Even as authorities in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park were counting losses from the recent floods, a female rhino and her calf succumbed to a poacher’s bullets on Wednesday.
In the first attack since flood waters submerged over 80% of the 1055 sq-km park last month, poachers targeted the endangered animals at Bagori range and took away the adult rhino’s horn.
With the two deaths, the total number of rhinos killed by poachers this year in the Unesco world heritage site, which is home to nearly 2400 rhinos, grew to 14.
Flood waters claimed 21 others and one died after forest officials fired at it. The figure is higher than 2012 when over 600 animals, 19 rhinos and more than 500 hog deer, were killed due to floods.
On Thursday, another carcass of an adult rhino, which had died due to drowning in flood waters, was found in Kohora range of the park. The animal’s horn was missing.
The deaths, both due to floods and poaching, signified how Assam’s state animal is fighting a tough battle for survival inside Kaziranga, which houses more than two thirds of the world’s one horned rhinos.
“The number of rhino deaths in Kaziranga this year due to floods and poaching is worrying,” Rathin Barman, deputy director of Wildlife Trust of India told Hindustan Times.
Rhino horns are consumed as medicine in China and other south-east Asian nations due to its perceived aphrodisiac qualities. A horn weighing 900 grams to 1 kg fetches Rs 60-70 lakhs locally and costs over Rs 1 crore abroad.
Floods are an annual feature in the park. But despite the devastation, flooding of the park is necessary to regenerate the grasslands and also to fill up the 400 water bodies located inside the park.
Besides rhinos, the grasslands and water bodies sustain elephants, buffaloes and other wild animals inside the park.
“Flood waters are required to sustain life in Kaziranga. But only when the situation becomes as grim as it did this year, things get out of hand,” said Barman.
Experts feel better management of animal corridors and increased security on the national highway 37, which passes through the park, would help bring down the number of deaths.
This year forest officials were able to rescue eight rhino calves and nearly 100 other animals. But more than 300 others were not that fortunate.
As flood waters rise, most animals fleeing the park cross NH 37 and head towards higher ground in neighbouring Karbi Anglong district. Some of them fall prey to speeding vehicles others get targeted by poachers.
A total of 241 rhinos have been killed by poachers in the state from 2001 till date. Kaziranga accounted for 163 of those deaths.
Tall promises like latest technologies to end rhino poaching and stricter punishment for poachers were made by the BJP before this year’s assembly election in April.
But after assuming power, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s government hasn’t initiated any significant action to fulfill those promises.
On Thursday state forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma stated security of Kaziranga’s animals could be handed over to army, para-military forces or some other security agency.
“We are thinking about handing those agencies responsibility for 6 months or a year. This needs to be done as state agencies don’t have the resources to tackle the problem at this time,” she told journalists.
Brahma, who is from Bodoland Peoples’ Front, a prominent ally of the BJP-led coalition, surprised many this June by stating it was impossible to end rhino poaching.
The statement was symbolic of how successive governments in Assam have failed to do enough to save rhinos and other endangered wildlife species.
Recovery of huge amount of unaccounted cash, tiger and deer skins and ivory from the residence of a senior forest officer in June indicates a possible nexus between poachers, politicians and officials .
Rhinos in Kaziranga face threat of bullets from local residents, illegal immigrants who have set up homes inside the park and also from militant outfits who sell rhinos horns to buy arms.
Forest officials say lack of adequate funds, manpower crisis and old and unreliable weapons and equipment hamper anti-poaching activities. Some forest guards still use .303 rifles while poachers come with Kalashnikovs and M16 rifles.
“We are stretching ourselves to the limits to protect the rhino. But proper motivation and incentives are needed to boost morale of the forest staff,” Subasish Das, divisional forest officer of Kaziranga park told HT in April.
Besides deaths due to floods and poaching, every year anywhere between 60 and 75 rhinos die in Kaziranga due to natural causes. The only exception was in 2012 when that figure touched 109.
Facts and Figures:
• From a reserve forest in 1905, Kaziranga was declared national park in 1974
•From 430 sq km in 1974, the park’s area has increased to 1055 sq km now
•Rhino population has more than doubled from 1129 in 1991 to 2401 in 2015
•60-75 rhinos die annually due to natural causes; the figure was 109 in 2012
•Poaching deaths increased from 6 in 2006 to 27 each in 2013 and 2014.
•This year 14 rhinos have been killed by poachers and 21 died due to floods
•241 rhinos killed by poachers in Assam since 2001; 163 killed in Kaziranga
•More than 300 poachers arrested in Kaziranga since 2006; 67 killed
•174 anti-poaching camps in Kaziranga manned by over 1200 personnel
•Rhino horns weighing 900 gm to 1 kg fetch Rs 60-70 lakhs locally
•Sold mainly in China where it is consumed as medicine.