Sunday, April 21, 2013


By Kajol Singh, Sandeep Muzkala / Dispur

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. INN travels to the park to investigate and find answers to the conservation riddle.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

Smoking gun
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.

Hurdles in the way of saving the rhino
For a rhino, its horn is a curse. A cosmetic anomaly, the horn has no actual use for the animal. For a poacher, the horn is more valuable than gold. Besides being considered an aphrodisiac, the horn is believed to cure cancer. Small wonder South Africa is keen to legalise the trade of rhino horns. The country is home to 20,000 white rhinos and 5,000 black rhinos, two of the world’s biggest populations. In 2012, South Africa lost 668 of these animals for their horns.

In the recently concluded 16th conference of parties on Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in Bangkok, there was a strong demand to make legal surgically sawing off rhino horns and selling them to meet the growing demand from oriental countries like China and Vietnam. In 1977, trade of rhino horn was banned with the enforcement of CITES. Both China and Vietnam are signatories to this biodiversity trade convention.

After the conference, the South African environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa told Mail&Guardian, an African newspaper, “Our rhinos are killed every day and the numbers are going up. The reality is we have done all in our power…we need to address this issue of trade in a controlled manner so that we can at least begin to push down this pressure.”

To get their hands on the horns poachers hire helicopters, bribe law enforcement officials and break into government vaults. The price of an African rhino horn is $65,000-$70,000 (Rs 35-38 lakh), while the horn of the Asian species, which include, the Javan, Sumatran and the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros, commands a much higher price. Since the number of Asian species, especially the Javan and Sumatran, is low, 98 per cent of the demand is satiated by the African species.

Molewa is the first minister to talk about dehorning and selling. Till the CITES’ Bangkok conference, such discussions were limited to academic circles. In 1997, however, South Africa had made a similar proposal but was sidelined; the international consensus was the country did not have the capacity to set up a mechanism to legalise the trade.

A recent paper published in Science, written jointly by researchers from Australia, France and Zimbabwe, argues that about 5,000 white rhinos in private reserves of South Africa alone can meet the current speculative demand for horns. “Sedating a rhino to shave its horn can be done for as little as $20 (Rs 1,000). The annual horn production of one white rhino averages 0.9 kg,” says the paper “Legal trade of Africa’s Rhino Horns”. The income generated through this process would be enough to take care of the cost of dehorning and to better manage and protect rhinos, argues the paper. Legalising the trade would mean setting up a central selling organisation, which would negotiate and manage the sale of horns. The small proceeds from the sale would fund this organisation. At present, 15 to 20 tonnes of horns are lying in South Africa, which could be first sold to bring down the demand and the value of the horn, says the paper. CITES is currently evaluating a similar model for the sale of elephant ivory.

African v Indian
To bring down the number of poaching cases, dehorning could be a good option for African rhinos which roam in vast grasslands. For Kaziranga’s great Indian one-horned rhinoceros, which lives in an ecosystem comprising grassland and wetland, dehorning could be risky. “A rhino in Kaziranga could drown on being hit with a tranquilising dart,” says Bibhab Talukdar, who is based in Guwahati and is chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s specialist group on rhino. “Rhinos in Assam use grassland-wetland habitats and chances of accidental death during the immobilisation effort to de-horn will attract public criticism. The government is unlikely to take such risk. If a rhino weighing two tonnes falls into water after being injected, it could lead to a fatal end,” he adds. Besides, no study has been done to ascertain whether the rhinos will survive after being dehorned. The park has more than 2,300 rhinos. Dehorning such a large number will take many man-days which is not feasible, says Talukdar.

Another difficulty in dehorning the Indian rhino is the cultural and social ethos of the state linked to the hardy animal. Besides being the state animal, the rhino is used as a logo by Assam Oil, Assam Tourism Development Corporation and Assam State Transport Corporation. “Imagine a logo without the horn,” says a former director of national park who does not wish to be named. Instead, says the official, a habitat study should be done to know whether habitat degradation is pushing the animal outside its sanctuary.

