The Kaziranga Debate: Are Poachers & Innocent People Being Shot On Sight?
February 21st, 2017
The sprawling grounds of Kaziranga National Park in Assam are home to two-third of the world’s population of the one-horned rhinoceros. The count of rhinos in this vast territory presently is more than 2,400. Their visibility in abundance garners thousands of tourists visiting this reserved area every year. Even the eminent naturalist Sir David Attenborough and his team came to shoot one of BBC’s most praiseworthy wildlife documentaries Planet Earth II here.
The Kaziranga has done remarkably well over the years in protecting the endangered species. The watchful eyes of the team guarding the forest have aided in the conservation process by warding off the poachers.
Until recently these rhinos were in constant threat of poachers because of their horns that have always been a lucrative product in the market. A rumour that swept Vietnam in the mid-2000s that imbibing rhino horn powder had cured a Vietnamese politician’s cancer led to an increase in its demand. Street vendors charge as much as $6,000 for 100g – making it considerably more expensive than gold.
The forest guards have commendably checked the unbridled poaching that had earlier taken lives of hundreds of rhinos every year. But the present management has gone too far by reportedly issuing a shoot at sight order to the forest guards.
The Shoot at Sight Order
A new documentary produced by the BBC has revealed how the forest staff are enjoying an appalling impunity with the licence to shoot anybody they suspect to be a poacher.
The documentary named “Our World: Killing for Conservation” by BBC’s South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt has sparked a major controversy on how the authorities are enforcing their anti-poaching measures and conservation within the premises of Kaziranga. However, the authorities have denied any such claims and differ in the terms that have come up in the documentary.
The film has claimed that more people have been killed recently by the guards than rhinos by poachers. It reported that 23 people lost their lives in 2015 compared to 17 rhinos. Rowlatt’s documentary also mentions how only intruders have been prosecuted while 50 were shot dead since 2014. Not only the poachers but unsuspecting locals, too, have lost their lives, for having wandered inside the park, which doesn’t have a designated boundary. In December 2013, a young boy with learning disabilities was shot by the guards who had entered the forest looking for his cows.
What the forest authority had to say
Reiterating Rowlatt’s claims, Satyendra Singh, Director of Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, told The Indian Express, “There is no shoot-on-sight policy, only legal immunity for poor forest guards who do a very difficult job. They (BBC) have misrepresented facts and selectively over-dramatised interviews and old footage. For example, I spoke for half an hour, and they selectively used about a minute. They had a different agenda fuelled by certain foreign NGOs and local elements opposed to conservation. We are exploring all options including legal steps.”
BBC faces government Blacklist
Calling the documentary “grossly erroneous,” the Environment Ministry of India has directed criticism towards the BBC and recommended the blacklisting of Justin Rowlatt. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has issued an official memorandum recommending the “blacklisting” of Justin, for portraying the anti-poaching measures taken by the authorities in a bad light.
It is not clear as to which side is right at the moment. The Logical Indian urges the government to conduct a probe into the matter, as the issue does not only pertain to the conservation of Wildlife, but also to the lives of the people living in the surrounding areas who might unwittingly walk into the park. The government needs to verify the data and take action.