THE Assam government celebrates Kaziranga National Park “as the most successful conservation initiative in the subcontinent in the 20th century”. The numbers bear it out — from about 40 rhinoceros in 1905 to more than 2,400 now, or two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhino population.
However, it is not these numbers for which the 858-sq-km park, located in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra, is making news. As per a BBC documentary, Killing for Conservation, this success has been maintained via a policy leaving “an average of two people killed every month”. “Its rangers have been given the kind of powers to shoot and kill normally only conferred on armed forces policing civil unrest,” the documentary said.
In a sharp reaction, the Environment Ministry called the BBC reporting “grossly erroneous”, and recommended the blacklisting of its South Asia correspondent.
Also read: Arms and the men
However, in India’s uphill conservation battle, where ill-equipped, short-staffed, fund-deprived forest guards are pitted against motivated poachers and blurred forest boundaries, and where laws are at the mercy of authorities, the debate is set to last.
Even before the Kaziranga controversy could die down, the acting director of the Jim Corbett National Park, Parag Madhukar Dhakate, was removed for reportedly issuing shoot-at-sight orders for an anti-poaching drive in February.
Poaching remains a key threat to wildlife across species in India. While pangolins killed for their scales are the latest prime victim, large mammals remain high-value targets. The Wildlife Protection Society recorded the loss of over 121 elephants due to poaching during 2008-2011. In 2016 alone, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) recorded 30 cases of tiger poaching, while 53 tiger deaths remained unexplained.
Kaziranga itself has lost at least 60 rhinos to poachers in the last three years. A rhino horn, selling for US $300,000 per kilogram, is one of the most prized contraband items in the world. In this largely dismal picture of India’s conservation efforts, the Kaziranga story thus has multiple perspectives.
Between 8 pm and 11 pm is the time poachers are known to strike in the Park. Darkness engulfs large stretches of Kaziranga by then, especially its dense marshlands.
Over a thousand personnel, including forest officials and members of a special armed force, set out around this time, on foot or in boats. They are meant to work eight hours daily but are on standby at all times.
Each group of guards, spread out over 183 anti-poaching camps, is required to cover 4-5 sq km during a shift. A CAG report of 2014 on Kaziranga noted that many of its frontline staff “were physically incapable of discharging protection duties”. Of 229 such staff deployed in anti-poaching camps, it found 69 to be above 50, 47 in the age-group 47-49 years, and 38 between 41-45. Most of them earn between Rs 5,200 and Rs 20,200.
In April 2013, Assam floated the idea of deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance. The Defence Ministry, however, shot it down for fear of rebel groups capturing them. So the Park authorities deployed ‘electronic eyes’ — eight 45-m-high towers, fitted with cameras.
“Three more will be installed this year,” says Park Director Satyendra Singh. Since the time these were deployed, however, no intruder has ever been caught by these cameras, indicating that at least one of the purposes lies defeated.
Apart from age, vacancies hamper Kaziranga’s staff. Of its sanctioned strength of 563 forest personnel, 130 posts are lying vacant.
Besides guards, Kaziranga has 500 members of the 2nd Battalion Assam Forest Protection Force — an armed force directly under the control of the Forest Department. Assam was the first state to raise such a force. Soon, Kaziranga will also have a Special Tiger Protection Force, which was envisaged by the NTCA back in 2009.
Former Park director M K Yadava, during whose tenure a report on Kaziranga was placed before the Gauhati High Court in 2014, says the men are at work round-the-clock. “Kaziranga would require not less than 3,000 men if they are to be deployed in shifts,” he says.
The guards carry rudimentary weapons. “These include the .315 sporting rifle, the .303 rifle, the .32 revolver, the .12-bore double-barrel gun and the .12-bore single barrel gun,” director Singh says. AFPF personnel fare only a little better.
It’s an unequal battle, with poachers often carrying AK-series weapons. Authorities claim to have recovered at least one AK-47 rifle and several rounds of AK-series ammunition from them. The last recovery was on December 14, 2016, from a spot where a rhino was killed. In October 2012, police in Karbi Anglong claimed to have recovered one AK-56 rifle and other weapons from a gang which had allegedly killed six rhinos.
Officials believe the weapons show the links of poachers to militant groups, with several such as the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers, Karbi Liberation Front and People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri operate in the area. However, no rebel cadre has ever been arrested for rhino poaching.
The government has been looking to provide AK-series weapons to guards. But, admits Forest Minister Pramila Rani Brahma, “this is at a very preliminary stage”.
Singh doesn’t believe though that better weapons alone is a factor in wildlife protection. “The fact is that rifles are much more effective in wildlife protection, particularly because of their range and accuracy,” he says.
