Wildlife authorities in Assam on Monday were given orders to shoot down suspected poachers at this internationally known national park to protect the endangered and rare one-horned rhinos.
The Kaziranga National Park, 220 km east of Assam's main city of Guwahati, was in the spotlight after six rhinos were killed for their horns by poacher gangs since January, including two killed in the past 10 days.
"A massive anti-poaching operation has been launched with orders being issued to shoot-on-sight any unauthorised person inside the park premises," Assam Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain said.
After the recent incidents of poaching in the 430-sq-km park, the state government deployed 50 rangers and about 30 armed home guards to carry out anti-poaching operations.
"We have chalked out a well-planned strategy to check poaching with the help of police and other agencies," he said.
There is an acute staff shortage at the park, resulting in the animals falling easy prey to poachers.
"There were about 110 posts of forest guards lying vacant. Of this, we have filled up 50 now. The remaining would be filled up soon," Hussain said.
As per latest figures, some 1,855 of the worlds estimated 2,700 such herbivorous beasts live in the wilds of Kaziranga - their numbers ironically making the giant mammals a favourite target for poaching.
"There is a shortage of about 25 per cent anti-poaching staff and unless the government fills up the vacancies immediately, things would go out of hand," Bibhav Kumar Talukdar, secretary general of Aaranyak, a leading wildlife conservation group said. Poacher gangs used rifles and carbines to kill the rhinos.
"We are equipped with obsolete weapons and most of the forest guards are in the 40 to 50 age group. We need to revamp the staff and get young people for better results," a park ranger said requesting not to be named.
Organised poachers kill rhinos for their horns, which many believe contain aphrodisiac qualities. It is also used as medicine for curing fever, stomach ailments and other diseases in parts of South Asia. Rhino horn is much fancied by buyers from the Middle East who use them as handles of ornamental daggers, while elephant ivory tusks are primarily used for making ornaments and decorative items.
Profits in the illegal rhino horn trade are staggering - rhino horn sells for up to Rs 1.5 million per kilogram in the international market. The fresh incidents of poaching come at a time when park authorities believed the endangered rhinos were charging back from the brink of extinction.
Five rhinos were poached last year, while seven were killed in 2005.
According to government estimates about 500 of the beasts were killed by poachers during the past two decades.