By Nava Thakuria
Assam finds a conservator of wildlife in its Governor Padmanabha Balakrishna Acharya, who has made it clear that unlike other Constitutional heads, he would not be a mute spectator in respect of protecting the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros in Northeast India.
Governor Acharya, who is also in charge of Nagaland and Tripura, had recently invited a group of intellectuals of Assam to Rajbhawan in Guwahati to express his serious concern over unabated poaching of single horned rhinos in various forest reserves.
A soft-spoken gentleman maintaining a strict discipline, Governor Acharya is open about the incapability of the Assam forest department in safeguarding the rhinos of Kaziranga National Park, which is also an Unesco world heritage site.
‘We must all realize that it is our foremost responsibility to nip in the bud the nefarious activities of the poachers, who are enemies of the nation, with the trust of people,’ said the Governor.
Terming one-horned rhinos (scientific name Rhinoceros unicornis) as the greatest pride of Assam, Governor Acharya reiterated, ‘We are accountable to the people of Assam and the nation. Our inefficiency may result in an ecological void which may never ever be filled again.’
The rhinos are poached for their horns, which have high market value in China and some Southeast Asian countries where people believe the horns to have medicinal (read Viagra) values. But the biological scientists categorically deny any big value of the rhino horn, which is actually an amalgamation of hairs grown on the nose of the animal.
Though the giant animal is protected under India’s wildlife protection act which has been under implementation since 1972, Assam continues to lose the precious rhinos. Last year, Kaziranga alone lost 27 rhinos to the poachers and this year the casualties in the State have soared up to nine till March.
The one-horned rhino (scientific name Rhinoceros unicornis) has a world population of over 3,400 individuals in wild and the species is surviving only in India, Bhutan and Nepal. According to the last rhino counts, held in March 2015, Assam had over 2600 rhinos in wild spreading in various protected forest reserves including Kaziranga
National Park (2401), Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary (around 100), Rajib Gandhi Orang National Park (around 95) and Manas National Park (around 21).
Talking about the conservation of rhinos, the Indian Union environment & forests minister Prakash Javadekar admitted in Parliament that poaching of rhinos was a major challenge for the administration.
‘Poaching has to be stopped. Therefore, the Wildlife Crime Bureau and the government have taken pro-active measures. I have visited Kaziranga, where we are creating a Rhino Protection Force with the assistance of the State of Assam,’ said Javadekar.
Facing the heat of growing criticism from various corners over the relentless poaching of priced rhinos, Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi declared recently to raise a Rhino Protection Force with more than twelve hundred personnel. He also said that the Assam government was looking for high-end equipment like night vision devices, thermal
scanners, surveillance cameras, GPS and green drones to deal with menace of notorious poachers.
Supporting the initiative of Governor Acharya, a journalist body of Assam has urged the State forest department to come clean on the rhino horns kept in its custody. Journalists’ Forum Assam (JFA), an active media body of northeast India, reiterated its old demand for conducting a transparent forensic test of all rhino horns preserved by the forest department, apprehending that some of those horns were already smuggled for illegal trading.
‘The illegal trade of rhino horns must stop to preserve the large animals both in Asia and Africa. We suspect that some elements inside the State forest department continue links with the international traders for their selfish interest,’ said a statement issued by JFA president Rupam Barua.
‘Unless the people of Assam are given the authentic information about rhino horns in government custody, the trade with replacement of real rhino horns with fake ones would continue,’ the statement said asserting that the wildlife lovers can not tolerate a trade that threatens the centuries old species on Earth.
(The author is an environment journalist based in northeast India)