It was in July 2010 that Assam decided to arm Kaziranga forest personnel with the right to use firearms. The notification, issued under Sub-Section (2) of Section 197 of the CrPC, said all personnel, from the Principal Chief Conservation of Forests down to the game-watcher, were “charged with maintenance of public order relating to forest and wildlife protection, conservation and management”.
And added that “No Court shall take cognizance of any offence alleged to have been committed by any member of the Armed Forces of the Union while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of his official duty, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government”.
Assam was the first government to use this provision for wildlife protection, and then Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi faced no opposition from any political quarters. The notification also covered the other forces deployed in Kaziranga.
“There was a spurt of poaching incidents from 2007 onwards and mounting threats to forest resources, including rhinos, which prompted the government to act,” says then forest minister Rakibul Hussain.
In the past three years, at least 50 alleged poachers have been killed inside Kaziranga. Prior to that, the number, for 17 years between 1996 and 2013, stood at 60. Around that same period, 411 alleged poachers were arrested.
But there has been no let-up in poaching incidents. While 98 rhinos were killed by poachers between 1996 and 2009, 114 were killed in the next seven years.
In the 112-year-old history of Kaziranga conservation, however, only one person — Janak Deori, a 27-year-old Assam Police constable — has fallen to poachers’ bullets. Deori was killed in 2015 in an encounter with militants.
Minister Brahma is willing to admit only this much about the rise in poacher killings: that the staff “definitely feels encouraged” since it was given special powers. About poaching still taking place, he says it is due to “overpopulation” of rhinos as well as “the problem of rhinos straying out of the Park”.
Tapan Gogoi, from Lukhurakhoniya village on the fringes of Kaziranga, has been a forest guard since 2007. A son of a former poacher, Tapan says with some pride that he has killed four poachers. “I killed two even when I was just a Home Guard personnel,” he says, adding that once he managed to save a horn from poachers.
Justifying the power to shoot, Singh says, “No person other than a forest guard has any business to be inside Kaziranga other than for targeting a rhino. One should not expect a guard to approach poachers having sophisticated weapons with bare hands.”
His predecessor Yadava claims enough avenues are available against any abuse of the law. “Earlier, a forest guard was liable to be arrested for having shot at or killed a poacher. The guard would not use his weapon because of fear of losing his job, and the poachers knew this. Once this notification was issued, the guards have been empowered to shoot, though the fact remains that a magisterial inquiry has to be conducted after a poacher is killed,” he says.
Asked how many such inquiries had been ordered, director Singh says, “A magisterial inquiry is a must in each incident wherever firing is resorted to, and as such an executive magistrate would have definitely carried out an inquiry. The reports are then submitted to the deputy commissioner of the respective district.” However, he admits not knowing of “any adverse report so far”.
Backing the “zero tolerance” policy against poachers in Kaziranga “as well as other national parks”, Forest Minister Brahma rules out withdrawing the provision. “Kaziranga is a symbol not just of Assam but of wildlife conservation across the globe. It belongs to the entire human race. Our boys engaged in protecting wildlife are no lesser patriots than the soldiers at Kargil.”
No innocent person has ever been killed by guards, she adds. “Had they done so, the high court and the Assam Human Rights Commission would have immediately taken up cases suo motu.”
Singh gives the same argument, while asserting that all the 50 killed in the past three years were “indeed poachers”. “Of them, 37 could not be identified. No one turned up to claim their bodies. Had they been innocent, family members would have filed cases against us,” he says. According to him, most of the unidentified poachers were from Nagaland or Manipur.
Of the 13 “poachers” whose bodies have been identified, seven were from Sonitpur and Biswanath districts on the north bank of the Brahmaputra.
Haren Doley was killed close to the Duramari anti-poaching camp on June 22, 2014. One .303 rifle and three rounds of ammunition were recovered after the encounter, says a Park report on his death.
The eldest of three sons of Ajit Doley of village Bhakatchapori, Haren, 20, was a student of higher secondary at Numaligarh College. Ajit has been bedridden for years,
Uncle Bhishma Doley, a marginal farmer who doubles as a daily wager, says, “Haren would pay for his college by making rhinos and elephants of wood and selling them by the highway. He was also looking for a job and contacted a range officer of Kaziranga, who initially helped him by placing orders for wooden rhinos worth Rs 30,000. On June 19, 2014, Haren got a call from the officer to see him. Five days later, when we went to the police to lodge a missing person’s report, police showed us photographs of poachers killed in an encounter, and one of them was Haren’s. By the time we reached Golaghat Civil Hospital, his body had started to decompose.” He adds that while they lodged a complaint with both the Bokakhat police station and Golaghat Superintendent of Police, police hadn’t got back to them.
Haren wanted to become a forest guard himself, Bhishma adds.
