Protecting Assam's rhinos

Protecting Assam's rhinos

The Kaziranga National Park is a fascinating habitat, and comes up in evaluation exercises of management of tiger reserves in the north-eastern states. Assam has 2600 rhinoceros, of which 2,400 are in the Kaziranga National Park (KNP). It is situated in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra River.

The ground level of the KNP was raised during an earthquake in 1950. The sediments carried by the Brahmaputra and rivers originating in neighbouring Karbi Anglong district are deposited. During monsoon, the rivers inundate the area, overflowing banks and filling low-lying areas of the KNP. The flood is an annual feature.

The KNP has a large diversity of mammals, birds and reptiles. One-horned rhinoceros, wild buffalo, elephant, tiger and swamp deer are present in good numbers and are popularly called the 'big five' of Kaziranga. This Park has many appellations to its credit - it is a tiger reserve, a world heritage site, an elephant reserve and an important bird area.

The threat to wildlife in the KNP is severe as the rhinoceros population is very high and the entire boundary is porous. The northern side is surrounded by the Brahmaputra and its numerous islands. There is a large population of traditional fishing communities all along the river, some of which harbour poachers of wild animals, especially of the rhinoceros. The poachers entering KNP  from its northern side with the help of fishing communities use .315 and .303 rifles.

There are no villages inside the Park area, but villages close to the southern boundary also pose a threat to it and make wildlife protection difficult. These villagers harbour poachers from Nagaland and Manipur, who use assault rifles (AK 47, AK 56, etc). From 1980 to 1997, a total of 530 rhinos were poached, averaging nearly 30 rhinos per year. The highest poaching in a year - 48 rhinos - was reported in 1992, when its population was 1,100. In the years 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, rhino poaching cases were 27, 27, 17 and 18 respectively. Six rhinos were poached till November 2017. The markets for rhino horn are in China and Taiwan. Rhino population in the Park was 940 in 1980, grew to 1,300 in 1997 and was 2,400 as per the latest census in 2015.

Some other Protected Areas (PAs) in Assam also have rhino populations, equally vulnerable as at KNP for poaching. The Bodo agitation in the 1980s and 90s resulted in the wiping out of all rhinos from the Manas National Park (MNP). Elephants and tigers were also wiped out. The populations of these animals are slowly building up as a result of migration from the adjoining Royal Manas of Bhutan.

The MNP management has reintroduced rhinos, but poaching goes on unabated. Two rhinos reintroduced into the Burachapori Sanctuary in the flood plain of Brahmaputra have died. It appears that the mother was diseased and the calf was too young to survive alone. The choice of the pair for reintroduction was probably inappropriate.

Cattle from villages adjoining KNP graze inside the Park. The practice leads to habitat loss and poses an even bigger threat to wildlife protection. There are 178 anti-poaching camps spread across the Park so as to keep the entire area under surveillance. The spots of one rhino poaching on the night of November 2 and two more two nights later were hardly 200 meters from the Tunikati anti-poaching camp in Buda-pahar range. The same gang stayed in the Park for two days and committed both poaching. They were caught by police in Nagaland a week later.

During my visit, the staffs of the camp were confronted with a question as to how the poachers had stayed on in the forests without being noticed, they had no answer. A senior officer shared with me the obvious suspicion that some staff had abetted the poaching.

Multiple measures

The Government of Assam has taken many measures for effective management of wildlife in the state, including legislative changes, bringing Wildlife (Protection) (Assam Amendment) Act, 2009, for strict enforcement in handling wildlife crimes such as the poaching of rhinos; a special task force to prevent rhino-poaching, comprising of district police of Golaghat, Nagaon, Sonitpur and Karbi Anglong districts, as well as Forest personnel of KNP, was established in 2014. They have arrested many poachers in a series of raids.

Additional support to curb poaching in KNP is provided by placing 535 personnel from the Assam Forest Protection Force, who are armed with .303 rifles and 200 SLRs. The services of 125 Home Guards are also available. A process is on to acquire more sophisticated arms, like AK series weapons.

An electronic surveillance system, called the Electronic Eye, has been installed on eight 45-metre tall towers and one control tower. They are fitted with visual and thermal imaging cameras with 24X7 operation. The visual camera can track any movement within a radius of 10 km during the day while the thermal camera can track up to three km during night. To cover the entire Park in surveillance, eight more towers need to be installed. For full-night surveillance, many more towers are required. The system in operation presently provides limited support to anti-poaching strategies.

During patrolling in the jungle, the staff are not only prone to attacks by poachers but also by wild animals like rhinos, wild buffalos and elephants. Fifteen forest personnel have been killed while patrolling the jungle in the last 12 years. Eight were killed by rhinos, four by buffaloes and three by elephants. In addition 41, 10 and 6 patrollers were injured by rhinos, buffalos and elephants respectively.

Assam often seeks the services of the CBI to unearth forward and backward linkages of poaching rackets. Other states should also constitute task forces with similar support.

(The writer is former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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