In search of a missing rhino horn


Karishma Saurabh Kalita looks into the journey of a rhino horn, from the Orient to the Middle East

Rhino AAs authorities continue to grapple with the deeply entrenched racket of poaching of the famous one-horned rhinoceros in Assam, the demand for its horn in markets abroad refuse to die down. The state symbol of the northeast Indian state of Assam, the rhinoceros has been listed as endangered due to extensive poaching.

Two-thirds of the great one-horned rhinos are found in Assam’s Kaziranga, Pobitora , Orang and Manas National Parks. Kaziranga is home to an estimated 70 percent of the entire population in the world.

These rhinos have been listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species.
In Assam, rhinos were hunted from as early as the 1800s when a single military officer would kill some 200. It was in 1904 that after a visit to Kaziranga Baroness Mary Victoria Leiter Curzon alerted her husband Lord Curzon, the then viceroy of India, about the declining number of rhinos due to excessive hunting.
The next year, Lord Curzon declared Kaziranga a reserve forest and in 1908, when the number of rhinos was just 18, the area was officially closed for shooting. In what subsequently turned out to be the world’s greatest conservation effort, the number rose to over 1,600 by the time Kaziranga celebrated the 100th anniversary of its official status in 2005.
Despite this, the menace of poaching continues over time. In 1983, 41 rhinos were killed in Assam’s Laokhowa National Park, which was practically the entire population of the park, and led to the total extinction of the species in the area.
“Of Assam’s four national parks, Kaziranga is the most easily accessible. The poachers can either come in from the northern side through the Brahmaputra river or from the southern side through Karbi Anglong. These two sides are not well guarded,” Amit Sharma, coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Rhino Conservation, told IANS.
“Most of the traders are from Nagaland who deploy poverty-stricken locals to kill the animals for a large sum of money. Finding of AK-47 bullets indicate that the rhinos are killed by using these guns,” Sharma said.
According to an official of Assam’s Department of Forest, the main market for the rhino horn continues to be Southeast Asia, especially China, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.
“The horns are transported out of Assam mainly through Nagaland out to Myanmar or from Arunachal Pradesh to China. The carriers are mainly females and guards do not really check what is hidden in their clothing,” the official told IANS.
“Female guards have been recently posted at border checkpoints, but their training does not meet the necessary requirements. The government should deploy highly trained professionals in the forests to tackle the poachers,” he added.
According to Bibhab Talukdar, chief executive of wildlife conservation NGO Aaranyak, there has been an increase in poaching of this endangered pachyderm since 2012.
“In 2012, around 22 rhinos were killed in Assam and in 2013 the number increased to 41,” he said.
Uttam Saikia, honorary wildlife warden of the Kaziranga National Park, said that till the time the international market demand for the rhino horn continues, the supply would not stop.
“In China, the horn is used in powdered form mainly as an aphrodisiac and there have been claims without any explanation that its use can also cure cancer. In the Middle East especially in Yemen, the elite use the horn as a knife handle as a status symbol,” Saikia said.
Though organised wildlife crime workshops are being held in Kaziranga to give a basic understanding of poaching, the problem continues.
“Since Nepal started the anti-poaching mechanism, poaching cases have decreased to zero percent in the country and so Kaziranga faces the pressure now,” Rathin Barman, deputy director of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), said.
Assam’s Minister for Forest and Environment Rakibul Hussain, when contacted, said that earlier this month, two poachers were killed in Kaziranga.
“Due to translocation, the number of rhinos in Manas National Park increased to 31. We have launched an Anti-Rhino Poaching Task Force and have installed CCTV cameras all over the national parks,” he said, adding that a new battalion has been deployed with better training to guard the parks.
Conservation efforts like the Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020, a joint effort with the Assam Forest Department, the Bodoland Territorial Council, the WWF, the International Rhino Foundation (IRF), and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, have aimed to attain a population of at least 3,000 great one-horned rhinos in Assam by the year 2020.
In order to achieve this, the existing population will have to increase by over 600 rhinos in the next eight years, which amounts to an average annual increase of about three percent.