In their attempt to show results in the fight to save the one-horned rhinoceros, Kaziranga’s forest officials might be killing innocent villagers
Report by Danish Raza
Photographs by Arun Sharma
Ajit Doley, a farmer in Bhokot Sapori village, one of more than 100 fringe hamlets around Assam’s Kaziranga National Park (KNP), was uncomfortable about his son Horen’s friendship with Saleem Ahmed, ranger of the park’s Eastern Agaratoli range.
On June 25, 2014, two days after Horen, an LIC agent and a student at a college in Bokakhat, went missing, his father went to Bokakhat police station to lodge a complaint. He knew that one of Horen’s friends had last seen him with Ahmed in Bokakhat town. At the station, the police showed Ajit pictures of Horen’s corpse. A tall, lean man with sharp features, Ajit gasps in anger and sorrow as he recounts the events. He believes Horen’s friendship with the ranger cost him his life.
Records identify Horen (20) as a poacher killed by forest guards during an encounter in the Park. Ahmed was the complainant in the FIR lodged after the encounter. Horen’s body lay unidentified until his family claimed it. According to the family and their neighbours, the encounter was staged. “How come his dead body remained unidentified and we got no intimation regarding his death despite the fact that Ahmed knew him?” Ajit asks.
Horen’s killing follows the pattern of killings in the Park situated on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra river at the foot of the Mikir-Karbi Anglong hills: no eyewitnesses; strange circumstances; no further investigation.
The KNP is home to the world’s largest population of the endangered one-horned rhinoceros that is under intense attack from poachers. The poachers are capitalising on the surge in the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and China, where it is a status symbol and is also used in medicine. Sadly, it seems that the pressure to show results in the fight against poachers is turning KNP into a human graveyard with forest guards and state police often killing villagers instead of the real poachers.
In 2014, the same year that Horen was killed, the Park witnessed more than 20 fatal shootings at the hands of forest department staff. Many of those who died were locals who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. “Forest staff often take the help of villagers in menial jobs. Others enter the park for forest wood. And still others are kidnapped by members of vigilante groups who are under constant pressure from the forest department to give them leads on poachers,” said Jayanto Kumar Goswami, a lawyer and an activist based in Assam’s Golaghat district.
BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS
In their zeal, is the forest department and state police conducting extra judicial killings of local villagers, who may or may not have a criminal background?
According to government records, 134 rhinos have been killed in KNP between 2005 and 2015 for the horn, worth US $ 300,000 per kilogram, touted as one of the most expensive contraband items on earth. Sixtyeight poachers were shown shot dead in encounters in the Park in the same time period. However, circumstances of many of these shootings analysed alongside related legal documents, interviews with forest officials, local reporters and testimonies of families indicate that not all of them were poachers.
Nowhere is the problem more conspicuous than in the admission of the Park authorities that in majority of extra judicial killings in Kaziranga, gang leaders are able to escape and locals become casualties. “They lead from the front. Poachers are based in Nagaland and Manipur need their help as they are well versed with routes. They work as fixers, guides and porters,” said Amrit Bhuyan, Second Commanding Officer with the Assam Forest Protection Force, part of the Anti- Rhino Poaching Task Force.
A P Rout, Additional Director General of Police, Assam, and in-charge of the Task Force said, “Poachers are not from here except local guys, helpers and may be in stray case, a local shooter. Mostly they are facilitators.”
It is just like a border situation. It is comparable to the army on the border. When my man is standing in the 4 degree Celsius right in the dark when you cannot see one metre..there is a rhino lurking, riger lurking..i don’t question. Conservation is pretty tough.
- MK Yadava, Director Kaziranga National Park
A report submitted by KNP Director M K Yadava to Gauhati High Court in May 2014 noted that the lower rung teams only get assaulted within the park boundaries, leaving the main organisers of the crime free to regroup, have new recruits, provide training, get new arms and make another attempt at poaching.
Consider the facts confirmed to HT by the forest department and state police, which raise questions about the authenticity of encounters in KNP:
Park authorities and state police could not provide HT with a list of ‘veteran’ or ‘most wanted’ poachers killed in these encounters.
RHINOS KILLED vs POACHERS KILLED |
RHINO POPULATION OVER THE YEARS |
RHINO POACHING OVER THE YEARS
While one would assume that there would be casualties on both the sides, no forest department staff has died in these encounters, confirmed the office of KNP’s divisional forest officer.
Contrary to popular perception that poachers are armed with sophisticated weapons, only 38 rounds of AK series weapons were seized during encounters in last 10 years.
There are documented cases of families of deceased getting FIRs lodged against forest staffers, a July 2010 notification says that prior sanction of the state government is required to prosecute forest officers.
Records show that in majority of cases, post encounter procedure such as filing of charge sheets, reporting these incidents within 48 hours to the NHRC and holding magisterial inquiries within three months are not adhered to by the encountering parties, in contravention of law. Out of 74 rhino poaching cases registered between 2002 and 2012, charge-sheets were filed only in eight cases, noted a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
The situation in Kaziranga is rich in ironies. It is tempting to believe that if the forest department is serious about law enforcement, the prosecution of offenders facing charges under the Wildlife Act must result in conviction. But records show that encounter killings in Kaziranga outnumbered convictions seventy times in the last five years.
Yadava’s report attribute abysmal conviction rate to lack of exchange of information amongst enforcement agencies with regards to wildlife criminals. “It has often been seen that a poacher or a linkman has been arrested but multiple cases pending against them are not known to the arresting agency. Therefore bail is obtained easily as “first timer” who then gets back to doing the same business,” noted the report. “They could not prosecute even a single person for entering the park in an unauthorized manner. At the same time, they killed so many people alleging they were people who entered at night time with the purpose of poaching. Two developments do not match,” said Jayanto Goswami.
