In the wide expanse of Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, poorly-armed forest guards are anxiously awaiting a mechanised patrol boat donated by the BBC Wildlife Fund worth £60,000.
It will give them a much-needed weapon in their battle against a deadly surge in poaching since last year that has wiped out 24 rhinos — four this year.
The Brahmaputra that flows along the park’s northern fringes goes unpatrolled and poachers often take the water route.
The new wave of poaching has stirred international concern, with experts predicting that if it continues unchecked, the one-horned rhino population could dwindle to a critical level.
Kaziranga is by far the most important site in the world for the Indian one-horned rhino and is regarded the last surviving stronghold of the species. Of the world’s 2,500 surviving one-horned rhinos, the park has about 1,800.
The series of raids by poachers has caught forest officials unawares. “There has been a spurt in the demand of the rhino horn internationally and poachers, because of resistance in Maoist areas of Nepal, are turning to the Kaziranga,” said Uttam Saikia, the honorary wildlife warden of the park.
“With less rhino horns available, poachers are seeking new sources and Assam, with its proximity to the Chinese border, provides an accessible supply,” said David Shepherd, founder president of the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, from Surrey, UK, a major funding source for rhino protection in Kaziranga.
Soumyadeep Datta, the director of the NGO Nature’s Beckon, said a major cause for rise in poaching was the lack of trust between the forest department and fringe people around the 430 sqkm park.