conservation of the Asian one-horned rhinoceros. It is reputed to have the best network of field workers and equipment among conservation-specific NGOs in the Northeast.
The rhino foundation diverted its activities from Kaziranga to the Orang and Pobitora sanctuaries in 1999-2000. Choudhury and his colleagues felt at the time that Kaziranga was in “safe hands”, having attracted the attention of several NGOs based within and outside the country.
Choudhury said the rhino population in Pobitora and Orang would have been obliterated had poaching continued the way it has been in Kaziranga.
Pobitora has 81 rhinos and Orang 68. The world’s largest population of the species is in Kaziranga: 1,855 during the last census.
The rhino foundation’s most potent weapon against poachers has been its assemblage of reformed rhino hunters. It gets funds from international agencies and individuals from across the world and the bulk of the money is spent on warm clothes, raincoats and jungle boots for forest guards in Kaziranga and the other two sanctuaries.
Choudhury said 1986 was the worst year for Kaziranga, poachers killing as many as 45 rhinos. Better vigilance and the participation of NGOs in the conservation campaign brought the number down gradually. “In 1998, only eight rhinos died and we decided to shift our attention to other rhino habitats.”
The resurgence of poachers in Kaziranga is being attributed to the involvement of gangs with international links. “Organised gangs armed with sophisticated weapons are involved,” Assam’s chief conservator of forests, M.C. Malakar, said.
The forest department recently decided to form an intelligence wing exclusively to keep tabs on these gangs.
Rhino horn is regarded as an aphrodisiac in some Asian countries. In the West, it is prized for being rare and used to make ornamental items.