Paucity of resources to run the Park and lack of funds to gather intelligence, when seen with incessant fatal shootings offer another contrast. Twenty seven poachers were shown shot dead in 2014, up from seven in 2005, despite the fact that the staff is ill equipped and lacks modern gadgets (officials narrated many instances to this reporter when their .303 rifles or that of their colleagues could not fire); 20 per cent of positions are vacant in the Park; and seven per cent of the deployed staff strength is physically incapable of performing protection duties.
So what exactly is happening in Kaziranga? The most likely scenario seems to be that the pressure on Park authorities has led them to be trigger-happy, killing trespassers and individuals found inside the park at night.
“If there is a failure on our part, we earn flak from international quarters. This is not Assam specific issue,” said ranger Saleem Ahmed, ranger, Ahmed admitted that there have been cases of informers misleading his staff because of personal rivalry. In such cases, at the most they would summon the person. “But it cannot lead to encounter because an innocent person never goes inside the Park,” he said.
Echoed A.P. Rout,“It is a reserved sanctuary. The fellow is not supposed to be there. Night time if somebody is coming, whether he is a wood cutter or poacher, how does someone know?” he said.
M K Yadava said given that almost 70 per cent of people in the fringe villages fall in Below Poverty Line category, there was a need to sensitise them not to help wildlife traders for easy money. “Conservation efforts cannot succeed unless these people are made stakeholders,” said Yadava.
At the same time, he appeared to be proud of the way his forest staff was working in hostile conditions. Yadava maintained that not a single innocent person has been killed during encounters. “They are constantly fighting two enemies viz poachers and wild animals. They are on duty when it is pitch dark and the temperature is freezing. I cannot question their actions. And mind you, poachers do not wear special dresses,” he said.
“Oh, we know his son, why did they have to kill him,” cops at Jakhalabandha police station in Assam’s Nagaon district murmured as Kachu Kealing collected the dead body of his 25 year old son Gaonburha Kealing on the night of December 26, 2013. Villagers claimed that same evening, some farmers saw him on his way to the forest in search of his cattle. Earlier that day, Gaoubhura worked in the field with his father and cooked a meal. When he left home around 10 am and did not return, Kachochan reached the Sikuni Bagh forest camp- where suspected poachers are routinely detained- to be informed that he may check the dead body which arrived at the Jakhalabanda police station hours ago.
Photos of Gaonbhura’s dead body, copies of which are with HT, show it riddled with three bullets and sickle wounds jabbed around the abdomen, waist and behind his back.
According to his family and neighbors, Gaonbhura was stunted and was least likely to be involved in any activity related to rhino horn trade.
Goubhura’s killing triggered a furious uproar in the area. Various tribal groups and students’ bodies including the All Assam Tribal Sangha, an umbrella body of different tribal organisations held a roadblock protesting the killing.
Ditumoni Gogoi, secretary, CPI (M-L) of Kaliabor sub division, one of the participants at the protest said, “Many such killings were happening in and around Nagaon at that point of time. In most of the cases, protests remain specific to the village of the deceased. But this one became a rallying point and people of nearby villages also took to streets in solidarity with the family.”
It is a reserved sanctuary. The fellow is not supposed to be there. Night time somebody coming…he is a wood cutter or poacher...how does someone know.
- AP Rout, Additional DGP (STF), Asssam
The Additional Deputy Commissioner of Kaliabor sub division in Nagaon ordered an inquiry and action against officials if found guilty. The Circle Officer provided the family with a sum of Rs 10,000 to perform Gaonbhura’s last rites. The Sub Divisional Officer wrote to the DFO requesting him to look into the possibility of giving job to one of the family members on compassionate grounds.
In response to a complaint filed to the Assam State Human Rights Commission (AHRC) by the family, a fact finding team led by the principle chief conservator of forests, Assam, declared that Gaonbhura was a poacher and was killed by forest guard on duty. But the family claims that the Commission’s fact finding team never consulted or involved them or anyone known to Gaonbhura in the entire enquiry depriving them of their right to a fair hearing.
Forest director told HT that as per his information, Gaonbhura was not innocent but his department was trying to help the family on compassionate grounds.
On June 1, 2010, almost all local dailies in Assam carried on front pages the the news of Rahul Kutum’s killing and the resulting protests. “Hundreds of local people of Silveta area under Bokakhat subdivision of Golaghat district have rocked the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) today in protest against the killing of an innocent youth- Rahul Kutum, by the Kaziranga forest guards, making him a poacher fraudulently,” published The Sentinel.
Kutum, a minor, along with three others were shot dead in the Bogpur area of the national park on May 21, 2010. Pictures circulated to media (copies with HT) and Kutum’s post mortem report show his dead body carrying unnatural injury marks. “There were marks indicating that both his hands were tied with rope like material,” said Dhrubajyoti Saha, local reporter with Asomiya Pratidin, who covered the encounter. “It is difficult for me to vouch for anyone’s innocence. Involvement of villagers in wildlife trade cannot be ruled out, but killing people like this cannot be a solution,” he added.
Villagers of Silveta gave a memorandum to Golaghat Deputy Commissioner demanding a fair inquiry into the incident.
Kutum’s uncle Bhakto Bahadur Thapa told HT that an individual named Hariprasad Doley of Agoratoli area had helped the KNP officials to plan the killing. After a complaint was lodged by Kutum’s family, the Bokakhat police arrested Doley under section 302. The FIR also named then DFO and one forester Nazrul Islam. Doley got bail after spending three months in prison.
No action was taken against the forest officials. The incident was reported to AHRC but the case file was closed in February 2012.