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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : July 2000 : India: Ominous clouds over Kaziranga

India: Ominous clouds over Kaziranga

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 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)



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