GUWAHATI, Sept 29 - Despite the high incidence of rhino poaching across rhino-bearing habitats of Assam, the conviction rate of arrested poachers continues to be abysmally low. This, conservationists believe, is having a negative bearing on the Forest Department's efforts to check poaching.
As per official data, a total of 214 poachers were arrested from different districts of the State from 2009 to 2013 (the break-up being 18 in 2009, two in 2010, 19 in 2011, 115 in 2012 and 60 in 2013), yet not a single poacher could be convicted during these four years.
Of the 214 poachers arrested during the period, the highest (84) was from Karbi Anglong district.
The jinx, though, was broken late last year with the conviction of two poachers of Kaziranga. This year too, two more poachers of Orang National Park were convicted in July. But still, the conviction rate has been too poor to be any deterrent to poaching.
Forest Minister Atuwa Munda, however, claims an improvement in the situation in the past one year as corroborated by the conviction of four poachers.
�Poor conviction is a fact but we are determined to reverse the trend. Lack of investigating officer has been a constraint, delaying probe and weakening cases. Now we are engaging our own departmental investigating officers as the police is overburdened with other matters,� Munda told The Assam Tribune.
Acknowledging that evidence gathering was hard in forest crimes, the Minister said that added thrust was being given on the matter and also at ensuring enhanced coordination with police.
Conservationists attribute the poor conviction to tardy investigation and prosecution, besides lack of coordination between police and the Forest Department - something admitted by the Kaziranga National Park authorities in a report last year which mentioned that poor preservation of the crime scene, tampering of evidence and removal of fingerprints make it difficult for proper convictions.
�As of now, there is no practice of collecting samples from the crime scene. Fingerprints are not recorded either. The killed rhino's DNA is not tested, casts of poachers' footprints are not collected,� stated the report.
Stressing the need for expediting investigations, Dr Bibhab Talukdar, secretary general of conservation group Aaranyak, said that the Forest Department should be proactive and must plug the loopholes in investigation and prosecution.
�There is delay in filing complaint under the Wildlife Protection Act and evidence gathering is very slow. Cases hang on for 10-15 years. Cases involving Scheduled 1 species such as rhino, tiger, elephant, etc., should, in fact, be tried in fast-track courts,� he said, adding that rather than waiting for the police, the Forest Department should register cases directly at the Chief Judicial Magistrate�s court under the Wildlife Protection Act.
Police officer Naba Kumar Borah, who played a key role in apprehending 64 poachers in 2012 - mostly in Karbi Anglong district -- and was instrumental in exposing the involvement of militant outfits in rhino poaching, is of the view that both police and Forest personnel need to act together to check the menace.
Borah who was recently honoured by the Prabhakar Barua Rhino Conservation Trust for his role in rhino conservation, had said during the award-presentation ceremony that police and the Forest Department must work in close coordination for checking rhino poaching.
Conservationists also call for proper training on the Wildlife Protection Act for the officer in-charge of the police stations near wildlife habitats, especially rhino-bearing areas.
"Police often tend to take matters concerning poaching lightly. This can change when the police officer concerned is well-versed in wildlife laws. Besides, public prosecutors also sometimes pursue cases casually," a forest officer wishing anonymity said.