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Rhino keepers

Kept on his toes day in and day out by poachers on the prowl, Bhuyan says his job more difficult than that of Army.

Rupak Bhuyan (in jacket) with his team. On March 22, they shot dead a poacher.(Dasarath Deka) Rupak Bhuyan (in jacket) with his team. On March 22, they shot dead a poacher. (Dasarath Deka)

A day in the life of : Rupak Bhuyan, 46, a Kaziranga forester

His day begins with the same prayer every day, says Rupak Bhuyan, 46, Forester Grade-I, Kaziranga National Park — “Let there be no incident today”. Invariably, the prayer is in vain. Almost every day, the sanctuary, home to the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinoceros, sees infiltration by poachers. In the first three months of 2014, they have killed 11 rhinos.

On March 22, Bhuyan and his team shot dead a poacher, the third killed this year, and recovered the horn the gang had stolen. This has been the only recovery of a rhino horn in 2014.

“Life inside Kaziranga is often more difficult than that of the police and Army,” says Bhuyan, who has been in his post for 21 years and earns around Rs 12,000 a month. “We have to work round the clock. Whenever there is news that poachers have entered, we fan out, irrespective of whether we are on duty or not.”

While March 22 was the first time he was directly involved in the killing of a poacher, he has been part of operations leading to the death of at least six poachers in the past 10 years.

Bhuyan is just one among more than 1,200 men, including game-keepers, mahouts, grass-cutters, boatmen, forest guards and game watchers, guarding the five ranges of the 882-sq km park.

Posted in the Central Range at Kohora (the heart of Kaziranga because of the main cluster of tourist lodges and the elephant and jeep safari points there), Bhuyan’s day begins at dawn because he has to also supervise the early-morning elephant rides for tourists. The park is open to visitors from November to April.

Bhuyan says poachers aren’t the only threat to forest officials. “We have to make at least two rounds of our area every day. Kaziranga has so many tigers; one may pounce on you any moment. Buffaloes too are very unpredictable, so are elephants.”

The worst period is the monsoon, when the Brahmaputra inundates large portions of Kaziranga, forcing animals to flee to higher locations across NH-37 and the forest staff to take to boats. “That is the time poachers strike most often, especially when the rhinos enter tea gardens and villages,” says Bhuyan. Incidentally, even when rhinos die a natural death, forest officials have to ensure the horn isn’t taken away.

On the days that poachers are spotted, such as March 21, foresters like Bhuyan have to think on their feet. “It was around sunset that day that the northern range informed us about a gang of poachers crossing over to our side. Our Divisional Forest Officer and Range Officer called an emergency meeting. Men from seven anti-poaching camps — Arimora, Kartika, Gobrai, Naste, Kholkholi, Alubari and Naobhangi — were assigned specific positions and a search operation was launched. Over 50 men fanned out and searched the jungle the entire night, until around day break, when the Gobrai group located footprints on the banks of the Brahmaputra,” Bhuyan says. They also discovered a hidden boat.

An ambush was laid, and a few hours after sunset, Bhuyan’s group encountered the poachers. “One bullet whizzed past my head and we fired back, until we heard a cry and splashes in the river. Thirty minutes later, we crept out and found a bag by the river with a freshly removed rhino horn,” Bhuyan says. He believes that they killed at least one poacher, while the others escaped.

After such an operation, there are many formalities to complete, like registering a case with the police, putting it in their records, conducting a postmortem of the animal, taking pictures and collecting evidence. “Finally, when you are back in your room, you can’t eat anything,” Bhuyan says. “The death of a rhino for us is like losing a family member.”

According to Abdul Majid Ali, a forest guard who has spent almost 30 years in anti-poaching camps deep inside the park and is set to retire this year, while Bhuyan’s job is rigorous, he is lucky to be deployed at the Central Range office.

“The newer generation of forest guards has joined in the time of mobile phones — at least they can remain connected with their families. In the Army, they deliver letters even to the last man up in the Himalayas on the China border. But no postman can deliver you letters deep inside Kaziranga in the anti-poaching camps,” he says.

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