Britain exterminated all its wildlife a hundred years ago, it still slaughters six million pheasants every year for “sport”, and its last remaining carnivore (if you can call it that), the fox, will be doing its own Brexit within a decade. So it’s a bit rich for the BBC to be advising us on how to conserve wildlife, which is what it had the gall to do in a recent documentary, Killing for Conservation, a short film ostensibly about efforts to protect the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga.
Strangely though, in this 20- minute misrepresentation, the reporter (Justin Rowlatt, BBC’s South Asia correspondent) completely upends the focus from wildlife conservation to a flawed view of human rights! Short on facts and woefully lacking in perspective or understanding of what wildlife conservation entails, he is outraged by the killing of poachers (he terms them “extra-judicial executions!”), the eviction of illegal settlers from within the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) and alleged tortures for which he has no shred of evidence.
He appears to be a bit schizophrenic, for while acknowledging that “ man is the most vicious predator” and that Kaziranga “is an incredible story of conservation success”, he still goes on to find fault with just about everything the park authorities do, and condemns them (and the WWF, for good measure!) for their success.
Let us recapitulate the context. Kaziranga National Park is vast 900 sq. km of the most difficult and inaccessible terrain, of which 228 sq. km has been set aside for the protection of the greater one-horned rhinoceros, whose horn fetches upto `20 million in China. Two-thirds of the world’s population of these rhinos are in Kaziranga. The park’s efforts constitute one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world: The rhino population has doubled in the last 22 years—from an alarming 1,164 in 1993 to 2,401 in 2015.
But the poaching has not stopped—151 rhinos have been killed in the last 10 years, 89 in just four years between 2013 and 2016, something which Rowlatt has not bothered to find out. In fact, there has been a sharp spike in poaching, which cannot but be a cause for concern.
The BBC castigates the park management for arming its forest guards and for permitting them to shoot at poachers within the park boundaries. The documentary makes no mention of the fact that poachers are armed with AK-47 rifles or that insurgents of outlawed factions have also taken to poaching the rhinos for the enormous sums that can accrue to them. (Ironically, the BBC covered another story recently to show how money from drugs and poaching follow the same trail to fund terror!)
Yes, 55 poachers have been killed inside the park in the last four years—that’s the price you pay for breaking the law, and that’s the price the nation extracts for protecting one of its most valuable natural heritages. The documented study of major parks in Africa has established that poaching has considerably declined in areas where forest staff were armed and authorised to “shoot to kill”. Any genuine lover of nature would be happy that the Assam government has had the decisiveness to so empower its forest staff.
The BBC film stresses, again without any solid proof other than the statements of a few relatives of those killed, that innocent local villagers often stray within the park boundaries and are shot. This is dishonest reporting. In the first place, the park’s boundaries are defined and well-known to the locals—there is no question of their “straying” into it. Secondly, why should an innocent person go into the park at night, which is when most of the encounters have taken place? And finally, according to the park’s director, only four of the 55 poachers killed since 2013 were locals; the others were outsiders, clinching proof they were there for the money and had no business to be there.
The same lack of diligence and journalistic ethics is on display when the BBC reporter highlights the eviction of families from within the park boundaries by force. He does not mention that all due legal processes were followed and that a large number of these families were illegal squatters, an endemic problem in Assam) with no rights to the land. The reporter is wrong when he portrays the evictions as illegal, but I agree the displacement could have been handled differently, with better planning and vision. Experience has shown that conservation succeeds only if the local (especially displaced) villagers are co-opted into the effort. There is an inevitable loss of livelihood and usufruct rights when such areas are notified and governments must have proper plans in place for their rehabilitation.
A stellar example of this is the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014. The affected villagers were given training and financial help in eco-tourism, vermi-composting, raising nurseries for medicinal plants, and provided sale outlets. They now derive gainful employment thanks to the income from tourists and trekkers that the park attracts in ever-increasing numbers. They have now developed a vested interest in preserving its bio-diversity and natural uniqueness and have become stakeholders. This is the way for the Kaziranga authorities to go. Do not relinquish the gun, but don’t depend on it exclusively.
The BBC documentary is irresponsible and misleading journalism, but so is the govenment’s reaction to it. It has blacklisted the reporter and barred him from entry to any of our protected areas. It has also sought to revoke his visa. This is not only overkill but also censorship. The battle of ideas should not be fought in passport offices or with bans but with facts, full disclosures and counter points. It does not behove the state to be churlish or bear a grudge—this puts it on the back foot and makes it appear defensive. Kaziranga is doing a fine job of protecting one of our natural icons and one ill-informed reporter with a bias should not detract it from its course.
served in the IAS for 35 years and retired as
Additional Chief Secretary of Himachal Pradesh