MIRZA, July 25 � The tall claims of the State Government about protecting the world famous one-horned rhinos of Kaziranga National Park (KNP) by initiating a host of measures, including deputation of well-equipped battalions, have been running into rough weather as rampant poaching of the herbivore has been occurring with alarming regularity since the past few decades.
Sources pointed out that the rhino population had already been exterminated from the Manas National Park, Burasapori and Laokhowa wildlife sanctuaries. The slatey grey giants which presently exist in KNP are also facing extinction threat from unabated poaching by well organised armed gangs having strong links with the clandestine international wildlife trade market.
Sources said that over 20 rhinos have been poached during the current year and over 20-40 rhinos have been poached every year since 2005, though the concerned forest officials have miserably failed to curb the menace for lack of implementation of adequate fool-proof anti-poaching mechanism.
According a reply in the Lok Sabha on July 16 last, the Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Prakash Javadekar said there were 2,505 rhinos in Assam in 2012 and altogether 939 rhinos were killed in Assam between 2005 and 2013.
Reliable sources said that over 800 rhinos have been poached in Assam during the past five decades, thus proving without doubt that the Assan Forest Department has completely failed to curb poaching and all the high-sounding anti-poaching strategies devised year after year have failed to yield the desired result.
It may be pertinent to mention here that the neighbouring Nepal Government has been very successful in achieving zero poaching of rhinos in the Chitwan National Park. Obviously, the million-dollar question now is, if Nepal can protect its rhinos, why not the Government of India in general, or the Assam Government in particular, at Kaziranga National Park?
It may not be out of place to mention here that rhino poaching was significantly reduced to less than 10 and even zero between 2001 and 2005. According to an experienced former official of KNP who did not want to be named, the poachers intruding into Kaziranga are equipped with automatic AK series or .303 rifles. The State Government has already posted sufficient battalions equipped with sophisticated automatic weapons to deal with the poachers. But despite having automatic SLRs, the forest battalions in Kaziranga have miserably failed to curb rampant poaching of the rhinos due to poor staff management along with deployment of the battalions, besides lack of courage to counter the poachers.
�Posting of forest battalions in the camps are not proper. In some camps there are 10-15 battalion personnel, while in other camps there is not a single battalion jawan equipped with automatic riffles. Besides, some of the officials, including the director of the park are often newly posted in Kaziranga and they do not know about the movement of the rhinos as per season and hence the battalion personnel are not properly distributed based on the movement of the herbivores,� said the officer, pleading anonymity.
�A group of poachers normally consists of 4-5 persons, including a shooter and a tracker. The tracker is the key person who knows about the movement of the rhinos and the forest staff, besides roads of the area. He guides the shooter, who is generally a Karbi or Naga, on how to intrude into KNP and shoot a rhino and flee soon after slaying the animal. But some staff of KNP fail to locate the stray rhinos or even fail to guard the rhinos round the clock and the poachers take advantage of the absence of the forest battalions during a particular time of the day or night to shoot the rhino,� said the official.
Another official of the park alleged that some battalion jawans of certain camps used to patrol their respective territories/jurisdictions during the day time only and remain asleep during the night, thus offering advantage to the poachers to kill rhinos during the night. Sources added that the battalions find it very risky to patrol Kaziranga fearing attack by wild animals or poachers.
�The concerned rangers or the senior officials of the park do not conduct surprise checks on the camps or ever take strict action against the sleeping staff, and hence poachers enjoy a field day. Most of the time the senior forest officials of Kaziranga pass their time in the office preparing plans and estimates for getting funds for the park. How many among the forest battalion or staff have ever been suspended for dereliction of duty?� he questioned.
Sources said that most of the 174 anti-poaching camps of Kaziranga National Park do not have domesticated trained elephants so that battalions of the camps can protect themselves from the charging wild animals during patrolling duty. Presently, most of the battalions perform patrolling on foot and over 150 forest personnel have been injured by wild animals till date and more than a dozen staff have succumbed to their injuries.
Interestingly, though Assam is home to over 3000-4000 domesticated elephants, but the State Forest Department has failed to hire elephants for patrolling in Kaziranga. Presently, hundreds of pockets within the park are not conducive for patrolling by vehicle or on foot and hence serious effort needs be taken to make routes by clearing jungles or making roads for speedy patrolling.
Sources said that in addition to the 174 fixed anti-poaching camps in Kaziranga, there should be some round-the-clock mobile camps based on the movement of the rhinos and other animals. During the annual floods, rhinos are poached on the periphery of the Burrapahar and other wildlife ranges and accordingly mobile camps need be set up either in the tree-tops , hill-tops or even in the fringe villages so that poachers� attempts to slay stray rhinos can be thwarted. Sources said that immediate punishment needs be awarded to the erring battalion jawans and staff who do not deal with poachers or who are not willing to perform their duties.
Informed sources said that poachers often hide for days or even months in some households of the fringe villages. Further, intelligence gathering from these fringe areas is very less. Moreover, only a negligible amount of money is paid by the forest department to the informers of the fringe villages and hence tracking down of poachers allegedly hiding in some households or in the adjacent hills or under the tree groves or under the tall reeds is not possible in most of the cases.
�Nowadays, poachers give more money for their intelligence gathering (movement of rhinos and forest staff) to some households or trackers than what is paid to an informer by forest personnel for getting input about poachers,� said a former senior forest official of Kaziranga National Park.
Sources confirmed that forest staff have failed to establish a good rapport with the villagers because the forest officials have failed to launch income-generating activities or developmental activities covering the villagers. Not a single income-generating project has been launched till date by the Kaziranga authority for the development of the villagers living in the fringe areas of the Kaziranga, but it is alleged that several innocent villagers have been harassed in the name of search for hidden poachers.
�The villagers in the fringe of the park need be motivated, developed and taken into confidence in order to get their help to single out actual poachers,� sources said.
Talking to this scribe over telephone, the director of Kaziranga National Park, MK Yadav said that the KNP authority had already adopted a modified strategy and he believed that rhino poaching would be nil within the next 18 months, i.e., after implementation of the modified strategy. He said that they have formulated a new scheme to develop the fringe villagers, and the forest officials could establish a good rapport with the villagers within a short time soon after implementation of the scheme. He said that officials, including himself, were conducting sudden visits to the camps during night time and putting all out efforts to protect the rhinos. He said that during the last 6 months, a record number of poachers had been either killed or apprehended and several poaching attempts foiled by the forest personnel.
He said that as in the daytime, the battalions had been guarding the animals at night also and forest officials had been paying their informers in the fringe villages. He said that forest staff of the park had been facing shortfall of night vision binoculars to locate poachers during night. They had therefore moved the State Government to provide the night vision binoculars and other facilities.
Another official of the park said that the electronic eye currently being installed would help locate poachers upto a 4 km radius. Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, HK Choudhury stressed on global efforts to help close the clandestine international black market of rhino horn, which would help curb poaching of rhinos. He also said that battalions of Kaziranga National Park need to be well trained in order to deal with the poachers who are armed with sophisticated weapons. The battalions should learn to take pride in their job, he asserted.