Soaring prices of rhino horns have led to a new spurt of poaching in the Kaziranga National Park, Assam. Once heralded as a conservation success story, the park is now being held hostage by poachers. Arnab Pratim Dutta travels to the park to investigate and find answers to the conservation riddle
Curse of the horn
Many emotions flit across Kartik Pegu’s face when he talks about his exploits. Only one emotion is missing—remorse. Each time Kartik mentions killing a rhino and chopping off its horn his face lights up with enthusiasm. He curls up the fingers of his right hand around an imaginary trigger; the same hand is used to show a make-believe barrel. He then snaps his curled finger backward, going through the motions of firing a shot, while his hand jerks up as if his imaginary rifle has just kicked back. “I participated in four hunts. Once, I shot a rhino through its head,” says the 28-year-old poacher.
Kartik belongs to Dobahati Beloguri. A quiet village surrounded by paddy fields, Dobahati Beloguri sits on the eastern edge of the Kaziranga National Park in Assam’s Golaghat district. The village is inhabited by the Mishing community, a plains tribe living along the banks of the Brahmaputra. More than its scenery, Dobahati Beloguri is known as a den of rhino poachers. The Kaziranga is the famed abode of the endangered great Indian one-horned rhinoceros besides that of the tiger, elephant, Asiatic water buffalo and sambhar deer. The rhino is slaughtered for its horn, considered an aphrodisiac and used in medicines to treat fever and aches.
Kartik’s brother, Sisuram, is also a poacher. People believe Sisuram has killed at least seven rhinos; Kartik confirms only three. Apart from the duo, there are a dozen rhino poachers in Dobahati Beloguri. One of the most notorious is Golap Patgiri who took to poaching after losing a casual job at the park. He is in prison. Listening quietly to Kartik narrate his poaching experiences is Surna Patgiri, the head of Dagrow Eco-Tourism and Eco Development Society. The society, based in Dobahati Beloguri, rehabilitates poachers. Along with another outfit Pahori, the society had managed to get 15 poachers to surrender before the authorities in 2010. But many of them returned to poaching, including Kartik and his brother, says Patgiri.
|The sharp shooter is called the pilot, the gun is the machine and the bullets are the tablets
|— KARTIK PEGU, A RHINO POACHER
After a lull of two years, a new wave of poaching started in Kaziranga in 2012. Some 20 rhinos were killed last year. Since the beginning of this year, 12 rhinos have been found dead with their horns sawed off. The reason for the spike is the amount of money floating around poachers. Cost of the rhino horn has increased phenomenally in the international market, says Uttam Saikia, an honorary wildlife warden of Golaghat and TV journalist. “The spurt in poaching began after local newspapers reported that the cost of the horns per kilogramme has touched Rs 60-80 lakh,” he says.
Agrees farmer Dharmakanta Doley, who was involved in a poaching incident in 1999: “I assisted in killing a rhino for which I was paid Rs 50,000. Rates are much higher now; poachers can earn up to Rs 2 lakh for a good-sized horn.” Kartik claims a few years ago he got a bigger than usual horn of 1.2 kg. “I was accompanied by two others and a sharp shooter from Nagaland. Each of us got Rs 2.9 lakh,” he says. Many youngsters have taken to poaching because it is easy money, says Saikia.
| HIGHS AND LOWS
Towards the end of March this year, the forest department completed a two-day census in Kaziranga which showed an increase of 39 rhinos in the past one year. The latest tally was one short of 2,330, as hours before the head-count a rhino was killed for its horn.
“The census timing was just not right,” laments a park ranger. The best time to do the head count is after the first round of rains, sometime in April, he says. “Generally, the tall elephant grass is set on fire in February. Once it rains, succulent grass shoots appear, enticing rhinos to eat them. Counting becomes much easier then,” he adds.
According to police and intelligence officials, the southern and eastern fringes of Kaziranga, including the districts of Karbi Anglong, Golaghat and Morigaon, are infested with over 200 persons involved in poaching activities. The Karbi Anglong police, which conducted anti-poaching operations in September and October 2012, arrested 68 poachers, a record in the state. With the arrests came a sizeable cache of weapons, which included ten .303 rifles and one AK 47. “What started with tracking two mobile phones of suspected poachers ended up as the biggest catch ever,” says Naba Kumar Bora, officer-in-charge of the Diphu police station (Diphu is the headquarters of Karbi Anglong). People caught in the operation were from Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. Some of Bora’s investigations pointed fingers at government officials. His operation was successful on two counts. First, it led to a fresh dossier of poachers in the area, and second, it brought poaching to a halt in the Kaziranga park between October and January.
