Park rangers feared for the safety of Assam’s signature one-horned rhinoceros in its most famous home along the Brahmaputra as gunshots pierced the evening calm, three days before the state voted in the assembly polls first leg on April 4.
Kaziranga National Park had lost four rhinos to poachers in 2016 and forest officials couldn’t have been more anxious when they heard shots from automatic weapons in the Agaratoli range. A search was conducted the next day. No casualties.
The state’s most famous landmark is a conservation success story for the number of animals it shelters and nurtures. The 2015 census figures show 2,401 rhinos in the park. It was a mere 136 in 1966.
It has also been a nightmare as poachers have killed 127 rhinos in the past decade, prompting widespread criticism against the 15-year Congress rule in the state — especially forest minister Rockybul Hussain who represents a constituency barely an hour from the park.
The symbol of Assam’s pride has become a political tool this assembly election. Parties have read the general mood and promised better protection to rhinos, prized for its horn that feeds a multi-million dollar clandestine international market for the ivory and its perceived aphrodisiac properties.
A 900-gram horn fetches around Rs 70 lakh and militants, morphed as poachers, use the money to buy weapons.
The BJP, which hopes to overthrow the Congress, promised latest technologies to save the rhino and strong action against poachers. At a rally in Bokakhat in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused the Tarun Gogoi government of failing to protect rhinos and urged voters to for his party to save the animal.
Modi was campaigning for AGP president Atul Bora, a candidate for the Bokakhat assembly constituency that covers more than half of Kaziranga’s 1,055 square km expanse. The symbolism was not lost as Bora gifted Modi a miniature wooden rhino.
The cornered Congress too promised state-of-the-art measures to prevent rhino poaching but didn’t highlight the topic at election rallies.
Parts of the park are in Koliabor constituency, which votes in the last leg on April 11. But the election rhetoric simply scratched the surface, sort of lip service. None of the parties talked about specific action.
Voters in Golaghat and Nagaon districts, which cover the park, blamed forest minister Hussain for failing miserably at his job. “Rhinos and other animals in Kaziranga and other wildlife sanctuaries in Assam aren’t voters. So the apathy of political parties towards their protection isn’t surprising,” said Pranjal Baruah, a tea garden employee.
Poachers are active in Assam’s other protected areas such as Pabitora, Manas, Orang, and Laokhowa. Some figures say nearly 200 rhinos were killed across the state since 2001 when Gogoi came to power.
“At this rate, Assam’s pride could become extinct in some years. Political parties make promises during elections but forget them once voted to power,” said Rai Bahadur Das, a 78-year-old Bokakhat resident.
Forest officials blamed the lack of adequate resources and political will for the situation.
Well, it’s a fight between antiquated 303 service rifles against poachers armed with Kalashnikovs and M16s. “We are stretched to the limits,” divisional forest officer Subasish Das said.
The old guns have kept the killers at bay: 67 poachers killed in the past 10 years, of them 45 since 2014, and over 300 arrested.
Forest officials suspect some villagers in fringe areas of park are either involved in poaching or aiding poachers.
But the prime threat comes from the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT), a militant outfit active in neighbouring Karbi Anglong district, which reportedly has a special unit to kill rhinos and sell horns to fund their separatist agenda. The horns are sent to Myanmar en route to China.