Three months after the state wildlife department discovered that a rhino had been poached from Gorumara National Park in Jalpaiguri, state Chief Wildlife Warden and Principal Conservator of Forests Ravi Kant Sinha on Wednesday admitted to lapses in protocol at the sanctuary. Nine persons involved in the poaching incident have been arrested so far, and two forest officials — the Ranger and Deputy Ranger of the sanctuary — were first suspended, then transferred out of Gorumara. While the investigation into the poaching is ongoing, it raised red flags in the state wildlife department, as poaching of rhinos in the state is rare.
“This was the first case of poaching in Gorumara in the past seven years. Unlike Kaziranga, where the problem is rampant with at least 60-70 rhinos poached annually,” said Sinha.
Kaziranga also loses another 60-70 rhinos to natural causes every year, taking the total toll to nearly 140 a year.
While the incident took place earlier in March this year, it only came to light in April. On March 14, after a car crash in Assam in which two of the three persons in the vehicle died, police recovered a rhino horn and some drugs. The third poacher was admitted to a hospital, and upon recovery, was interrogated.
During the interrogation, the poacher revealed the horn was from a rhino in Gorumara and not in Assam. The three persons in the car had been taking the horn and drugs to the Indo-Myanmar border town of Moreh in Manipur. Following this, state Forest Minister Binoy Kumar Burman had initiated an inquiry into the matter.
“Since the investigations started, we discovered that the ring of poachers is much larger, and involves poachers from India, Nepal and Bhutan. Nine persons have been arrested over the past two months. Another 11 persons are being investigated,” said Sinha, admitting that lapses on the part of Gorumara forest officials have come to light.
“There is a protocol in place, which was not followed. That includes constant and vigilant patrolling of the area, which was not done. The rotting corpse of the rhino and the presence of vultures were not detected. According to the protocols in place, we should come to know of an incident of poaching within 24 hours, and latest within 48 hours. This did not happen. The forest officials were unaware that the poaching took place till the time that the survivor from the crash in Assam revealed it. Our intelligence mechanism had failed in this case. And one of the reasons is because the officials had become complacent, as incidents of poaching in this sanctuary are rare — unlike in Jaldapara, where it happens more often, and therefore officials are more vigilant,” said the chief wildlife
All officials in the sanctuary, from the Conservator of Forests to deputy rangers and beat officials, have been under investigation for the lapses, he said. Senior officials have now been posted at the sanctuary to prevent further incidents, he added.
While poaching is uncommon in West Bengal, Sinha says its proximity to three highly porous international borders — Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan — makes the state an ideal transit point.
Animal parts used in traditional Chinese medicine, such as from elephants, rhinos and tigers, are available in the state. Rhino horns are used as aphrodisiacs in China, and also to cure fever, cold, cough and other ailments. There are currently 300 rhinos in West Bengal.
The rate of the horn is determined by the kilogram, and can be priced anywhere between Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore per kilogram. A small horn from an Indian rhino weights approximately between 250 grams to 1.8 kgs. Three other incidents of poaching came to light following the interrogation of the accused, Sinha said, adding all three had taken place in Assam.