World Rhino Day: Assam burns rhino horns to bust myth on medicinal value
Nearly 2,500 rhino horns, which officials say was the world’s largest such stockpile, were burnt and destroyed in Assam’s Bokakhat on Wednesday to mark World Rhino Day and discourage the myths that have propelled poaching of the endangered pachyderms.
About 2,479 horns weighing around 1300kg, which had been seized from poachers and illegal traders or recovered from dead rhinos in the state’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries since 1979, were burnt in six large pyres at a stadium in Bokakhat, 240 km east of Guwahati.
Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, accompanied by several cabinet colleagues, lit the pyres remotely through drones.
“Through this event, we want to convey to the world that...there is no medicinal value to them (rhino horns). We want to urge people not to kill these rare animals or buy their horns based on superstitions or myths. We should allow rhinos to live and grow naturally,” Sarma said.
The chief minister said it was necessary not to sell the horns and add value to the illegal poaching industry. “Some are saying that instead of destroying the horns we should have sold them. But like the way we can’t sell seized drugs to earn revenue, the same way a government can’t earn money by selling rhino horns,” he said.
He added that this may be the largest such pile to be destroyed. “In South Africa, they have burned seized rhino horns, but the quantity is not that large. I think today we are setting a world record,” Sarma said.
Though there is no scientific basis, the demand for rhinoceros horns is born out of demand in some Asian countries such as China and Vietnam, where these are used to practice traditional medicine. Each horn, which is made up of keratin (found commonly in hair and nails), is valued over thousands of US dollars, driving the rampant killing of rhinos in Asia and Africa.
At 71%, Assam is home to the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinoceros. According to a 2018 census, there are nearly 2,650 rhinos in the state with around 2,400 of them in the Kaziranga National Park.
Rhinoceros are listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as endangered animals and there is an international ban on trade of rhino horns under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).
The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 allows for destruction of wildlife parts (including rhino horn) under Section 39 (3).
On September 16, the Assam cabinet had approved destruction of the horns kept in treasuries.
While 2,479 horns were destroyed in Assam on Wednesday, 50 more associated with pending court cases will be kept in state treasuries and 94 others will be preserved for exhibition or educational purposes. The state government said it will set up a natural history museum near the Kaziranga national park to keep the preserved pieces.
Before destroying them on Wednesday, experts verified the horns using scientific methods at the 12 treasuries where they were kept. Each horn was cleaned, weighed, photographed, labelled with a unique barcode, DNA samples extracted, and packed and sealed again in the presence of several witnesses.
Of the total 2,623 horns in state treasuries, 15 were of African rhinos (which have two horns) and 21 were found to be fake.
“This is a rare event... the horns were verified in a very transparent manner before destroying them. We also want to convey a stern message to poachers not to dare target another rhino in Assam,” forest minister Parimal Suklabaidya said at the event on Wednesday.
In recent years, the state government has taken measures to clamp down on poaching, including arming forest personnel with sophisticated weapons and increasing surveillance using drones.
The measures have helped greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) move up from the ”endangered” to ”vulnerable” category in IUCN’s red list of threatened species. According to government figures, the number of rhinos in Assam has risen by nearly 1,000 from 1,672 in 1999 to 2,605 in 2018.
“Scientifically, rhino horns don’t have any value, but they have a price in some markets based on superstitions about its medicinal properties. If we preserve them, it will convey the message that we believe in such superstitions. It’s good that the horns stored in Assam are being destroyed,” Rathin Barman, joint director, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) said.
“I congratulate the Assam government on the decision to burn the rhino horns and send the message that they don’t have any medicinal value. The horn looks best on a living animal and is not suited for any other purpose,” said Bibhab Talukdar, chief executive officer (CEO) of Aaranyak, a wildlife non-governmental organisation (NGO).