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Vulnerable Indian rhinos

Whether in South Africa or in India poaching of rhinos has assumed alarming levels. In South Africa, which has the largest population of rhinos and which is an important country for their conservation, poaching has reached a crisis point so much so that if the killings continue at the current rate, it is estimated, the species could be pushed close to extinction. In 2014 as many as 1215 rhinos were killed and the South African Department of Environment calculated that that amounted to poaching of one rhino every 8 hours.

In the African Continent poaching of what are known as Black Rhinos is not confined only to South Africa. Smaller populations in other African countries such as Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Swaziland and Botswana are constantly under threat from poachers. The White Rhinos found in Republic of South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, and Uganda are by far the most numerous (around 20,000 individuals) and yet they are under threat. And so, indeed, they are in Asia. While Jawan and Sumatran rhinos are in the list of critically endangered, in our Subcontinent, i.e in India and Nepal, rhino poaching is rampant. It was recently a cause for a spat between the Governor and Chief Minister of Assam, the state which has the largest number of Indian one-horned rhinos. The Governor was shouted down in the local legislative assembly when he read his speech prepared by the government indicating that “firm steps had been taken (by the government) for protection of wildlife”.

This was, however, not the view of the Governor.  He was so worked up about the constant reports of poaching of rhinos at the 860 square-kilometre Kaziranga National Park in the state that he asked the government to change the agency that has been engaged for their protection if it was not able to prevent poaching. Obviously, the figures of increase in the rhino numbers from 2201 in 2009 to 2544 in 2013 did not satisfy the Governor in the face of frequent reports of of poaching. He said that a small number of criminals are killing a rare and threatened animal and surprisingly the government is neither able to catch them nor protect the beasts. Soon enough five people were nabbed from a neighbouring district, one of whom was a member of the forest protection force. Clearly, poaching of rhinos or, for that matter high-value wildlife, including tigers, is largely an inside job and the forest employees’ assistance is generally extended to poachers for substantial monetary considerations.

Rhinos have been rendered vulnerable for their horns. Every time a poacher kills a rhino he decamps from the site with its horn after cruelly hacking it away. Recently a gruesome video was put up on the YouTube of a rhino that was left to bleed to death after its horn was hacked away. The horns are something which fetch very high price in the international market, supposedly, for their basically mythical curative properties. Wildlife experts have clarified that a rhino’s horn is nothing but a cluster of hair with no curative attributes. Nonetheless, the animal is being hunted down for the supposed qualities of its horn to cure anything from dandruff to cancer. The roots of the myth can be found in the guidelines of traditional Chinese Medicine which suggest that the rhino horn is a potent fever reducer, body detoxifier, a cure for hangover, an aphrodisiac and a cure for cancer. This has astronomically raised the price of the horn as the demand for it has been soaring in the international market, particularly in China, Thailand and Vietnam where a kilogram of the horn could fetch 30 to 40 lakhs. Mercifully, its demand in the Middle-East has since tapered off where the rich Arab Sheikhs used to have handles made of it for their fashionable daggers.

Kaziranga National Park, a more than a century old park, and a World Heritage Site to boot, is the largest of the Assam national parks among Manas, Pobitora and Orang parks which hosts Great One-horned rhinos in larger numbers and hence feels the pressure of poaching. It is easily accessible from the North through the River Brahmaputra as well as from the South from the Karbi Anglong hills (formerly Mikir Hills). Nepal has been somewhat successful in clamping down on poaching; hence the pressure on Kaziranga has increased manifold. Besides, it is easier to smuggle out the harvested horns from here to the markets of South-East Asia through Nagaland via Myanmar and through Arunachal Pradesh to China. While it is the Nagas who are largely the people behind poaching engaging locals, the carriers, especially to China, are women who are subjected to a perfunctory border checks – a cultural factor.

Many solutions have been and are under consideration in order to save the rhinos from being killed for their horns.  One is legalising the international rhino horn trade. There is a stockpile of horns in Africa which could be sold off to feed the current high demand which, with adequate supplies, could taper off. But then it would not be long before the demand built up again and poachers start killing rhinos. Besides, one could draw a lesson from the partially legalised ivory trade that has not been successful. In fact, more illegal ivory is passed on as legal with no strict controls for legal ivory in place. China had won approval of the Convention on Illegal Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and yet being the biggest importer of ivory it never demonstrated adequate commitment towards ending illegal ivory trade. China is the largest importer of illegal rhino horns as well and is likely to show the same lack of commitment for controlling their illegal imports once the trade is legalised. While opinions are polarised about legalising the trade, the overwhelming view is that the step was unlikely to work.

While de-horning of rhinos is not considered the ultimate solution, the Assam government recently constituted an expert committee to consider its feasibility for checking rampant poaching of rhino. According to Sanctuary Asia, more rhinos were killed after being de-horned in Africa as even after de-horning 10% of it remains and the animal could be killed for even that. Besides, poaching in Kaziranga being a nocturnal activity, none would ever be keen to check whether the target is horned or dehorned.

Apparently, there is no solution for the problem except taking good old measures that are conventional. And that would mean intensive human checks by a substantially larger security establishment, especially for extensive and widespread parks like Kaziranga. The Assam government has already decided to raise a 1200-strong specialised Rhino Protection Force for Kaziranga. For once displaying great political will the chief minister declared the force will be aided by modern arms and fighting gear, and other modern equipment like night-vision devices, thermal scanners, surveillance cameras, GPS etc. Even use of drones for tracking poachers is being considered. While incentivising protection from poaching of rhinos and other wildlife, he announced he would persuade the National Investigation Agency to investigate cases of poaching.

If the announced measures materialise the government, perhaps, would not need to try and experiment with Black Mambas, an all female unarmed protection force engaged within the Kruger National Park for preventing poaching – as eyes and ears working like a British Bobby. Their mere presence has brought down the incidence of poaching. That, however, may not happen in India.

Across the border the rhinos seem to be thriving in West Bengal. In Jaldapara National Park, the second biggest habitat for rhinos after Kaziranga, their number has risen to 186 - a rise of 25%. A similar trend is likely to be shown by the Gorumara National Park – a much smaller habitat – when counting takes place. The authorities of the two parks have claimed that they had not come across any case of poaching of rhinos. Apart from the other measures that the Assam government is taking, perhaps, it needs to look at the reasons for this somewhat strange phenomenon.

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