It is past sundown when the rhinos are disturbed. Their unusual behavior has caught the attention of the park rangers. However, patrol turns to confrontation at the sight of poachers, and the rangers tighten their grips on their weapons. They know what they must do.
Recently, Kaziranga National Park has been under fire for the violent approach its rangers have taken towards poachers. As a consequence, the park – situated in Assam, India – has received a great deal of attention from the media. However, no one has questioned the success of its conservation efforts.
Kaziranga National Park’s origins date back to 1904. In previous decades, the region had been famous for its rhinos. However, Baroness Curzon – the wife of the Viceroy of India – saw none during her visit there in 1904. As a result, she took steps to make the region a protected area.
Indeed, the Viceroy agreed to turn the area into a protected reserve, and it has remained so ever since. In fact, Kaziranga National Park was even upgraded to a World Heritage Site in 1985. Yet despite concerted conservation efforts in the reserve, the wildlife there remained at risk.
In particular, the park’s renowned one-horned rhinoceros were a popular target. Their horns are highly sought after in traditional eastern medicine. As a result, poachers often target them. Indeed, the street value of rhino horn makes it more valuable to them than gold.
Initially, the hunt for horns almost made the rhino locally extinct. The park’s protected status helped to renew their numbers, but in the ’80s, poaching again threatened the species’ survival. Indeed, 567 of the rhinos were hunted and killed within a span of 25 years.
Currently, though, the conservation area boasts more than 2,400 one-horned rhinos. In other words, two thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos now live in Kaziranga National Park. And while that’s good news, some people wonder whether the price of the population boom has been too high.
But what caused the upsurge in numbers? Well, rhino poaching in the reserve intensified during 2013, when hunters killed 27 of the animals. The park is the foundation of the local economy, and as a result politicians demanded an effective response. Indeed, no one would pay to see a rhino reserve with no rhinos.
As a consequence, MK Yadava – the park head at the time – approached the government with a proposition. He stated that environmental crimes “erode the very root of existence of all civgoilizations on this earth silently.” Under the circumstances, he had a suggestion: “Kill the unwanted.”
Yadava’s guiding principle was that poachers “must obey or be killed.” Subsequently, the government backed his approach and implemented what has been described as a “shoot-on-sight” policy. As a result, park rangers now had the power to kill trespassers with impunity.
But as the amount of rhinos poached decreased, the total number of human deaths in the reserve soared. In fact, the number of trespassers shot dead in the park rose from five to 22 in just a year. And that was only the beginning. However, the current director of the reserve has claimed that poachers are more valuable alive than dead.
Dr Satyendra Singh added that killing poachers is an act of self-defense. “First we warn them,” he told the BBC. “But if they resort to firing we have to kill them. [We] try to arrest them so that we get the information [about others in the gang.]”
Despite his protestations, though, other accounts have painted the park’s treatment of intruders as being far more extreme. “Whenever [we see…] any people during night-time we are ordered to shoot them,” one ranger told the BBC. Reports put the number of people killed by rangers over the past two decades at 106.
The violence has also had an effect on the local populace. Kaziranga has a large population and few clear indications of its boundaries. As a result, a growing number of innocent people have paid for the park’s conservation efforts with their lives, according to recent reports. In addition, it appears no one is being held responsible.
To illustrate, we need look no further than the case of Goanburah Kealing. In December 2013 the young man was looking after his family’s cows when they apparently wandered onto Kaziranga territory. Park authorities claim that they initially warned Kealing to move away. However, rangers then shot him when he offered no reply.
But Kealing had probably failed to respond to their warnings because he had serious learning difficulties. “He could barely do up his own trousers or his shoes,” his father told the BBC. “Everyone knew him in the area because he was so disabled.” In fact, he believes the guards are immune from prosecution.
And then there was Akash Orang, a seven year old boy who accidentally crossed the border into Kaziranga while walking home. Without warning, rangers then shot a hole in the calf of his leg. Although he survived, he has never fully recovered and still has difficulty walking unaided.
Human rights group Survival International has campaigned to protect the local Kaziranga population. Indeed, their lead campaigner – Sophie Grig – believes that the park’s war on poaching has spiraled out of control. Furthermore, she has pointed out the rangers are being sponsored by some major conservation groups.
“WWF [The World Wildlife Foundation] describes itself as a close partner of the Assam Forest Department,” she told the BBC. “They’ve been providing equipment and funds to the forest department. Survival has repeatedly asked them to speak out against this shoot-on-sight policy … which they have so far failed to do.”
“In some exceptional cases you can use the gun against the gun,” Indian writer and conservationist Valmik Thapar added. “But … [you need] to use community intelligence. The local community are the eyes and ears of the forest.” Perhaps in that wisdom Kaziranga can find compromise.