Poachers pumped 80 bullets into a rhinoceros in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park and cut off its horn on Wednesday night after security guards were allegedly diverted for Prince William and Kate Middleton’s visit.
This is the second rhino killed in the past three days, underlining that lax rules and bureaucratic slips were hurting India’s fight against a thriving network of animal parts smugglers who use the Myanmar border to drive their illegal trade.
“A male rhino was killed and its horn was taken away by armed poachers last night”, said Subhasish Das, divisional forest officer. “Empty cases of AK -47 rifle were found from the spot”.
Poachers were allegedly given a free run with forest guards busy making arrangements for the British royal couple’s stay at a resort inside the park, sources told HT.
The poachers cut off the rhino’s horn – a coveted item in Chinese medicine that sells for millions – when the animal was alive, the sources added.
Just hours before the killing, the royal couple came within 50 metres of a rare one-horned rhino and fed a baby rhinoceros at the Centre for Wildlife Conservation and Rehabilitation.
Prince William also interacted with the park’s anti-poaching guards at Dipholu in Bagori range, about 15 km from the Burapahar range where the poaching took place.
The 430 square kilometer Kaziranga National Park is home to the world’s largest concentration of rare one-horned rhinos. The Unesco World Heritage Site has around 2,500 one-horned rhinos, over two-thirds of the global population of the animal.
But the park has struggled with poaching – allegedly driven by extremists and black money – in recent years as poorly equipped park guards are unable to match hunters’ fire power.
Seven rhinos have been killed since January, adding to the 20 shot the previous year.
As many as 93 cases of rhino poaching using sophisticated weapons including AK-47 and AK-56 assault rifles was reported since 2009, a right to information reply by the state government revealed.
One of the rarest mammals in the world, the one-horned rhino is vulnerable to poaching due to the high prices – at least Rs 50 lakh -- fetched by its horn in southeast Asian black markets.
Assam forest minister Atowa Munda said the poachers used an M -16 rifle, a weapon generally used by militant outfits in neighbouring Nagaland and Manipur.
“We have armed guards but they have no such M-16 like sophisticated weapons. We are seeking more support from
Centre to stop rhino poaching in Kaziranga,” Munda said.
Most of the poaching cases in Kaziranga were reported from parts of the park bordering the Karbi Anglong hills district of Assam.
The hill district is a hub of many ethnic militant outfits that maintain close ties with militant outfits of Manipur and Nagaland.
A state police report in 2014 said extremists in the Karbi Anglong side of the park were helping poachers.
The foundation for rhino conservation in Kaziranga was laid in 1905 at the initiative of Lady Curzon, the wife of the then viceroy of India. The forest area had only five rhinos then but the animal thrived after independence. ‘
Kaziranga became a national park in 1974.