Even as the controversy over a BBC film on alleged excesses in Kaziranga — documenting what it says are the “dark secrets” of forest guards who “shoot and kill” humans inside the park — continues, the acting director of Corbett, who reportedly issued a shoot-at-sight order while launching an anti-poaching drive last week, has been relieved of the additional charge of the tiger reserve. The freedom given to forest guards to use lethal force to stop poaching in India’s prime tiger reserves — they have “legal immunity” in Kaziranga and Corbett — has triggered a raucous debate between conservationists and human rights activists. On the ground, however, such a strategy is neither “unwarranted” nor “successful”. And therein lies the rub.
First things first. shoot-at-sight does not mean forest guards can gun down anyone they spot inside the forest. It means that they are empowered to open fire if they cannot satisfactorily establish the identity or purpose of an intruder. A protection force is in any case entitled to retaliate if attacked. The distinction here is that the guards are allowed to shoot as a pre-emptive move before they are shot at. Often, that power is the difference between life and death for guards in Kaziranga where poachers are known to carry Kalashnikov assault rifles. Forest guards with their usual .303s have a slim chance without a first-mover advantage. The resulting edginess has led to cases of unarmed villagers having been shot inside the park. But politically incorrect as it may sound, some collateral damage is inevitable in a war zone.
Kaziranga is very much a war zone, particularly after sundown, with gun-toting men on either side. Unlike many other protected forests, it has no village inside and, therefore, there is no question of villagers entering or leaving the park in an emergency, or entertaining guests at unusual hours. That makes anyone who is spotted a suspect. In Africa, where organised gangs mowed down elephants and rhinos in thousands, a similar strong-arm response was felt necessary. Allowed to open fire if threatened with lethal force, rangers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park reportedly killed nearly 500 poachers from neighbouring Mozambique between 2010 and 2015. In 2013, after it had lost more than 1,000 rangers to poachers over a decade, Tanzania launched Operation Terminate to protect Serengeti National Park.
While there is no denying that firepower is required to take on heavily-armed poachers — many of whom are ex-soldiers in Africa and ex-militants in Assam — to what extent does this strategy help conservation? And how responsibly do forest authorities use such powers?
To answer the second question first, the records are not redeeming. Tanzania suspended Operation Terminate within months after complaints of harassment, torture and killings. An inquiry revealed that 13 civilians had been executed and more than 1,000, including pastoralists, arrested. A minister who had called for illegal ivory trade operators to be executed on the spot, was sacked. In Kaziranga, too, there have been allegations that guards settled personal scores in the name of anti-poaching operations, and even colluded with the very poaching syndicates they were supposed to be fighting. The park authorities were accused of harassing local villagers while shielding political bigwigs whose names had allegedly surfaced during investigations into poaching.
Even if these are considered avoidable pitfalls of an otherwise essential strategy, the guns have at best worked as a limited and temporary deterrent to poaching. Even after hundreds of poachers were killed in Kruger after 2010, for example, 557 instances of rhino poaching were reported during January-August 2015, and 458 in 2016. In Kaziranga, forest guards shot dead 45 poachers over 2014 and 2015, and at least 44 rhinos were poached in the park during the same period. On average then, the annual loss on each side was of roughly 22 lives. In 2016, not more than 5 poachers were killed, while at least 17 rhinos were poached. Gunning down poachers over several decades has not stopped or significantly reduced rhino poaching.
Guns, though necessary in an emergency, cannot win conservation battles on their own. Reliance on guns tends to shift focus from intelligence-based anti-poaching drives. Worse, used injudiciously, guns alienate local stakeholders whose support is crucial for any conservation effort to succeed in the long term. The predominant conservation model the world over still remains exclusionary. It has virtually no incentives for the local community to partner and support such measures. Instead, disempowered, persecuted and impoverished locals become easy recruits for poaching syndicates.
Admittedly, sharing the economic benefits of conservation with local communities will not immediately sever the lifelines of poaching syndicates. As the population living around India’s forests increases relentlessly, a family’s share in the financial benefits shared with the community — even if it is reasonably generous — is likely to be no match for the income from a single poaching assignment. Yet, that policy shift is necessary. More than giving forest dwellers a financial stake in conservation, it is about recognising their rights and dignity. Over time, the collective stake of these communities can grow to work as an effective deterrent. There will, of course, always be a few black sheep who will remain interested in making a quick buck. But that is why the forest department will also always have those guns.
Postscript, on Corbett
First, only a magistrate, and no forest official, can issue a shoot-at-sight order. In 2001, the Uttarakhand government had ordered that no criminal case would be filed against forest staff, pending a magisterial inquiry, for shooting someone while discharging their duty. It has been in force since.
Second, the area has a high population of tigers, and no poacher is likely to venture inside Corbett when it is easier to target the cats along the reserve’s boundaries and in peripheral forests, particularly to the south and east of the reserve. No poacher was spotted during the latest anti-poaching drive.
Third, even if they enter Corbett, poachers in this part of the country are not known to carry sophisticated arms. In fact, not a single firearm has been seized inside Corbett in a decade.