it's a bad time to be a rhino in Assam's Kaziranga National Park. Twenty four animals have fallen to the poachers' hack since early last year. Poaching is, of course, not new to Kaziranga--indeed to a lot of wildlife reserves in the country. But the enormity of the problem has stunned many. And the group does not include just the archetypal wildlife enthusiast.
The forest department used to gloat about its Project Rhino programme. With some reason. The programme had brought down rhino killings to five or six after a particularly violent period in the early 1990s--42 rhinos were killed in Kaziranga in 1992. But success bred complacency. The state government believed it could let matters rest as they were. It paid little attention to the shaky foundations of rhino conservation in Kaziranga. No forest guard was recruited to the national park after 1993.
A committee head by forest commissioner B B Hagjer pointed as much. It was set up to probe the recent spurt in poaching. There was actually nothing novel about the committee's recommendations--more forest guards, setting up a special task force and declaring adjoining areas as reserves. The state's forest policy had in 2004 also talked of these measures. But it took the slain rhinos to reopen the dusty files.
But the problem is not just of manpower or infrastructure shortage. Kaziranga's success was built around two pillars an efficient information network and a programme that educated villagers about conservation. The pillars have collapsed. A director who took charge of the park sometime in 2007 has not made any attempt to interact with villagers around the park. The villagers, who would earlier receive compensation for crop damage, complain that the government ignores them now. Losing sight of the villagers' problems has also resulted in the collapse of the information network. Is it surprising that two people charged with poaching were once police informers?
Ideally, most poachers should be apprehended under sections of the wildlife protection act as well as the illegal possession of arms act. So that even if a wildlife offender manages to evade custody on grounds of poaching, the authorities get a second chance to prosecute the suspect. But this rarely happens.
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