Kaziranga National Park (KNP) is globally known as the home of the one-horned rhinoceros, though it also shelters and attracts a wide variety of exotic birds from all over the world, apart from being the habitat of the wild buffalo, the great Indian swamp deer and other varieties of wildlife forms. KNP is equally
famous for medicinal plants, herbs and other exotic flora. But it has earned the status of a national park because of the one-horned rhino, and it is primarily the rhino which attracts visitors. Other than Nepal, which has about 200 one-horned rhinos, KNP is the only major natural habitat of this rare mammal. In consideration of its uniqueness to Asom, the rhino has been declared as the State symbol just like the peacock has been declared the national symbol. It is, therefore, natural that everyone in Asom should take pride in the rhino.
The encyclopedic information on rhinoceros is reproduced here for general information. The once-numerous rhinoceros family, Rhinocerotidae, in the order Perissodactyla, now contains only five living species. All are threatened with extinction, some imminently. The three species of Asiatic rhinos include the Indian rhino, Rhinoceros unicornis; the nearly extinct Javan rhino, R. sondacius; and the Sumatran rhino,
Dicerohinus sumatrensis. The two species of African rhinos are the black rhino, Diceros bicornis, and the white rhino, Ceratotherium simum. The Indian and Javan rhinos are one-horned; the other three species are two-horned. The rhinos horn is composed of keratin, as is the cows horn, but unlike the cows horn it is of a fused, fibrous construction and solid throughout, with no hollow for a core of bone. The fibres represent greatly modified hairs. The horn is attached to the skin and is supported by a raised, roughened area on the skull. Because many Asians, particularly the Chinese, believe that the rhino horn has aphrodisiac properties, the horns are widely sought after, and this demand accounts for much of the illegal killing of rhinos. The Indian rhino, native to northeastern India, is now found only in a few protected areas. The Javan rhino, once distributed across southeastern Asia into the East Indies, today survives only in a small preserve on the
island of Java. The Sumatran rhino is now confined to a few widely scattered areas in southeastern Asia and in the East Indies (Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge, Vol. 16).
It is obvious that due to human greed, the one-horned
rhino population in its original abode is becoming
extinct and the trend, if not halted, would lead to its total extinction, meeting the fate of the much-researched dinosaurs. Unfortunately, rhino horns or small pieces thereof are reportedly in demand not only in China, but in our country too, for which members of some innocuous religious cults as well as some members of the astrological fraternity and the so-called country physicians are also responsible. As per a recent media report, a rhino horn fetches between Rs 4 to 7 lakh in the Indian underground market, and between Rs 12 to 20 lakh in the international market. For such high prices, unscrupulous poachers, who are always after a quick buck, will not mind facing
personal risk and going for illegal rhino hunt.
The poaching for rhino horns is not anything new; it has been going on in Asom for decades together, especially after the rhino was declared an extinct variety of wild animals under the Wildlife Protection and Preservation Act. Though every killing by poachers was invariably condemned by wildlife lovers and the public in general, so far it was not taken as an outrage against Asom, as has happened in recent days. The killing of a female rhino at the KNP by a gang of poachers, allegedly in connivance with Forest Department officials, on January 19 by first injuring it critically with a bullet and then cutting the horn when the rhino was still alive and bleeding profusely, and thereafter the killing of her baby as well in the most gruesome manner, has shaken the world community and hurt every resident of Asom. This single incident, with heart-rending pictures of the bleeding rhino and her fallen baby flashed
across the world by the ever vigilant media, has tarnished the name of Asom. Since then, protests in different forms have been going on all over the State, with most of the protesters blaming the KNP officials, the Forest Minister of the State, and the State Government as a whole for their abject failure in preventing the poachers from committing such diabolic acts.
As if that incident was not enough, another such killing was repeated by the desperadoes in the wee hours of February 5 by brutally killing another rhino inside KNP. As per a media report, this poaching operation could be successfully completed in about 30 minutes, due to cooperation and connivance of some Forest officials of KNP.
As per statistics, as reported in the media, poachers have killed 672 rhinos since 1965 till February 8, 2007 the average killing being 16 rhinos annually. On the other hand, the total number of poachers who got killed during anti-poaching operation of the
Forest Department officials since 1985 stands at only 96. During 2007 alone, 20 rhinos were killed by poachers in spite of the superior modes of transport, arms and ammunition, and surveillance equipment available with the Forest Department as compared to the previous years. This itself speaks volumes about the competence and effectiveness of the forest guards!
A section of the vernacular media in Asom has squarely cast the blame for the increased poaching of rhinos on State Forest Minister Rockybul Hussein, during whose tenure the number swelled to 23 in just one year, as against an average killing of seven rhinos during the period of six years from 1998 to 2006. No blame is cast on Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. There is also no mention of the figures during the AGP regime, nor during the tenure of Rockybuls predecessor Pradyut Bardoloi. But why condemn Rockybul alone, when he heads a Forest Department administered by a whole lot of officials? What
conservation efforts are these powerful lords of the jungles making over the years? After the trees in millions have vanished in spite of the forest officials, thanks to the smuggler-official-politician nexus, what could the public expect of them for the conservation of wildlife?
Now that the State Forest Minister has already volunteered for a CBI inquiry, as reported in the media, the Chief Minister should not waste any time in making a request to the Centre for directing the CBI to take up the investigation into the entire rhino-killing episode. The Chief Minister would also do well to take immediate disciplinary and other legal actions against the forest officials and wildlife wardens in charge of KNP, and post competent and incorruptible officials to the park as also to other national parks and sensitive wildlife sanctuaries with strict instructions to go against the poachers and their associates and harbourers. The district magistrates (DMs) and
superintendents of police (SPs), and an SP-level officer of the State CID, and one officer each drawn from the IB and the State SB should be formed into a core group under the DM for working out appropriate strategies in order to counter the threat posed by poachers in a unified command mode. Otherwise, what is true of KNP could very well be the reality in Pobitora, Manas, Orang, Laokhowa or elsewhere.
T he government should also post Assam
Police Battalion personnel, in at least
one company strength, under an assistant commandant to KNP immediately, in place of the proposed deployment of 100 home guards as announced by the Forest Minister. The home guards are unlikely to prove better than the forest guards to deal with the poachers effectively. In a phased manner, this exercise should be repeated for other highly vulnerable parks and sanctuaries. I would also urge upon the politicians to shed their differences, stop trying to make political
capital out of the rhinos, and come up to offer a joint front against the poachers.
As for the media, it should play a constructive role and must not try to make personal accusations against one particular minister, without any definite proof of his involvement with gangs of poachers and smugglers. If the Forest Minister has done any wrong, the CBI would book him; but there will be no excuse if attempts are made to scandalize his late parents. The Forest Minister, on his part, would do well to invite all NGOs in the field for a detailed discussion on the matter. He should also take it as a personal as well as official challenge to clear the KNP of all types of encroachment within a definite time-frame. If the alleged encroachers in the KNP area are genuine landholders, as claimed by the Forest Minister, he should take immediate measures to resettle them elsewhere.
It must be clearly appreciated by one and all that like the Asomiyas becoming extinct in
their own homeland due to the invasion by illegal Bangladeshis, a process that cannot be allowed to go on under any circumstances, the extinction of the one-horned rhino must also be prevented at all cost. There is need for action on the ground not meaningless noise.
(The writer was Chief Secretary, Assam)
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