With World Heritage Site Kaziranga, the tiol parks of meri and Orang, the Pobitora wildlife sanctuary and others thrown open to visitors, the tourist season in the State has begun. Guided tours and elephant safaris will be at hand to introduce visitors to wildlife. Park or sanctuary foresters along with respective district administrations will put on impressive shows about their efforts to conserve wildlife. One-horned rhinos, tigers and endangered animals under conservation programmes will draw special attention. But there is much that lies beneath, much of which is unsavoury. Kaziranga is frequently in the news for the wrong reasons with poachers gunning down rhinos with impunity. A report by the Rhino Task Force, submitted to the tiol Tiger Conservation Authority in May this year, made some interesting suggestions. It noted with concern how villages around Kaziranga park are infested with militants and poachers flush with unlicensed arms. Sanitization of a 15-km area around the park of illegal arms alone would drastically bring down the number of poaching incidents, the report suggested. This would require intelligence-based enforcement; field monitoring of rhinos will heve to be improved with ‘electronic eye’ and other state-of-the-art technology; more watch towers at strategic locations need to be built. The task force also blamed foresters and security personnel equally for failure of their intelligence network in checking crimil elements and illegal arms movement in and around Kaziranga. The tardy investigation of wildlife crimes and dismal rate of conviction of poachers and traffickers in the courts also came in for special criticism. What the task force said about protecting Kaziranga rhinos should be seen in the backdrop of what is now happening at the Pobitora wildlife sanctuary.
Compared to Kaziranga’s present rhino population of 2,400, Pobitora houses about 80 rhinos though it is considered the highest-density rhino habitat. Back in 1997-98, the then Range officer of Pobitora WLS, Mrigen Barua, along with some wildlife conservation activists, undertook a praiseworthy effort to protect rhinos. They persuaded several poachers to give up killing animals and help the Pobitora authority in their conservation. Among the 20-odd poachers who thus turned over a new leaf were Esob Ali and Nurul Islam. They remained steadfast to the cause of conservation all these years despite some of the surrendered poachers going back to their bad old ways. Thanks to regular briefings and timely tip-offs by the Esob-Nurul duo, many attacks on rhinos were foiled for they thoroughly knew about how the poachers moved and laid traps, the weapons they used and their getaway tactics. Esob was even awarded by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in 2003 for his role in rhino protection. But the poachers caught up with him in August this year, brutally hacking him to death in Mayong. While being shifted to Guwahati Medical College Hospital in critical condition, Esob med his assailants to the police. But of the six accused, only one has been arrested so far. After elimiting Esob, the poacher gang is now reportedly on Nurul Islam’s trail, issuing him death threats. Of the seven people Nurul has complained against in his FIR at the Mayong police station, six are accused of Esob’s murder. Because they are all at large and operating with impunity, the suspicion has grown of a nexus between these poachers and a section of corrupt policemen. This falls into a Statewide pattern of timber and sand mafias, poachers and traffickers of animal parts operating in cahoots with vel foresters and cops in forests and wildlife reserves. An evil message is going out — reformed poachers turned protectors will not be protected, rather they will be ruthlessly betrayed by the powers-be if their loot of the State’s resources is obstructed in any manner.