Sanjib Doley of Dhoba-ati Belguri village doesn’t even figure in the Park’s list of poachers killed. Elder brother Anil says, “Sanjib was a second-year higher secondary student of Bokakhat College. One day last November, he went out with another person from our village and never came back. Four days later we found his bullet-ridden, decomposed body in the Nagaon Civil Hospital morgue. We have lodged a written complaint with the police and administration in Bokakhat civil sub-division, but haven’t got any response so far.”
Then there is the case of Akash Orang, which also figures in the BBC documentary. At 7, the Class II student is the youngest victim of firing by Kaziranga guards. A resident of No. 1 Sildubi village on the southern fringe of the Park, he was returning home from a shop when he was hit by pellets on both his legs. “It was around 7 pm, on July 17 last year. We found that a guard from an anti-poaching camp nearby had fired,” says Akash’s father Dilip Orang, a former tea plantation labourer who buys and sells pigs for a living. Akash is the youngest of his four children.
Director Singh admits it was a mistake. “Two guards at the Mohi Ting camp were trying to guide a stray rhino and her calf back into the Park when one of the guards, Manas Bora, accidentally fired one blank round. The stray pellets hit Akash. We took full responsibility for the boy’s treatment and Manas was immediately arrested. Another guard was suspended,” Singh says.
The Forest Department arranged free treatment for Akash in Guwahati, and issued a cheque of Rs 2 lakh, to be kept in a fixed deposit till he turns 18. Dilip says they are yet to open a bank account for Akash as he doesn’t have a birth certificate. Recently, Akash developed some complications and had to be moved to Guwahati, where he has started attending school. “Sometimes baba takes me on his bicycle, sometimes my brother carries me,” he says.
Bhadreswar Bora, from Tamulipathar village, says there is no doubt that some of the poachers belong to the fringe villages. About the rest, he adds, they don’t know much. “There are some protests for some time, and then they are forgotten.”
On July 1, 2010, several local dailies in Assam had carried on front pages the news of Rahul Kutum’s killing and the protests that followed. Kutum, a minor, had been killed along with three others in the Bogpur area of the Park. An FIR was lodged naming two forest officers but no action was taken. The case file was closed in February 2012.
Pranab Doley of the Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha, an unregistered organisation based in Bokakhat, the nearest town to Kaziranga, accuses the authorities of using their powers like security forces use AFSPA against militants. “At least six persons who were killed in the so-called encounters were totally innocent. The authorities have no proof against them,” Doley says.
The Sangha however has not approached the high court or Assam Human Rights Commission in these cases.
While defending the need for a sterner deterrent against poachers, the authorities frequently point to the poor conviction rate in poaching cases. “Not one among the 243 poachers arrested between 2009 and 2013 has been convicted,” says activist Rohit Choudhury, citing RTI replies from five districts over which Kaziranga is spread. Two cases of poaching that were handed over to the CBI too have gone nowhere, he says.
Guwahati-based lawyer Gautam Uzir, who deals with wildlife-related crimes, adds, “Most poachers manage to get bail because the authorities fail to present a water-tight chargesheet or crime report, as is required under provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act.” It even comes down to not giving officers and guards leave or allowances for court appearances, he says.
Former chief wildlife warden and principal chief conservator of forests (Wildlife) M C Malakar says forest officers should be trained how to handle cases after a poacher has been arrested. In a report to the Gauhati High Court in 2015, the Park authorities had said even basic crime-fighting procedures were lacking, such as preserving a scene, or collecting fingerprints and DNA samples.
Poaching isn’t the only problem faced by Kaziranga either. The Park faces regular floods, as also serious river-bank erosion. The Brahmaputra is estimated to have washed away about 60 sq km of Kaziranga between1912 and 2012, while killing many rhinos, including as many as 46 in 1988.
Floods is also the time poachers strike, as rhinos flee to highlands outside the Park.
That brings up another aspect of Kaziranga that rarely comes up in conversation — the fact that it may now have too many rhinos for its own good. Apart from these 2,500-odd, 2,000-kg animals, Kaziranga has over 1,300 elephants, at least 116 tigers, nearly 1,200 swamp deer, over 2,000 buffaloes and 4,000-plus primates.
“Typically, a rhino requires 1-2 sq km of habitat with good grassland and water holes, while the internationally accepted ideal requirement is 5-10 sq km. At present, a rhino in Kaziranga is dangerously crammed in, with just about 0.20 sq km for each one of them,” said the report to the Gauhati High Court back in 2015.
Fragmentation of animal corridors and encroachment had attracted the attention of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which ordered demolition of most such structures along the busy NH 715. The NGT order, however, was put on hold by the high court.
The government has been trying to rope in people living on the fringes of the Park in conservation efforts — including by supporting them through Eco-Development Committees. However, with the BJP government in power, the problem of encroachment has gained a new dimension. The party won in 2016 on the promise of making Assam “free of Bangladeshis”, and the one round of eviction it has held in Kaziranga so far, in September 2016, had led to two deaths and a controversy.