On 13 April, a day after Prime Minister rendra Modi conferred an award on Kaziranga for its outstanding contribution to conservation of species other than tigers, poachers killed a rhino in the 1055 sq km tiol Park with AK 47 assault rifles. This was the seventh rhino killed in Kaziranga this year and the incident occurred within 10 hours of the visit to the famed rhino reserve by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—Prince William and Princess Catherine.
The British royals, who enjoyed the Kaziranga safari earlier in the day, having seen rhinos and other animals from close range, were appalled to hear the news of the rhino killing, leading to a statement issued by Kensington Palace. “The Duke and Duchess were angry to hear about the killing of this rhino during their visit. They hope their time in Kaziranga encourages others to support the brave rangers that are protecting animals that are so important to communities that surround the tiol Park”, the statement said.
Kaziranga’s reality is that the brave rangers are working under extremely difficult conditions. While poachers have been using assault rifles to kill rhinos, the forest guards are having to make do with obsolete 0.315 and 0.303 rifles whose manufacturing have stopped three decades ago. Park officials confirmed to this writer that along with the manufacturing of these rifles, production of ammunition has also stopped. Therefore, Park officials have to procure ammunition for these rifles from the old stock lying with the Assam Police.
The predicament of the Kaziranga authorities can be well imagined because out of 10 rounds fired from these rifles, there are at least three to four misfires. A senior Park official said he was witness to three face-to-face encounters with poachers during the past month and on all these occasions, the first fire from the side of the forest guards were a miss. This alerted the poachers who maged to flee. A proposal to upgrade the weaponry of the forest guards have been pending with the Government for quite some time. Park officials say if it was difficult to provide AK 47 rifles to the forest guards, the authorities should consider arming them with the light-weight INSAS rifles. Training is not a problem because there are several Assam Police battalion headquarters located nearby.
Manpower is another huge problem in combating poachers. For the past 30 years, the number of sanctioned posts of foresters and forest guards for the Park stands at 568. However, the effective strength as of now is only 411 and the vacancies of 150 odd other personnel have not yet been filled up. There are, of course, 700 other protection personnel drawn from the Assam Forest Protection Force (AFPF), Home Guards, besides about 200 casual workers. The authorities have, meanwhile, set up 178 anti-poaching camps besides eight floating camps. Although the Park’s core area is about 480 sq kms, the overall area of the Park has increased to 1055 sq kms following addition of several new stretches.
If one looks at the broad picture, Kaziranga is a conservation success story. The reserve had 75 rhinos in 1905. In 1966, the number of rhinos in Kaziranga was put at 366. According to a 2015 estimate, the number of rhinos has risen to 2401. Kaziranga has been among the global conservation success stories but conservationists say there is no room for complacency in view of intertiol poaching syndicates operating actively. Lady Mary Leiter Curzon is often credited with having told her husband, Lord George Curzon, Governor General and Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, to take steps to protect the rhino.
“The challenge that we face is not just the growth of animal population but also that of human population which is estimated to have grown from 75,000 in 1947 to over 500,000 in 2015,” said Ranjit Borthakur, an industrialist who heads the Balipara Foundation, a leading conservation group.
The call of the moment is for the State Government and the Centre to come up with some drastic measures to check poaching in Kaziranga and that may involve upgrading the weaponry of the park guards, increasing manpower, improving roads inside the Park for greater mobility, speedboats for guards to patrol over the Brahmaputra that runs through the reserve, involving villagers in the vicinity in conservation and anti-poaching activities and setting up an investigative unit from among the park rangers.