Bogendro Kutumb poaches rhinos in Kaziranga National Park. “I am ready to surrender before a forest department official, but only after I kill at least two [more] rhinos,” he said. “That will keep my family fed while I am in jail.” Hailing from Amtenga village, Assam, Kutumb said a minister in Manipur had agreed to buy the horns for 065 lakh.
He made the statement in front of a journalist and a senior KNP official. “He has already taken some money as advance from the minister,” said the official. Kutumb allegedly poached three rhinos in late 2011. “Nobody can stop him [from bagging two more]”, said a KNP official. “Because poachers are smarter and more adept than the forest rangers who safeguard the 2,200-odd rhinos in KNP.”
The KNP stretches over 438sq.km, and has 152 anti-poaching camps, besides 700 members of the Assam Forest Protection Force. But, with rhino horns going at premium prices, smugglers are finding new routes and methods to hunt the armoured giant. “If the state provides food to the poor living in villages bordering KNP, I can guarantee that poaching will stop,” said a KNP official.
A tribal poacher from Golaghat, Assam, told THE WEEK that until recently tribals were mere guides for expert poachers. The poacher would hand over the horns to middlemen, most of them based in Dimapur, Nagaland; Siliguri, West Bengal; or Moreh, Manipur. These middlemen are the lowest links in an international smuggling chain that runs to Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal, and then disappears.
In the last decade, tribals have turned poachers with weapons supplied by middlemen. There are tribal couriers, too, who carry the horns to designated drop sites on the border. Said a police officer: “The utility of the horns can be gauged from the fact that international arms dealers barter them for arms in north-eastern India.”
Most rhino poachers come from Babungaon, which lies on KNP's eastern range. “Yugendra Saro and Sukhdeo Kutumb of the village surrendered six months back, but the landless duo is now repenting,” said Upen Saro, head of Babungaon village. “Surrendering means leaving one's family to starve. The government does not have any rehabilitation scheme for them.”
In the last three years, 17 hardcore poachers have surrendered to the KNP director. Some surrendered their weapons, thinking they would be given the means to an alternative livelihood. But the government did not budge. Those working with NGOs in the area ask why the government is inconsiderate to poachers, when surrendered militants are rehabilitated.
Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain said states around Assam, too, should be sincere and serious about curbing poaching. He said there was 10 per cent increase in rhino numbers since 2006. “Assam is the only state to have amended The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. We gave it more teeth in 2009 to deal with poaching and trafficking of wildlife products,” he said. “Now, a poacher can be sentenced to life.”
But what good is a strong law when government servants are hand in glove with poachers? A senior forest officer said 26 poachers were killed and 19 were arrested in the past three years. Strangely, most of the arrested poachers did not have any rhino horns with them. “Where did the horns go?” he asked.
On June 27, 2010, the West Bengal Police arrested three people from a Siliguri hotel and recovered a rhino horn. One of the arrested, Mani Kumar Tamang, was a government employee. In 2011, a government teacher was nabbed for sheltering half a dozen poachers.
In 2003, Assam forest officials found a tranquilliser gun and empty .315 cartridges with poachers arrested in Methoni, Assam. The gun belonged to a senior forest officer from a neighbouring state, and the cartridges were government issue. No action was taken against the officer and no attempt was made to probe how the cartridges reached the poachers.
Soumyadeep Dutta, director, Nature's Beckon NGO, demanded a CBI inquiry into the sale of 300 rhino horns by the forest department between 1973 and 1980. “How can the Assam government sell it when the Wildlife Protection Act was in force since 1972?” he asked. “I have confirmed information that the horns were sold to smugglers and artificial horns have been kept in their place in government custody.”
There are around 1,300 rhino horns in government custody, and the department is considering destroying them. “We wanted the horns to be burnt in our presence, after thorough forensic tests,” Dutta said. Hussain, however, pooh-poohed Dutta's charges about fake horns and government involvement.
The issue of rhino horn poaching and smuggling had rocked the state four years back, and Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had announced that he would request the CBI to probe the matter. The probe never came.
A retired senior staffer of KNP said the number of rhinos had surely increased, but they should have been twice today's figures if the anti-poaching measures had worked. “There is nexus among smugglers, forest officials, police officials and politicians in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya,” he said. “In 2006, the police seized a diary from Rati Ram Sharma, a notorious smuggler of tiger skins and rhino horns. It had names of officials and politicians allegedly paid off by him. None of them was questioned. Why?”