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How saving the rhino became as commercial an enterprise in Kaziranga as poaching

The rhinoceros looks like a slow lumbering animal, given to glacial movements from one path of grassland to another over the course of a day. Visitors driving through KNP often stop and indulge in a bit of ‘rhino-spotting’ at parts of the park that is dissected by National Highway 37.

Driving towards eastern Assam, the grasslands of the park fall to the left—which is where the rhino often graze—while there are extensive paddy fields to one’s right. Local farmers around the villages where I conducted fieldwork wryly acknowledge the precariousness of their fields and farms, especially when animals decide to cross the highway. Even a recently-constructed fence that emitted a mild electric current was not enough to dissuade the animals from taking in some cultivated crop. The farmers I interviewed rarely expressed rancour against the animals. When asked how they protect their crops from rhinos, they offered a range of activities, such as lighting fires, standing watch at night and (curiously enough) verbally abusing the rhino. In conversations with groups of farmers, the rhino seemed like an errant neighbour, rather than a source of wealth that needed to be hunted for its horn. Every discussion ended with well-articulated ideas about the need for poor farmers and the animals of the park to coexist, as well as a formal declaration disassociating the farmers from acts of poaching and illegal hunting.

Yet, for many other actors, especially those who were able to create public opinion—including the media and environmental NGOs— this situation was fraught with problems for the rhino (and other animals). This sort of bickering within the various circles of authority in the administration rest on two pivotal issues: (a) the WPA of 1972 and (b) responsibilities apportioned to various departments and groups for the protection of wildlife. Their inherent loopholes are the reason why NGOs have emerged to complement the state’s existing departments that deal with forests, animals, and also humans who have claims over both (forests and animals). This creates a lively arena for contestations that seem to work at cross-purposes.

Ever since the late 1990s, the Government of India had encouraged forest departments to be less feudatory and stentorian in their relationship with the local people. In Assam too, the government-initiated efforts to reduce conflicts over usufruct rights and forests, though here, the radicalization of indigenous communities had led to armed invasion and occupation of forests by activists and insurgents. Since the early 2000s, the government seemed to have managed to reestablish a certain degree of control over the forest.

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Around KNP, the forest department had to diversify its programmes in order to include villagers (and villages) into a conservation project that would be beneficial to both. They had set up Forest Development Agencies (FDA) that were to disburse funds for the protection of forest land, as well as help regeneration of pastures for grazing at the district level and these were always headed by civil servants of the Indian Forest Service.

‘My work falls in the grey area of conservation’, said Deepak Saha (name changed), who works for a foundation dedicated to the protection of rhinos in different parts of the world. We sat at a busy crossroad near the city of Tezpur, not very far from the fringes of KNP that was spread across the other side of the Brahmaputra River. He described his work as something that fell halfway between criminal investigation and paralegal aid to the forest department. He spent a better part of the afternoon explaining the details of the illegal trade in rhino horns in Assam and drew on anecdotal incidents from his previous experiences working for the WWF in other parts of India.

As we conversed, he was careful to draw a distinction between the kind of work he had done for WWF and the semi-clandestine nature of his current responsibilities. Saha saw his efforts as an amalgam of the routine work of spies, policemen, and forest wardens to curb the illegal trade and hunting of wildlife. He admitted that this was a difficult job. The WPA was enacted in 1972, but it was difficult to enforce in places where traditional communities were used to hunting for game. Moreover, the state had legalized the auctioning of rhino horns until 1974, and entire communities had grown up believing that hunting was part of their culture, Saha claimed.

In the course of our discussion, he kept referring to various events where he had apprehended poachers and helped the forest and police departments seize all manner of animal parts that were meant to go to different parts of the world. An unmarried NGO professional, he was very forthcoming about the limits of his ability to empathize with the lives and lot of those who were hunting the rhino for its horn. Rather, he saw them as criminals who were greedy and wanted to make some quick money at the expense of the helpless rhino. He kept referring to a well-known tiger poacher, Sansar Chand, who was caught in Rajasthan (in western India), who had a battery of lawyers and lived a lavish lifestyle. Saha admitted that the poachers in Assam were not likely to be as flashy as Chand (who incidentally died in 2014). Instead, he invoked the murky world of insurgent groups, particularly in Manipur, corrupt politicians and lawyers, without actually specifying any details about who they were.

They were all, gaming the law in their quest for wealth and there was precious little that the government was capable of doing on its own. In this particular context, the WPA seemed a peripheral concern for everyone involved in the story.

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The poachers, as Saha reiterated several times over coffee, seemed unconcerned about the Act and often found easy loopholes to avoid prosecution; the forest department did not know how they could use the law to prosecute those who came intending to kill rhinos; the police, army, and other armed agencies of the state saw it as a quaint piece of legislation that seemed to distract them from real business of policing and counterinsurgency; the rhino (and other animals), for their part, continued to be poached and traded illegally and with alarming regularity. Even so, the Act remained an anchor for international NGO functionaries like Mr. Saha. He had structured his engagement with government agencies to appear as though he was a consultant, who had the task of holding workshops with police personnel and forest officials. At these workshops, he would train them on how to improve their conviction rates of alleged poachers by including sections of the WPA in their case diaries. This allowed him access to the forest departments, the police, and some sections of the local communities as well.

Saving the rhino was as viable a commercial enterprise as was poaching, according to Saha. He was quick to point out that several resorts and lodges had come up over the past decade. All of them catered to a seasonal burst in tourists who saw KNP as an embodiment of wildlife and biodiversity that Assam had to present to world. Even the tea companies were cashing in on the need for conservation by encouraging high-end tourists to live in palatial planters’ bungalows all over eastern Assam. There is a sense of irony in this: An industry that might have been responsible for the drastic reduction of forest cover for the rhino was now being called upon to find ways to conserve the habitat for the animal.

It is not as if the planters would send out their guards and workers to look for poacher, but they were called upon to address the larger conservation attempts at creating alternate livelihoods for the people dependent on the parks. Hence, some of the bigger companies had created small showrooms that sold ethnic fabric and handicraft along National Highway 37 that cut right through the heart of KNP. It gave them a sense of being part of an endeavour to police the parks and the people who live along its fringes.

This excerpt from ‘Homeland Insecurities: Autonomy, Conflict, and Migration in Assam’ by Sanjay Barbora has been published with permission from Oxford University Press.

Source: The Print

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