There has been no habitat study of the rhinos in the recent past. A study published in 2000 notes that only five per cent area in the park has short grass, on which rhinos feed. When this study was conducted the rhino population in Kaziranga was 1,900. Since then, 500 rhinos have been added to the park. “The problem is not just the increasing population. There are other mega herbivores too in the park, like the Asian Water Buffalo (the largest population), elephants and sambar deer, which makes it competitive for all the animals,” says the former director.

“Incidents of rhinos straying have become more frequent, and it is probable it is in search for food,” he adds. Growth of the invasive mimosa, both the thorny invisia and thorn-less invisia inermis, has also restricted the growth of existing vegetation, says Talukdar. The species is a close relative of the touch-me-not plant called mimosa pudica. Mimosa crept into Kaziranga from the nearby tea gardens, where they were planted for nitrogen fixation.

A 2005 Wildlife Institute of India study “Silent Stranglers” found mimosa to be growing in 0.5 per cent of the park area. But now researchers at the Rainforest Research Institute in Lahdoigarh, in Jorhat, claim the extent of mimosa invasion could be as high as four per cent. Talukdar says although the elephant grass in Kaziranga is burnt every year before the onset of rains this does not kill the weed. “Every year the park authorities take up manual uprooting of mimosa plants, but they have not been able to contain the weed.”

The Assam state is pulling out all the stops to put an end to rhino poaching. On April 7, the forest minister announced the Centre has accepted the state’s plea to involve the CBI to probe rhino deaths. The next day the minister was in Kaziranga to inaugurate the testing of unmanned aerial vehicles fitted with cameras that could be used to keep an eye on the park. The steps the state is taking are ameliorative but may not solve the problem entirely. What the park needs is a proper evaluation and a carrying capacity study. Drones can monitor the park but poachers like Kartik Pegu live outside.

On paper, the Kaziranga park is 860 sq km. The actual area controlled by the forest department is only 500 sq km. Of this, 360 sq km comprises islands of the Brahmaputra which have not been fully integrated into the park. Areas adjoining Kaziranga were added to the park after it became a national park in 1974. There were supposed to be six such additions which would have doubled the park area. Till now, only 44 sq km has been added. The Brahmaputra islands area, called the sixth addition area, was notified to be included in 1991 but was not added because of human settlement.

On January 8, 2013, reacting to a public interest petition, the Guwahati High Court ordered that within three months all the additions made to Kaziranga should be included in the park. A senior forest official says the encroachments have been removed and additions will be incorporated.

Bibhab Talukdar, who is based in Guwahati and is the chair of International Union for Conservation of Nature’s specialist group on rhino, says the additional area will come as a blessing as many animals stray into unprotected areas.

He points out that of the park area, 22 sq km has eroded. “While the park boundaries have eroded, there has been an increase in the land mass of the islands, making them vital for management,” adds Talukdar. 

Poaching is not a new problem in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. There have been spurts but there was never a single year when poaching stopped completely. It was only in 1977 that the Assam forest department did not record a single case of rhino poaching. N K Vasu who was the director of the Kaziranga park till March 15, 2013, says attaining a zero-poaching year is next to impossible. The department, which started maintaining poaching data from 1974—the year Kaziranga became a national park—says in the first year, only three rhinos were killed. The problem began to compound in the eighties. Vivek Menon, who heads the Wildlife Trust of India, investigated poaching and trade of horns of the great Indian one-horned rhino in the 1990s. His report “Under Siege: Poaching and protection of greater one horned Rhinos” states that although poaching was prevalent in the 1960s, it was never a problem like it was in the 1980s and early 1990s. The report states that the number of rhinos poached between 1980 and 1993 was never below 23, with 49 being the highest in a single year in 1992. After 1997 there was a gradual decline in the number of rhinos hunted every year until 2007 when 16 rhinos were killed.

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.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the preferred modus operandi used for poaching was capturing the rhino in a pit. The poachers’ gang would dig a pit and cover it with foliage on the dandi or the track of a rhino. The size of the pit would be just enough to hold an adult rhino with little room for movement. Sometimes the pit would be laid with bamboo spikes. Once the rhino fell into the pit, the poachers, camping near the site, would hack off the horn.

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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