Stopping poaching is not an easy task, says Bhupendra Nath Talukdar, assistant conservator of forests. Talukdar was a ranger in Kaziranga in the ’90s when poaching had reached its peak. “It was akin to defending the sovereignty of the park. We had to declare an all-out war. We dug trenches and ambushed poachers,” he recalls. During his tenure as a ranger, Talukdar killed seven poachers in encounters and arrested more than 50. What makes the rhinos of Kaziranga so vulnerable? Firstly, the park has porous boundaries with dense human habitation on three sides while the Brahmaputra makes for the southern flank. As per forest department records, 50,000 people in 75 villages live around the park and the river and its islands are used by poachers as entry gates. Some of these islands are inhabited by people, mostly cattle herdsmen, who provide shelter to the poachers.
Secondly, during winters when forage in the park becomes scarce, rhinos wander out in search of pastures. Early this year a rhino wandered out of Kaziranga and reached Majuli, the world’s largest river island, 70 km away. The poachers spotted the hardy animal and shot at it. Injured, the rhino walked all the way back to the fringe of the park and died, says Monoj Boro, a ranger at Bhokta Chapori forest camp. “Most animals die outside the park,” he says. Since 2011, Boro and his men have chased rhinos back into the park 27 times. Despite repeated requests, the forest department did not provide details on the number of rhinos that have wandered out in recent times. But this year at least six deaths have been reported outside the park.
Thirdly, the law has not been implemented effectively. Although the Wildlife Protection (Assam Amendment) Act of 2009 provides for 10 years in prison for the first time offenders, it has not proved to be a deterrent. “First, it is very difficult to catch the culprits because of the difficult terrain and ineffective policing. Even if that happens, the accused gets bail within 20 days and becomes untraceable,” says wildlife lawyer Saurabh Sharma based in Delhi.
Poacher game plan nailed
Rhino poachers have a unique way of entering Kaziranga, especially when they use the Brahmaputra. They do not land their craft on the shore at once. Instead, just when one would think the poachers are about to land, they pull back into the river. This continues for a while before they finally land. Once the poacher gang sets foot to glide through an ocean of tall elephant grass it starts doing a frog jump-kind routine—squat, move a few paces and squat again. This continues till the men reach safe cover inside the park.
“The routine is done so that forest guards are unable to shoot them,” says Bhupendra Nath Talukdar who is no stranger to the tactics used by poachers to confuse forest guards. A ranger in Kaziranga during some of the deadliest poaching years in the nineties, Talukdar is now a divisional forest officer. “Poaching has always been a problem, but at that time we had a solid network of informers and better coordination with the police who would inform us whenever there was any news about poachers,” he says. Most of the horns end up in Dimapur, Nagaland, he adds. By road, Dimapur is 150 km from Kaziranga. Once the horn is chopped off, it takes 12 hours before it is transported to Dimapur. “The horn is first boiled,” says Mohammed Halaluddin who gave up poaching in 1999 and now works as an informer for the staff at Pobitora sanctuary, another rhino habitat in Assam’s Marigaon district. “Boiling removes extra meat which is useless and keeps it from smelling foul.”
Once at Dimapur, the horn is weighed and payment is made to the poachers. The horn then leaves for Imphal, before making its way out of the country through the Moreh border in Manipur. “This has become the most preferred route now,” says Bora. Menon adds in the ’80s and ’90s the preferred routes were through Kolkata, Bhutan and Nepal (see map).
The horns are then shipped to Vietnam and China. They are the two major destinations, say reports by Traffic International, a wildlife trade monitoring network. In China possessing a rhino horn is seen more as a status symbol and is less in demand for its medicinal properties. China had banned the use of rhino horns in its traditional medicines in 1993.
Traditionally, rhino horns were used to control fever, claims Vivek Menon of Wildlife Trust of India. “But now the Vietnamese use them in all forms of medication, including cancer drugs and aphrodisiacs.”
