EDITORIAL

Incorrigible foresters

A section of incompetent, if not corrupt, forest officials in Kaziranga seem to have grown hides thick as rhinos — the iconic animal in the tiol park they are supposed to protect. Even as poachers run rings around these foresters, they in turn think nothing of pulling a bluff on the Forest minister. Recent events in the park have caused much embarrassment to Forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma, showing the extent to which such forest officials can go to cover up their misdeeds and protect their turf. On Tuesday last, the Forest minister went on her first visit to Kaziranga after taking charge, accompanied by two of her cabinet colleagues and five legislators. Even as she took inputs about park security, poachers struck, the eighth time this year. But Brahma was kept in the dark about the incident. When she came to know about it from TV reports that evening itself, the minister made enquiries but was told by her officials that all is well, that no such incident had occurred that day. Brahma did insist on visiting Agoratoli range in the park where a female rhino was reportedly gunned down, but was dissuaded by KNP officials. It was only when Brahma held a press meet in Guwahati that reporters challenged her department officials about the poaching incident, and how efforts were made to hush it up by burying the carcass with salt. What followed thereafter was bizarre, to say the least. The rhino carcass was duly discovered, sans its horn. And within 48 hours of her visit to the park, the indignt Forest minister was back again to inspect the poaching site. But despite prior intimation, KNP officials had the temerity to tell her that no arrangements had been made ‘to take a woman on elephant-back’ to the site. Meanwhile, as many as three poachers and two female operatives have been bbed in the park vicinity with weapons, ammunition and animal parts. It remains to be seen what findings are given in the report ordered by the Forest minister, but heads are likely to roll. If that happens, then the time is also opportune for some radical surgery with the KNP set-up. This would be in line with Chief Minister Sarbanda Sonowal’s recent directive to the Environment and Forest department to set up a permanent office of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) at Kaziranga. Brahma has said that allegations against some park officials and staff of being involved with poachers in the trade in rhino parts are being probed. She also wants the local police to join in the anti-poaching offensive, which is significant because KNP forest rangers and staff have the responsibility to tackle poachers. The park authority may trumpet its success in conservation efforts, with the rhino population estimated at over 2,400 presently. But poachers are taking a steady toll, gunning down 15 rhinos last year and 134 overall in the period 2005-15. Meanwhile, nearly 70 poachers have been killed in encounters in those ten years, with some of these alleged to have been cold-blooded, extra-judicial killings. There has been no concerted drive to get the ringleaders of poaching networks, some of them said to be operating from galand and also involved with smuggling illegal arms, drugs and gold. Had the Forest department and KNP authority been at all serious about law enforcement within the park, prosecution of offenders under the Wildlife Act would not have shown such abysmal conviction rates. A high degree of crimilization is associated with Kaziranga tiol park’s security, which the Forest minister will do well to tackle resolutely in her department’s first 100-days action plan.