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Much ado about Kaziranga

Nava Thakuria | New Delhi |

Kaziranga National Park, known as a success story across the globe in the conservation of the one-horned rhinoceros, suddenly got shocking news from abroad stating that a tribal rights body has given a call for boycott of the world heritage site claiming that it has turned into a killing field of innocent tribal people in the name of conservation.

Survival International, the London-based tribal rights organisation, issued a statement a year ago expressing its concern that the forest guards of Kaziranga were using extreme power with impunity to kill poachers in the name of protecting endangered single-horn rhinos. The organisation asserted that many tribal people were also killed by armed forest wardens even on suspicion. It claimed that the park authorities were so busy celebrating the success story of preserving almost two thirds of world’s one- horn rhino population, that there were few to listen to their protests.

Besides rhinos, the central Assam-based forest reserve is also home to royal Bengal tigers, Asiatic elephants and buffalos, different species of deer and other wildlife. The poaching of rhinos in Assam’s forest reserves makes regular news. According to state forest minister, Pramila Rani Brahma, Assam lost 22 rhinos to poachers (18 in Kaziranga alone) last year, adding that 123 died in various parks and wildlife sanctuaries during 2016. Talking about the anti-poaching initiatives, the minister revealed that park security personnel arrested 90 poachers from different parts of Assam since 1 January 2016. The Kaziranga authority also helped in arresting over 70 poachers from the vicinity of the park during the same period.

Termed a success story, Kaziranga today gives shelter to 2,431 rhinos (as per the latest census in 2015). It also houses 167 tigers (2014), 5,620 elephants (2011), 1,169 swamp deer (2011), 248 leopards (2000) along with other wild animals.

The issue of killing people in the name of wildlife conservation gained momentum after the British Broadcasting Corporation beamed a news-feature recently, where journalist Justin Rowlatt interviewed responsible forest officials and frontline guards to justify that they were mentally prepared to kill anyone unwanted inside the Kaziranga territory. Once the BBC aired the item titled, “Our World: Killing for Conservation” on 11 February, the government and people of Assam raised serious concerns over its content, arguing that the Kaziranga guards were legally empowered to take stern action against poachers. Various protection groups came forward criticising the news channel for propagating a wrong image of Kaziranga to international viewers. They organised public meetings in favour of the Kaziranga authorities, which is trying to protect the rhinos with whatever resources they have at their disposal.

Encouraged by this, the government banned BBC journalist Justin Rowlatt from filming in any of India’s tiger projects. Earlier, the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India clarified that Rowlatt “misled government officials into giving permission to film by submitting a false synopsis. They then went on to produce a documentary, which shows Indian conservation efforts in poor light, contrary to the synopsis submitted,” asserted the NTCA, adding that the BBC and Rowlatt violated four pre-conditions.

But the NTCA claimed that global news channel filmed in Kaziranga after sunset, did not screen the documentary before a committee of the Union environment, forests and climate change ministry, and deviated from the original synopsis, which was submitted to the external affairs ministry and the tiger conservation authority.

Banning the BBC was not a quick-fix solution to the authorities. Rather it tempted Survival International to launch a campaign to boycott the park as long as it retains its shoot-at-sight policy. In a statement on 2 March, Survival International argued that over 100 people were killed at Kaziranga over the last 20 years. It also highlighted the case of Akash Orang, a minor tribal boy, who received bullet injuries by accident from a forest guard in Kaziranga in July 2016. Akash received serious injuries to his legs and is still under treatment. Following the local peoples’ outcry, the Kaziranga authorities suspended two guards.

Besides Akash, there are a few more victims of the shoot-to-kill (rather than to apprehend) policy in Kaziranga. The inhuman policy has already attracted severe criticism from conservation charities for encouraging violence, rather than effectively tackling the criminal networks behind poaching. The Survival International statement also added that it was writing to over 130 international tour operators in 10 countries for pursuing their Kaziranga boycott campaign. Its director Stephen Corry asserted that the Kaziranga authorities were practicing extra-judicial killing for years and they can’t ignore the matter anymore.

In the meantime, Assam’s tourism minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma has vowed to carry out a vigorous drive to attract foreign tourists to various forest reserves in the backdrop of Survival International’s boycott of Kaziranga. He told the state assembly recently that the government would continue its “zero tolerance”policy against poaching and nature-loving people across the globe would support the endeavour.

Meanwhile, a few leading wildlife non-government organisations have condemned the allegation that the Kaziranga authorities were using excessive force to protect the rhinos. The NGOs, which are working in and around Kaziranga, came out with a statement that the state government had to strengthen protection measures to ensure the conservation of its pride — rhinos. Aaranyak, Assam Elephant Foundation, Bhumi, Wildlife Trust of India and the Corbett Foundation, in a press statement argued that the continuous pressure from citizens to protect wildlife compelled the Kaziranga authorities to take satisfactory action against poachers.

It continued, “The propaganda launched by the international organisation to boycott Kaziranga is unfair and totally uncalled for. Be it Kruger or Kaziranga, or any other rhino harbouring areas in the world, to protect their rhinos all of them have to strengthen their security and by no means is Kaziranga the only rhino-bearing area where gun battles between protection forces and well-armed poachers occur and casualties are accounted due to such occurrences,” said the statement.

However, local residents living at the periphery of Kaziranga extended moral support to Rowlatt and demanded the unnecessary ban on the BBC journalist to be lifted immediately. Jeepal Krisak Sramik Sangha, a farmer-labourers’ body based in the vicinity of Kaziranga, while criticising the harsh conservation methods, urged the government to institute a high level probe into the reported deaths of tribal people till date in and around the park.

JKSS advisor Soneswar Narah argued that the Kaziranga authorities were hiding a lot of information. He alleged that the forest department was silently violating human rights in the name of conservation.

“We demand adequate compensations for the families of victims, who either got killed or sustained major injuries. Moreover, the forest department must understand that in the process of conservation, the fringe villagers should be taken into confidence,” added Narah.

Despite all this, the forest department is yet to contradict the content of the BBC news-feature.

The writer is the Guwahati-based special representative of The Statesman.