India, the largest democracy in the globe, has been running a massive electoral exercise, where the media continues zooming in on poll related incidents, and a sensible debate gains momentum in the eastern province of Assam. Once known for relentless insurgency, the northeast Indian province has marked its presence felt in the conservation world of wildlife.
By Nava Thakuria
For the record, Assam has over two-thirds the population of greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) on Earth and the precious animals are spreading in various protected forest reserves including Kaziranga National Park (2329), Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary (100), Rajib Gandhi Orang National Park (95) and Manas National Park (22) leaving aside the few rhinos in government zoos.
The rhino is protected under India’s powerful wildlife act that remains implemented since 1972. But due to the rampant poaching incidents, Assam is also loosing the prized animals. By March 2014, Assam lost at least 10 rhinos to poachers just this year alone. And amazingly, in every case the killers succeeded in snatching the horns, for which the bulky animal is being poached.
The previous year witnessed the killing of 41 rhinos in various forest reserves of Assam. Similarly 2012 recorded the incidents of poaching of 22 rhinos, that only shows that the poachers become more dangerous and desparate for the money they earn after selling the rhino horns into illegal markets of China, Vietnam and now also in Australia.
Even today, many people in Asian nations ‘unscientifically’ believe that it carries aphrodisiac qualities. The rhino horn, often called ‘black ivory’, is also understood as a cure for many ills in traditional oriental medicine practiced in China and Vietnam. But there is no scientific evidence that rhino horn, which is an amalgamation of hairs grown on the nose of the animal, may have any medicinal or sex-stimulating value.
As the Assam forest department has failed to check the poaching of rhinos, it has recently come out with a new idea to de-horn (or trimming the horn) the animals such that it can be saved from the poachers. Earlier, Assam’s chief wildlife warden asked for public opinion about the initiative of trimming of horns on translocated and stray rhinos.
“Individuals or organizations can also inform the public why trimming of horn must be done or must not be done, giving proper justification. The written opinion along with full identity and contact details of the individual/ rganization should reach the office of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Assam on or before March 30 next,” said a government statement.
Various organisations have opposed the theory and conservation groups of Assam have come out with strong statements against the initiative. Nature’s Beckon, an active wildlife conservation group has denounced the ‘conservation tactic without proper research’ and warned that the practice of dehorning of rhinos may have ‘negative implication in the breeding of the animals in the days to come’.
“As per the available research findings, we can argue that the horn of the rhino has its specific role in the ecology and behavior of the species. It cannot be distinguished as a vestigial part of the body. Though the evolutionary significance of horns in rhinos is not entirely clear, it may include mate choice as well as anti-predator defence.
It is known that rhinos use their horns for several behavioral functions, including defending territories, defending calves from other rhinos and predators, maternal care and foraging behavior,” said Soumyadeep Datta, director of Nature’s Beckon.
The act of dehorning (of rhinos) is under debate for more than a decade across the world, but the efficacy of the process remains unknown. Rather the dehorning of rhinos in Africa has shown negative implications on the biological growth of the animal.
“Without knowing the future implication of the dehorning process, we should not justify the practice as a preserving tactics. If the government is serious enough to save the rhinos from poachers, the legal authorities should be empowered with people’s participatory approach to the mission,” added Datta.
Similar views were also aired by Aaranyak, a leading biodiversity conservation group on the latest initiative of Assam forest to trim the rhino horns. Bibhab Talukdar, secretary general of Aaranyak argues that dehorning of rhinos should be the last option to protect the animals from poachers.
“We feel that protection measures must be strengthened on a priority basis to protect the rhinos and other wildlife. Dehorning is not the ultimate solution to check poaching, but it may be a strategy to buy time like the African nations,” said Talukdar.
Talukdar also said that dehorning would only shift the problem from a few dehorned individuals to the others. Hence considering the current socio-political scenario in Assam, we urge the government not to take up dehorning as a measure for rhino protection, he observed.
Earlier various students and civil society groups namely All Assam Students’ Union, Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity, All India Students’ Federation, Kaziranga Wildlife Society, Aranya Surakhya Samity, Journalists’ Forum Assam
with many other conscious organisations condemned the government for its failure to protect the precious animals in various forest reserves.
The chorus was joined by the political parties including Asom Gana Parishad, Bhartiya Janata Party, Communist Party of India, CPI (Marxist), All India United Democratic Front among others staging street demonstrations and burning effigies of Assam forest minister Rockybul Hussain and also State chief minister Tarun Gogoi frequently to raise voices for a high level probe into the poaching of wildlife in the region.
They are unanimous in their voices that the rhinos with other wildlife species must be protected in various forest reserves of India irrespective of any party that comes to power in New Delhi after the month long general election. The ruling Congress alliance, which may face defeat in the election as anticipated by political analysts across India, has also assured the wildlife lovers of India to try its best to protect the wildlife through various recent communiqués to the millions of voters of the vast country.