An outcry has begun in the State over a BBC documentary on Kaziranga tiol Park, painting its rhino conservation efforts in very dark colours. The Central government is incensed as well, with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change reportedly pressing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to revoke the visas of BBC jourlist Justin Rowlatt and associates who shot the documentary, as well as ban their entry into India for five years. The tiol Tiger Conservation Authority, running a successful tiger conservation in Kaziranga, has already banned Rowlatt and BBC, ordering all tiger reserve authorities to disallow filming permission to the network for five years. Titled ‘Killing for Conservation’, Rowlatt’s documentary uses strong language at the very onset, dubbing Kaziranga as ‘the park that shoots people to protect rhinos’. With the tone thus set, it proceeds to punch gaping holes into KNP’s ‘incredible story of conservation success’, which started with just a handful of rhinos a century ago and now houses more than 2,400, which is two-thirds of the entire world one-horned rhino population. But this success supposedly has a “dark side” of serious human rights abuse, of abuse of blanket powers given to forest guards to shoot at sight, denial of livelihood to tribal communities who depend on Kaziranga forests for survival, eviction drives to uproot local people, and incidences of torture and extrajudicial killings. No wonder the Central government has denounced the documentary as ‘grossly erroneous’ and threatened to blacklist it; there is anger over the BBC team submitting a ‘false synopsis’ of its planned documentary before seeking permission for filming, and then flouting its undertaking by airing the documentary without showing it to a representative of the Government of India.
The language and tenor of Rowlatt’s reporting has been called partisan, his work lacking in research and balanced approach. He has been accused of not taking into account viewpoints of all the stakeholders, relying only on inputs from members of local communities victimized by the running battle between poachers and forest guards. The documentary contends that from 2013 onwards in a three year period, park rangers have been ‘killing an average of two people every month or more than 20 people a year’, that in 2015, more people were shot dead (23) by rangers than rhinos killed (17) by poachers. What is more, ‘careful investigation is not a priority when it comes to wildlife crime in Assam’ with just two people prosecuted for poaching at KNP in last 3 years, in striking contrast to the 50 people shot dead in the park, says the documentary. Innocent villagers, mostly tribal people, have been caught up in the conflict; the problem is mostly because the park rangers are indiscrimite in applying brutal force, and are given immunity from prosecution. However, the BBC documentary has been accused of using the sort of language employed by NGOs like Survival Intertiol, which has now launched an e-mail campaign in at least 10 Western countries, calling upon tourist agencies to boycott Kaziranga because of the “inhuman trend of tribal people being tortured and killed in the me of conservation”. It is true that unlike some earlier BBC documentaries, Justin Rowlatt’s work on KNP has failed to consider the problem from all sides, particularly the herculean task of defending wildlife in Kaziranga in a densely forested, flood-prone terrain with the Brahmaputra on its north and the Karbi hills on its south flanks. It has not cast any light on the scale of crimil activity that has grown up around poaching, of shooters coming in from outside, of heavily armed gangs involving local people by striking fear in them and tempting them with big money. Rowlatt has also missed out on the political and militancy angles associated with continued rhino poaching. But there needs be some soul searching from the Central and State governments’ too, about conservation efforts focused on emblematic species like the rhino and the tiger. The symbolism of the conflict should not blind the authorities to the fact that Kaziranga cannot be sealed off hermetically, that its buffer zone of local communities must not be antagonized. A heavy-handed approach only plays into the hands of poachers, who are getting ever more sophisticated in their ways. The focus should be more on involvement of locals in conservation, and astute intelligence gathering in their midst.