July 14, 2000
MYSORE - It is a picture-perfect of a vibrant habitat. The backdrop
is impressive and the geographical terrain overwhelming - undulating
hills of Karbi Anglong in the south, the Brahmaputra in the north
and a vast expanse of grassland teeming with wildlife nestled in
the centre. This is also the last bastion of the great Indian one-horned
rhinoceros. Conjuring up visions of these wild beauties and enjoying
its protected status, is the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
Spread across 430 sq.km. Kaziranga is the saga of grit and determination
of the unsung heroes who battled against all odds in protecting
the endangered species. These are forest guards and members of the
anti-poaching brigade who are apparently in command of the park.
Home to over 65 per cent of the world's population of one-horned
rhinos, Kaziranga harbours nearly 1550 of these majestic animals
as per the 1999 census.
But the veneer of the splendid on the surface has masked the stark
reality underneath. Strapped for cash, on the one hand and running
short of manpower on the other, the Kaziranga National Park has
been stretched to its limit by successive Governments, indifferent
to conservation issues - an attitude which is also the scourge of
other national parks.
Even the park director, Mr. Bishan Singh Bonal, went on record
stating that Kaziranga was in dire financial straits. Staff lower
down the hierarchy admitted that 160 daily wagers were removed in
April since there was no money to pay salaries. Most of them were
grass cutters who had nothing to do with anti- poaching activities.
But in their absence, even routine jobs are left pending.
As the forest ranger, Mr. D. D. Bora, explained,"the number
of tamed elephants has increased and we have one mahout and one
casual labourer for 28 elephants and this is where the 160 labourers
were most useful." He alleged that though the Government was
earning enough revenue, the amount was not being ploughed back into
the Park but it went to the treasury. While the "armed guards"
were ill-equipped, they were entrusted with manning the 51 anti-poaching
camps spread across the park. And with frequent storms and floods
devastating the park, the anti- poaching brigade was hard-pressed
to stay put and hold its guard in dilapidated camps in the absence
of money to repair them.
A senior official admitted: Even the patrolling jeeps were being
run for the past two years on fuel obtained by credit. If the credit
supply dries up, the patrolling jeeps will grind to a halt. And
if that happens, the poachers may gain an upper hand. While the
speedboats cannot be used for want of fuel, the country boats have
not been repaired for want of money.
A wildlife personnel in Kaziranga said: Though things are going
from bad to worse in Kaziranga in particular and the wildlife wing
in general, there are other departments which get money for nothing.
Adds Mr. Bora,"people consider a posting to the wildlife wing
a punishment and opt out of it."
While financial constraints hamper effective administration in
Kaziranga, nature unleashes its fury during monsoon. What is worse,
the devastation is largescale and money invested in repairs gets
undone with the recurring floods. The worst in recent times was
in 1998 when the swollen Brahmaputra wreaked widespread havoc in
Kaziranga. Officials said about 650 animals, including 39 rhinos,
were washed away while five of them were poached on by gangs who
stepped up their operations taking advantage of the ground situation.
The park has a history of poaching which was effectively curbed
by the authorities "who shoot to kill." But the situation
could relapse if the Government continues to play truant in releasing
funds. Mr. Aniruddha Dey, ACF, Eastern Assam Wildlife Division pointed
out, "the number of rhinos poached was 44 in 1988, 45 in 1986,
44 in 1989, 35 in 1990, 48 in 1992. However, with assistance from
the Army, poaching was controlled and the rhinos which fell to bullets
were down to four in 1999. In Kaziranga alone more than 60 poachers
have been shot dead by the authorities during the last six to eight
years." While the NGOs claim that figures of poaching are only
the officially reported ones, there is no dispute that armed protection
has brought down relentless poaching.
Kaziranga suffers due to many administrative problems. Sadly though,
the will to solve them seems to be lacking. It is imperative to
cushion the "human-induced" blows to the beleaguered national
park because there is little that can be done about the flooding
of Kaziranga by Brahmaputra. It is the call of the wild in its exotic
setting which beckons wildlife enthusiasts to Kaziranga. But if
the ominous trend continues and the warnings are not heeded, it
could turn out to be a call in the wilderness.
(This article was facilitated by a fellowship from the National
Foundation for India under its North East Media Exchange Programme)