Assam government steps up efforts to curb poaching, Army called in to help

One-horned rhinoceroses of the Kaziranga National Park face dual threat to their lives — from the flood and, the more dreaded one, from poachers.

When the rhinos flee their flooded habitat to take shelter in the highlands of the Karbi Anglong foothills along the southern boundary of the park, poachers find it easier to kill and dehorn them as these areas fall outside the notified areas of the park and lack effective anti-poaching cover.

These areas fall under the Forest Department of the Karbi Anglong Autonomus Council (KAAC), a body under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, and in the absence of an institutionalised mechanism for coordinated management, the Kaziranga-Karbi Anglong landscape, considered by experts as an important landscape for the conservation of rhinos and other animals, has now become a safe haven for poachers.

Since January, the poachers have killed 11 rhinos of the Kaziranga National Park, including six killed during the two waves of high flood during June-July and in September. Of the six killed by poachers during the floods, four were killed in the Karbi Anglong hill areas. Besides, 28 rhinos have drowned and died in two waves of flood in the park.

Thus Kaziranga has lost 39 rhinos due to flood and poaching since January. The number of rhinos in Kaziranga which have died of natural causes, including the deaths due to floods since January, is 88. These deaths have brought down the rhino population in the Park from 2,290 in the beginning of the current year to 2,191 as on October 4. Kaziranga has the world's largest population of Indian one-horned rhinoceroses.

Kaziranga National Park director N.K. Vasu told The Hindu that the poachers used three methods to kill and dehorn rhinos — pit poaching, electrocution and gunshots. Of these, gunshots have been the most prominent. In the pit poaching method, the poacher dig up pits along the tracks (dandis), which rhinos use regularly from its wallowing place to the feeding grounds while roaming in grass lands, and camouflage the pits. When the rhino gets trapped in the pit the poachers finish it off and remove the horn.

In the electrocution method the poachers hang a live wire from high tension power lines located outside the Park areas. When the rhino comes into contact with the wire it gets electrocuted. Since 1980, the electrocution method was recorded only between 1989 and 1992, and a total of eight rhinos were killed employing this method.

The poachers now use guns because of intensified patrolling and an increase in the number of anti-poaching camps and increased patrolling by front line staff along the rhino tracks. They find it difficult to use pit-poaching method, which requires the poachers to stay inside the park for a longer duration. This year, all the 11 rhino deaths have been from gunshot wounds.

Since 1980, the highest number of rhinos killed by poachers was in 1992 when 48 rhinos were killed, 44 of them by gunshots, two each by pit-poaching and electrocution methods.

Mr. Vasu says rhino poaching is an organised crime and once a rhino is killed and dehorned, the horn is quickly taken out of the country via two known routes for illicit rhino horn trade — the India-Myanmar border through Dimapur, Nagaland, or via the India-Nepal border through Siliguri in West Bengal.

There are 152 anti-poaching camps in the Kaziranga National Park and the strength of front line staff of the park is 562. During the September floods, areas under 125 of the 152 anti-poaching camps were completely flooded and forest guards of 12 camps had to be shifted to safer locations. All the camps are connected via a wireless communication network. The park will soon be getting 34 new foresters and 65 forest guards.

The park had 11 sections of the Assam Forest Protection Force, and following the poaching incidents, 100 more AFPF personnel are being deployed.

Intensified anti-poaching measures have paid dividends as 15 poachers have been arrested since January. In 2011, three poachers were killed in encounter with front line staff and nine were arrested and five weapons seized. In 2010, nine poachers were killed in an encounter and 14 were arrested. However, despite the arrests and the deaths of some poachers in encounters, poaching is going on unabated. The Park director felt that intelligence gathering required to be intensified as part of various measures to curb poaching.

Poachers normally use .303 rifles to kill rhinos. They dismantle these weapons to escape checking and reassemble them when required to shoot their prey. However, post-mortem of the carcass of one of the three rhinos killed recently in the Karbi Anglong foothill areas revealed the use of AK series rifles, thereby reinforcing intelligence inputs that militants active in Karbi Anglong hills could be involved in poaching.

This has given rhino poaching in Kaziranga a new dimension, prompting the State government to request the Army to intensify counter-insurgency operations in these areas.

Mr. Vasu said a new management plan for the Park would be drawn up soon as the existing management plan was for 10 years, from 2003-04 to 2012-2013. The new plan will address landscape management in three focus areas — Kaziranga National Park, other areas as buffer zones and animal corridors.

He stressed the need for developing strategies to ensure increased and regular coordination between the Park authorities, the Forest Department of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) and the management of the Kaziranga- Karbi Anglong landscape to curb poaching.

The Forest Department of KAAC has already initiated the process of notifying the North Karbi Anglong Wildlife Sanctuary; the preliminary notification has already been issued. Once the final notification is issued, the area is expected to witness stronger presence of front line staff of council authorities, which, Mr. Vasu said, would go a long way in coordinated management and conservation efforts.