Poaching takes toll on Rhinoland

Rhinos in Assam are back in the cross-hairs of poachers. Following a lull of hardly a month towards the end of 2012, the poachers have returned to Kaziranga National Park, gunning down seven rhinos in the current year. That makes it one rhino killed every week there alone. And two other rhinos have been killed elsewhere in the state.

"Yes, incidents of poaching have gone up in the past few weeks," said Assam forest and environment minister Rockybull Hussain. "What is alarming is that while earlier it was criminals and smugglers who were involved in poaching of rhinos, recent incidents have revealed the involvement of armed militant groups."

Of the seven Kaziranga rhinos killed in the current year, three were targeted inside the 860-sq km national park, while the other four had strayed out of the world heritage site, making them easy prey. Beyond Kaziranga, poachers gunned down a rhino each of Orang National Park and Manas National Park. Kaziranga has the highest number of one-horned rhinos anywhere in the world — 2,290 on latest count — apart from the highest density of tigers in India.

The state government has come under fire from NGOs working on conservation of wildlife. "The government has made several announcements in recent times about strengthening protection measures... but on the ground these measures do not appear to have made any significant difference," stated Assam Environmental NGO Forum, a platform of several NGOs. An increase in manpower has not yielded results either, it said.

The state government, on its part, has written to the Union home ministry for permission to allow forest and wildlife protection guards to use sophisticated AK-series rifles, especially in the wake of the focus of armed militant groups on Kaziranga's rhinos, minister Hussain told The Indian Express.

On Sunday evening, a group of militants fired indiscriminately inside a forest close to the national park, said authorities, who suspect they were trying to scare away forest guards or divert their attention so that they could sneak into Kaziranga.

The involvement of armed groups came to light last year following the arrest of Lindok Rongpi of the Kuki National Liberation Front, a group based in Karbi Anglong district, which borders the national park. Rongpi later confessed before a magistrate that he had himself killed six rhinos in and around Kaziranga during 2012.

Last year, the government created the elite Assam Forest Protection Force, with automatic weapons such as self-loading rifles to match the firepower of the poachers. Also, over 200 additional guards were deployed in Kaziranga following a sudden spurt in poaching. Now the authorities plan to upgrade the four forest ranges comprising Kaziranga by placing them into four divisions, each to be headed by a divisional forest officer. "This way we will not only have better control over the situation, but have more manpower too," Hussain said.

The government recently also constituted a three-member committee headed by the principal secretary (forest & environment) to suggest measures against poaching. "Though we initially gave the committee a three-month deadline, yesterday we asked it to file its report as early as possible," the minister said.

Two weeks ago, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi announced he had requested the Centre to institute a CBI investigation into the increasing incidents of rhino poaching. Groups working on wildlife conservation are not impressed. "We have been hearing of such CBI probes for several years now," said Bibhab Kumar Talukdar of Aaranyak, chair of the IUCN-SSC Asian Rhino Specialist Group, and Asian rhino coordinator for the International Rhino Foundation.

2013 so far

January 11: Rhino carcass recovered from sandbar of Brahmaputra in Morigaon. It had strayed out of Orang National Park

January 11: Kaziranga rhino's carcass found in similar circumstances from sandbar in Sonitpur

January 14: Carcass found inside Manas National Park. Horn missing

January 27: Rhino killed in Kaziranga. Horn missing, empty AK-47 cartridges found

January 29: Rhino killed in another part of Kaziranga. Horn missing, 2 empty AK-47 cartridges

January 31: Rhino that strayed out of Kaziranga found gunned down in Golaghat district, horn missing

February 2: Rhino gunned down inside Kaziranga, horn again missing

February 4: Kaziranga rhino gunned down on north bank of Brahmaputra, horn missing

February 16: Rhino killed in Kaziranga. Horn missing, two .303 rifles recovered

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