GUWAHATI: Butchered by the cold-blooded poachers for their horns, the rhinos in Assam writhe in pain and gasp for life before death buries them in silence. In the first week of the New Year, four rhinos were killed in the state and their horns sawed off. Three of these were hunted at the Kaziranga National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fourth was killed at Dhing in Nagaon district. Since the killings, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has been under pressure to sack the state’s Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain.
Wildlife activists, conservation groups and various other organisations have taken to the streets demanding removal of Hussain and an end to such incidents. This is not the first time that rhinos have been poached on such a scale in the state. The widespread protests are being seen as the outburst of long pent-up anger. Under attack, Hussain said that contrary to the claims of wildlife activists and conservation groups, the number of rhinos at Kaziranga was only increasing. But wildlife activists have rubbished the minister’s claim and have accused him of encouraging the poachers.
“When he is expected to take the poachers head-on, he brags about the rise in rhino population at Kaziranga. Through such assertions, he is only encouraging the poachers,” said Soumyadeep Dutta, secretary general of the Northeast conservation group Nature’s Beckon.
In the first four months of 2013, 17 rhinos were killed in Kaziranga alone. Sometimes, the manner in which the horns are sawed off is ruthless. Last year, the horn of a rhino was cut off by poachers while the animal was still alive. It died hours after the gruesome act. Over 200 rhinos have been killed in Assam by poachers, most of them at Kaziranga, since 2001. Many have perished in the floods.
Apart from the one-horned rhinos, the 429-sq km Kaziranga is home to large, breeding populations of elephants, tigers, wild water buffaloes, swamp deer, and other animals. According to a recent survey, Assam has 2,552 rhinos. The number of rhinos estimated at Kaziranga is 2,329. The Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary and the Orang National Park have 100 rhinos each while the Manas National Park has 23 rhinos.
“This is a crisis for us. But we are doing our best to tackle the menace. We have deployed over 1,300 guards to protect the animals (at Kaziranga),” a senior forest official told Express.
“Rhino-poaching is a global phenomenon and it has only increased significantly over the last few years,” he added. Assam police say the poachers include a section of the militants in the state as well.
A meeting convened by the Forest Minister recently assessed the security of Kaziranga and sought the involvement of the Army in patrolling. A decision was also taken to launch a joint patrolling by the Assam Police, the Assam Forest Protection Force and forest staff.
“No doubt, the newly-born calves are adding to the number but has the department been able to hold on to it? Aren’t 50 per cent of the rhinos, as against the number of the newly-born, killed in the park each year? So, where is the increase?” he argued.
Dutta alleged that some forest department officials had colluded with the poachers.
“Earlier, 21 rhinos were killed over a brief period of time in an area falling under the jurisdiction of a particular Divisional Forest Officer (DFO). But despite the large-scale killings, the DFO was not removed. It was only when we stepped up the demand that he was transferred by the department,” Dutta pointed out.
“Nepal is surrounded by international borders but there is no rhino-poaching. There is also no poaching of the animal in neighbouring West Bengal. So, why can’t the Assam government stop it? It’s going on here because some forest department officials are hand-in-glove with the poachers,” he claimed.
Dutta said there was no monitoring of the horns of those rhinos, who died a natural death, and of those seized from poachers. “How would you know how many of the horns preserved by the department are real? Given the demand and the hefty amount a horn fetches, we suspect that some real horns have already been replaced by the fake ones. Nobody will know the truth unless the horns are sent for forensic examination,” he said.
The belief that a rhino’s horn works as an aphrodisiac has created a huge black market for it in Southeast Asia. Rhinos horns are smuggled to Southeast Asia through Nagaland. A rhino horn is said to fetch as much as ` 1 crore in the black market.