Sensationalism v realism
Of about 3,000 Indian one-horned rhinos, more than 2,300 are in Kaziranga—the country’s greatest conservation success. The rest are in other parts of Assam, West Bengal and Nepal.
The effort to save the rhinos of Kaziranga dates back to the early 20th century. A wildlife enthusiast, Mary Curzon, wife of India’s then Viceroy Lord Curzon, visited the park in 1904 to see the famous rhino but returned without spotting one. She then coaxed her husband to initiate conservation in the area. Four years later, Kaziranga was designated a reserve forest. Later it was upgraded to a game sanctuary, then to a national wildlife park and later to a tiger reserve (see ‘A trip to Kaziranga’).
But now, the park, a World Heritage Site, is at the receiving end. Since 2007, the number of shoot-and-hack deaths has been on the rise. Every year when new deaths are reported, the media goes into a frenzy, speculating whether the numbers will reach the highs of the late eighties and early nineties. The year 1988 was the worst, when floods and old age accounted for the deaths of 105 rhinos, while poachers killed 24 (see ‘Kaziranga rhino death toll’).
The simultaneous increase in rhino numbers has come as succour both for the media and public, putting fears of extinction to rest. Rabindra Sharma, scientific officer at Kaziranga, says, “In the past few years we have seen death of 90 rhinos annually and birth of 150.”
So is poaching a cyclical phenomenon wherein a spurt occurs every few years? Are the rhinos of the Kaziranga safe after all?
Poaching is a well-planned exercise. Sharp shooters are mostly from Nagaland, while those living around the park provide shelter and guidance. Of late, some of the local poachers have taken to shooting. One of them is Golap Patgiri, who was arrested in November last year. As soon as the local poachers get information of a rhino walking out of the park, they get their guns to target the wanderer.
When it comes to the number of members in a poacher gang, there is no standard size. During the ’70s and ’80s when pits were used to kill rhinos, four to five men used to operate together as more hands are needed to dig pits. As guns became pervasive, the group numbers were reduced to two, says poacher Kartik. Most of the time the gun owner and receiver of the horn is the same person operating outside of Nagaland. Nowadays guns are available on hire for Rs 10,000 a week. The gun stays away from the owner and circulates among different gangs. But the rent money is always delivered to the gun owner. The cost of the horn depends on whether it is intact or chipped.
Average weight of an Indian rhino horn is 790g, according to a report by Menon on conservation and trade of rhino horns in the ’90s, “Under Siege: Poaching and protection of greater one horned Rhinos”. Using records of horns auctioned by the state in the ’70s, the report states the biggest horn is more than 2 kg. A lot of haggling takes place before the horn is sold, says Halaluddin. The gun owner who commissions the shoot keeps half the money and the shooter gets 25 per cent. The rest is shared among those who host and accompany the shooter.
Poaching is not going to go away but it has to be restricted, says Talukdar. “If the current rate of poaching continues it will surpass all previous records, nullifying the conservation work done over the past three decades by a dedicated team of foresters,” he adds.
| HUNTING WAYS
Between 1980 and1985 some 120 rhinos were killed using pits. Although poaching with guns was prevalent at that time, it became the preferred choice of the poachers by the middle of 1985. The last known case of pit poaching in the Kaziranga National Park was in 2002. Rathin Barman, in-charge of the Wildlife Trust of India’s Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation in Kaziranga, says most of the rhinos die of bullet wounds from .303 rifles. “To kill a rhino, the bullet has to hit one of the vital organs. Often shots fired from automatic rifles like AK 47 do not hit these organs, leaving the rhino injured but not dead,” he says. Automatic weapons have been occasionally seized from poachers around the park and more recently during raids of the Assam police in September and October 2012.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, poachers used to electrocute rhinos using connections from high tension power lines running along the park’s periphery. Eight rhinos were killed using this method.
Over the years, the gun used by poachers has undergone major transformation. And the change has come through innovations at the local level. Well-trained in dismantling and reassembling weapons, poachers spend days buried underground at locations in and around the park. To ensure that guns do not make any noise, the poachers use locally available material like water pipes to fabricate sound suppressors.
Although no case of tranquilising has been reported in Kaziranga, in 2007 two guns for sedating rhinos were recovered. One of the guns belonged the chief wildlife warden of Nagaland.
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