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Poachers targeting rare rhinos in India
Publication Date : 13-02-2013
The endangered one-horned rhinoceros found only in South Asia is facing an increased threat to its existence - poachers, who have apparently teamed up with terrorists, are taking aim at them with deadly military assault rifles.
In little more than a month since the start of the year, eight rhinos have already been killed in the Kaziranga National Park and other nearby forest areas, setting off alarm bells among conservationists and state officials alike.
The animal's horns, used in traditional medicines in countries like Vietnam and China and prized as an aphrodisiac, bring in big money on the region's black markets.
Tarun Gogoi, chief minister of the north-eastern state of Assam, where the park is, called the problem so "serious" that he wants a federal probe into it.
He believes there is "the involvement of some insurgent elements, forest department personnel or others with poachers".
In fact, the government recently suspended two forest officials from the region and three guards over the increase in the number of poaching cases.
Poachers killed a one-horned rhino as recently as two Sundays ago, but forest rangers prevented them from taking its horn.
Less than a week before that, poachers killed two rhinos and sawed off their horns. The next day, another rhino that strayed out of the park's core area was also slaughtered and its horn was hacked off.
"It is a big challenge to stop poaching. We can't protect and track each rhino... but we will work to stop this," said chief forest conservator in Kaziranga N. K. Vasu. "We need the support of communities and others. In some cases, AK-47s are now being used so poachers have access to sophisticated weapons."
The one-horned rhino has been one of India's biggest conservation success stories since the government declared its habitat a protected area in the 1950s and started policing it over the subsequent years, with the help of funding and equipment like jeeps from international groups.
As a result, rhino numbers have increased in the last five decades from a couple of hundred to around 2,500 today.
Now, 70 per cent of the world's population of the one-horned rhino is centred in and around the Kaziranga park, which was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1985.
The rest of the world's more than 3,000 one-horned rhinos are found in Nepal. But the growth of the population is also attracting poachers.
Conservationists see the recent spike in rhino killings in India as a sign that criminal networks are getting stronger in the state. Last year, poachers killed 21 rhinos in Assam, including 18 in Kaziranga alone, up from nine killed the year before, and seven in 2009.
"We think that some groups linked with militants are involved in poaching to make money from it. The post-mortems of rhino carcasses show that sophisticated weapons are being used," said Tito Joseph from the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).
"We have to think about why it is happening. Rhino poaching is not just a threat to India but all over the world."
In South Africa, which has 21,000 rhinos, poaching led to 650 of them being killed last year.
The trade is spurred by increasing demand for rhino horn.
According to a recent report by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, some Vietnamese are willing to pay extremely high prices for medicines made with rhino horn, believing that it can cure many diseases such as cancer. Some estimate it can fetch as much as US$65,000 per kg on the illegal market.
In India, poaching is facilitated by the geographical position of Assam, which shares a porous international border with neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Bhutan, while the Myanmar border is a mere 80km away.
Arms can be smuggled in and poaching gangs can also make contact with international criminal syndicates engaging in wildlife smuggling, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Wildlife conservationists have called on the government to strengthen patrolling, improve the intelligence network and coordination between enforcement agencies, and provide better arms for guards.
"We don't have any time to waste because, day by day, poachers are finding loopholes and figuring out where to target animals," said WPSI's Joseph.