Photo: An Indian one horned Rhino seen crossing a road inside the Kaziranga National Park, on February 13, 2017 in Assam, India. Photo: Anuwar Hazarika/Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images.
Deep in the heart of Assam, India, Kaziranga National Park is home to two thirds of the world’s great one-horned rhinoceroses. A World Heritage Site, Kaziranga is a conservation success story. When it was founded in 1908, there were only a handful of rhinoceroses left as big-game hunters and poachers had decimated a once-thriving population.
Today, Kaziranga is home to more than 2,400 rhinoceroses. How did the park achieve this incredible conservation feat? Simple. The government has protects park rangers from prosecution if they shoot and kill people in the park.
A new BBC investigation uncovers a controversy surrounding these extreme conservation methods. The BBC quotes a park ranger, Advesh, as explaining, “The instruction is whenever you see poachers or hunters, we should start our guns and hunt them.”
Quartz India reports that rangers have been increasingly militarized, being given license to “shoot-on-sight,” power to prosecute offenders, and use of drones in anti-poaching measures.
The government has granted these rights as they hold the animals they are protecting in high esteem—as well as a major tourist industry. Kaziranga attracts some 170,000 annual visitors, adding pressure to protect the majestic creatures from poachers.
Rhinoceroses have been historically slaughtered for their horn, which can fetch upwards of $100,000/kg, with horns averaging 1-3kg each, according to The Atlantic. Favored by the Chinese, who have used it in traditional medicine for more than 1,800 years, rhinoceros horn has come into great demand more recently by the Vietnamese, who believe it has the power to do everything from cure cancer to enhance virility. By 2010, the last Javan rhino was discovered dead in Vietnam, and in the intervening years, the demand has crossed over into India and Africa.
According to PBS, there isn’t much scientific evidence to support the claims of healing properties, and quotes ecologist Raj Amin of the Zoological Society of London, who observed you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails.
But ultimately, as The Atlantic reports, it’s status that is driving the demand, and with the high stakes come high rewards. The BBC quotes Dr. Satyendra Singh, Director of Kaziranga National Park, as believing more than 300 local villagers are involved in poaching.
In the past three years, 50 poachers have been killed at the park, an extraordinary leap from previous years, which could be anywhere from zero to six. As the demand for rhino horn increases, the death toll at the park continues to rise, creating an issue in this densely populated section of the country.
This controversial tactic of extrajudicial executions has been met with pushback from local villagers, as innocent people from local tribes, have gotten caught in the crossfire while going about their daily business.
Last July, seven-year-old Akash Orang was walking home when he was caught up in a skirmish and shot in the leg. Despite dozens of operations, he remains barely able to walk. His crippling led to a major outcry from the villagers, who had long been suffering as a result of indiscriminate and uninvestigated shootings.
“The park is being run with utmost brutality. There is no jury, there’s no judge, there’s no questioning. And the terrifying thing is that there are plans to roll [out] the shoot at sight policy across [the] whole of India, Sophie Grig, lead campaigner at Survival International, a London-based charity, told the BBC.
Once young Akash’s story made headlines, other came began to speak out, with allegations of torture being made against the rangers during interrogations. The rangers denied the allegations. But this may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Plans are currently in the works to double Kaziranga in size, with eviction notices being issued to more than 200,000 people in 900 villages.
At the same time, the number of rhinoceroses being killed has fallen to just 18 in 2016, down from 27 in 2013 and 2014, showing that the aggressive stance against poachers works. But even with these extreme measures in place, the killings continue, as the Hindustan Times reports the carcass of an adult rhino with its horn removed was found in the park on February 14.
The challenge facing the country is to find the balance between human and animal communities it serves.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.