ASSAM’S KAZIRANGA National Park (KNP), famous for its one-horned rhinos, is all set to boost maintenance and vigilance with a new set of hi-tech drones for capturing video footage of parts of the jungle not accessible on foot. The government is also setting up a new division to ensure an increase in officials and forces patrolling the area to check poaching.
“The products are expected to be received in around two months. These drones are expected to be able to fly for 4-5 hours and take high quality footage. The new drones will overcome the time and maximum height limitation that the earlier ones had,” Parimal Suklabaidya, Assam Environment and Forest Minister, told The Indian Express.
The Minister said that the KNP has also been bifurcated into two divisions: Eastern Assam Wildlife Division, the existing division that includes KNP and the new Biswanath Wildlife Division, with an area of about 401 sq km.
“The new division will mean an increase in staff and vigilance in the area which will be very effective in preventing poaching and improving wildlife management. The notification is already out and the official inauguration will take place soon,” Suklabaidya said.
The first attempt to use drones in Kaziranga was in 2013 — a trial run was also done. But the project for starting aerial surveying and monitoring received the Centre’s green signal only in early 2017.
According to authorities at the Park, they have three drones now: one with forest personnel and two with police. Officials said they are “helpful”, including during last year’s massive floods, but face limitations — they flew at a stretch for only 25-30 minutes and were not customised for wildlife usage.
“The new drones are being customised at the Wildlife Institute of India to best suit wildlife purposes. Work is being done to enhance the flight duration and longevity of usage. The technology is customised, the quantity of drones should not be a problem,” N K Vasu, principal chief conservator of forest (PCCF) and head of forest force (HoFF), Assam, said.
Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of the Eastern Assam Wildlife Division, RB Saikia, said drones have been found to be “extremely essential” for vigilance at the KNP. “At many places, patrolling on foot is not possible. Drones help us track animals that stray, and are useful in monitoring the condition of animals during floods,” he said.
Saikia said that a few months ago, a straying rhino was tracked within half-an-hour in the Eastern Range of the Park using a drone.
As for the new division, the DFO of the Eastern Assam Wildlife Division currently heads the KNP. But the new division will now soon get its own DFO and forces, a step which is expected to help in intensifying the anti-poaching operations in the area.
“According to intelligence inputs and our reports, the area which will now be under the new division has been a major entry point for poachers. Now, the DFO of the new division will have adequately strengthened forces and staff to enhance vigilance against poachers in that area,” Vasu said.
According to the latest count, KNP has 2,413 one-horned rhinos and this year so far, at least five have fallen to poachers. Official data shows that over the last two years incidents of poaching have gone down. As the crackdown on poachers continues in the state, at least 15 are behind bars. This June, officials said, a poacher was killed in a gunfight when he was trying escape with the horn of a rhino after killing it.
Referring to the last three rhino killings, the Minister said: “In one case, the horn was intact in the body. In another, we caught the poacher before he could escape with the horn. In the third case, the poacher trying to escape with the horn was killed in a gunfight.”
The poaching crackdown in Kaziranga had come under scrutiny in April last year when the central government prohibited the BBC from filming in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries for “irreparable damage done to India’s reputation”.
The BBC had earlier been issued a notice for “grossly erroneous” reporting in a documentary that purportedly highlighted the government’s “ruthless anti-poaching strategy” for the Kaziranga tiger reserve.