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Flora & Fauna

Assam: Media Chooses Forest Minister over Rhinos

Nava Thakuria
It may be vital for many to save the endangered rhinos in Assam, but for a section of media persons in Northeast India, it has seemingly become more important to safeguard the state's forest minister. While wildlife lovers around the globe rail against the authority of Kaziranga National Park for its failure to protect the one horned rhino, a section of journalists in Guwahati continue manufacturing stories glorifying the initiative of the state forest minister. These journalists, representing national and inter-national news agencies, tried their best to project a different picture where the minister has been praised lavishly for his immediate actions against poachers in Kaziranga. But those stories really missed out on the public fury, the local media's concern and sustained voices of wildlife activists against the ongoing poaching in the park, which recently celebrated hundred years of success in preserving the precious inmates.

Kaziranga lost 20 rhinos during 2007 to poachers and it is an all time high in the last decade. The New Year began with more sad news. Within the fifth week of 2008, four rhinos fell prey to poachers in the same park, which was long identified as a safe haven for rhinos.

A census in 1984 showed that Kaziranga, which was declared a National Park had 1,080 rhinos, in 1974. The number increased to 1069 in another census during 1991. The census in 1999 provided more optimistic result as the number of rhinos soared to 1,552. The last census in 2006 revealed the number of rhinos to be as high as 1,855 in the park. Amazingly, Kaziranga provides shelter to almost two thirds of the total population of one horned rhinos on the planet.

The park normally loses 10 to 15 rhinos annually from natural causes and poaching. Rhinos live an average of 40 years, and in the last 10 years, 705 rhinos have died. Only 71 of them were lost to poachers (the rest died natural deaths). In fact, the poaching of rhinos has come down in the last few years. Statistics reveal that altogether only five rhinos were killed during 2006. The previous year (2005) witnessed the slaughtering of seven rhinos. During 2004, four rhinos became victims of poaching. It was again less in 2003, where poachers killed only three rhinos, four in 2002, eight in 2001, four in 2000, and four in 1999.

Called black ivory, the rhino horn is prized as an aphrodisiac and a cure for many ills in traditional oriental medicine, selling for thousands of dollars per kilogram. A single horn can fetch as much as $40,000. Rising incomes across Asia mean that demand for powdered rhino horn is on the increase. And sophisticated poachers are ranging further and further to fetch it although there is scant scientific evidence that powdered rhino horn has any medicinal or sexual value.

But veterinarians say that is nonsense. It is nothing but superstition. The horns are nothing but compact masses of agglutinated hair and rhinos use them for defense against other animals. There is no scientific analysis that the rhino horn powder could stimulate human sex, said a Guwahati based animal physician.

Even so, the rhinos are still being slaughtered for their horns. The poachers use various methods to kill the giant animal. The easiest way remains shooting it with guns (many times fitted with a silencer). There are reports that the poachers often use telescopic rifles that can fire bullets from a long distance. Sometimes, the poachers come inside the park during the night (Kaziranga has no fencing or walls on the boundary) and dig a hole on the path, which rhinos often use. One very interesting aspect of the rhinos' habit is that the animal defecates at a particular place continuously for many days. The poachers first identify the path littered with the heap of dung and plan accordingly. In some instances, high-tension electric lines are also used to kill the giant animal.

The park director Suren Buragohain argues, "The poachers are equipped with sophisticated weapons. But our forest guards lack proper arms to counter them." "The park," he says, "badly needs more guards with modern arms and ammunition." Incidentally, Buragohain earns brickbats from wildlife lovers as his tenure witnessed the rapid increase in rhino poaching in Kaziranga. Statistics reveal that during his term (still to cross 12 months) as the director, Kaziranga lost the highest number of rhinos in a decade.

As the director was clueless to the grave threats to the rhino in Kaziranga, the state's forest minister revealed an equally insensitive and callous approach to the issue. All the time, the young minister in Tarun Gogoi's cabinet, preferred to ignore the matter. It finally compelled the All Assam Students' Union (AASU), an influential students' organisation in the Northeast, to come to the streets. AASU activists staged demonstrations on February 2 in front of the forest offices in all parts of Assam to protest against the authority's failure in protecting the rhinos. The AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya went on demanding the immediate resignation of Rockybul Hussain as the forest minister of Assam "for failing to take adequate steps to stop this heinous crime against a national treasure."

Earlier, conscious citizens, political party members and media editorials expressed deep anguish against the continued slaughtering of rhinos in Assam in the last few months. Newspaper readers and television viewers had a shocking experience in January, when they were exposed to horrible visuals of a wounded rhino at Kaziranga. The mother rhino had already lost her calf. Probably she tried in vain to save her calf, which was killed by poachers for its horn. Then it was her turn to fall victim in a more tragic way. The poachers cut her horn, when she was alive and took it away. For the next two days the rhino fought death with her severe wounds on her mouth and finally succumbed to her injuries.             February 2008

The author is a Guwahati based journalist and the editor of Natun Somoy. He can be reached at

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