Rhinos and Tigers Die in India’s Kaziranga Reserve
By Nava Thakuria
Apr 2, 2009
GUWAHATI, India—Assam’s internationally famous wildlife reserve has recently been in media headlines, but again for the wrong reasons. Kaziranga National Park, which is more popularly known as a safe haven for the endangered one-horn rhinos and Indian tigers, grabbed media attention with the poaching of over 20 rhinos in the last two years and the death of ten tigers in the last 130 days. The fate of rhinos and tigers in Kaziranga brings serious concerns for wildlife lovers and environmental activists of Northeast India.
The death of the big cats, which is India’s national animal, in the park brought the realization for wildlife lovers that not only the Rhinoceros unicornis, but the other inhabitants are also facing an increasingly threatening environment in Kaziranga, which was declared a national park by the Indian government in 1974 and a World Heritage Site in 1985. With the population of tigers in the region coming down drastically, a voice of concern was brought to parliament. The Union Minister of State (MoS) for Environment and Forest, S. Reghupathy, had recently informed the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Indian Parliament) that the tiger population in Northeast has reduced to nearly 84.
Regarding rhino poaching, Reghupathy informed Lok Sabha (the lower house of Indian Parliament) that 18 rhinos were killed by poachers in 2007 and six during 2008 in Kaziranga national park and adjacent areas. The oldest wildlife reserve in Assam, which is around 125 miles east of Northeast India’s prime city, Guwahati, covers an area of 165 square miles (with an additional area of over 155 square miles) on the southern bank of the mighty river Brahmaputra and Kaziranga is understood to be home to nearly 60 Indian Tigers (scientific name Panthera tigris). On the other hand, the picturesque reserve gives shelter to almost two-thirds of the total population of one-horned rhinos on Earth. A 1984 census showed Kaziranga as having 1,080 rhinos. The census in 1999 showed that the number of rhinos soared up to 1,552. The last census in 2006 revealed the number of rhinos in the park to be 1,855.
The landscape of Kaziranga comprises sheer forest, tall elephant grass, rugged reeds, marshes, shallow pools, etc. The wild inhabitants, besides rhinoceroses, tigers, and leopards, include wild buffalo, elephants, wild boar, Indian gaur, hoolock gibbons, bison, swamp deer, sambar, hog deer, jackals, monkeys, hornbills, geese, varieties of snakes, reptiles, etc., according to an official account of the Assam forest department. Civil society and advocacy groups of the region vigorously raised a voice against the slaughtering of rhinos in the last few years in Kaziranga. Several public meetings, rallies, and demonstrations by the pressure groups demanded a high-level enquiry in to the matter of poaching in all wildlife reserves of the region. The concern for the rhinos remained visible in media through the editorials and the letter to the editor columns. Finally, the Assam government, led by Tarun Gogoi, bowed down to the public outcry and declared on May 2 that his government favored a Central Bureau of Investigation (of India) probe into the matter.
The authorities, while responding to the concern of the wildlife activists about the unprecedented rise of tiger deaths in Kaziranga, insisted that those deaths were not related to poaching. M. C. Malakar, chief conservator of forest (wildlife) of Assam insisted that three of the tigers died due to old age, others died in cases of infighting, poisoning by local villagers, and fights with buffalo. Three other decomposed bodies, which were recovered from inside the reserve, might too indicate cases of poisoning.
Malakar went on clarifying, while talking to local media persons, that in all cases the remains of the tigers were reported, which is unlikely in the case of poaching. Moreover, he claimed that the authorities did not receive any such information (such as entry of poachers in the park) from their network in and around the reserve. Kaziranga was included under Project Tiger in 2006, which then reportedly sheltered around 70 tigers. Notably, there has been no official census conducted in Kaziranga for more than eight years. The last census in 2000 showed 86 tigers in the park. It indicates that the high security park is losing tigers at a slow but steady pace. India as a whole has around 1,500 tigers in the wild. The National Tiger Conservation Authority released a census report on the tiger population in the country on Feb. 12, 2008, where it indicated that nearly 1,411 tigers were left in India. The 2001–02 census, however, showed 3,642 tigers in the subcontinent.
The Assam Tribune, a major English daily of Northeast India, editorialized the issue saying, “While the Forest Department has claimed that none of the deaths are related to poaching, as the bodies of all the animals were found, poisoning could well be the reason behind several of the deaths. A case of poisoning has already been established … three carcasses were said to be decomposed beyond postmortem. Given the intensifying cattle lifting by tigers on the fringe villages, it is highly likely that the three deaths were caused by poisoning.”
It also added that “whether poaching or poisoning the tiger stands to be equally affected.” It is only through a multi-pronged strategy involving a hard crackdown on the thriving poaching network and preservation and restoration of tiger habitat that we can hope to rescue the tiger. The tiger—caught in a losing battle for survival—makes a complete mockery of our conservation process, the editorial commented.
Nature’s Beckon, an active environmental organization of the region has, however, alleged that it was because of the inefficiency and corruption of the forest department. Its director, Soumyadeep Datta, argued that although the sole reason for the inhabitants’ deaths may not be poaching, the deaths related to poisoning is also a serious issue, which the state forest department cannot overlook. The tigers are suspected to be targeted by the villagers in the fringe localities of the park. The poor villagers get irritated with the loss of cattle and even human injury because of the big cats’ entry to the villages in search of food, which finally tempts them to take revenge,” Datta reasoned.
U. K. Karanth, a conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, argues that the “shortage of prey is a bigger factor behind the world’s dwindling tiger population than poaching.” The head of India program of the New York-based society, Karanth said in an interview that “when the prey density drops, reproduction of tigers goes down drastically, mostly because of lower survival rates of cubs.” He however asserted that the tiger is a very productive species and it starts breeding at the early age of three.
The Kaziranga park director S. N. Buragohain also admitted that the number of incidents of man-tiger conflicts increased in the recent past because of shrinking habitats. An adult tiger needs about 11 pounds of meat every day. The tigers of the park are often reported as moving toward the nearby villages in search of prey, which creates enmity among the residents toward the mammals.
“In such cases, the duty of the authority is to promptly address the growing resentment of the victim families who have been living in the fringe areas of the park,” reiterated Datta, adding that the authorities only love to talk about finding more funds. But they show little interest in involving the local population in preservation. Moreover, the forest department does not take the initiative to give compensation to the affected villagers, he asserted.
Under the 100 percent-sponsored scheme “Project Elephant,” the Union government of India propagated guidelines for the grant of ex-gratia for those families who had suffered human loss and the damage of crops (with other properties) by the wild animals. The scheme specifies various amount of money (starting from Rs 1,000, or about US$20) as ex-gratia grants for the loss (fully or partly), ranging from dwelling houses to crops and livestock to family members. Understanding the importance of timely payment of sufficient ex-gratia for human deaths (or injury) and compensation for loss of property in pacifying the affected families, New Delhi has recently raised the compensation against loss of human life to Rs 100,000 (US$1,988). Under Project Tiger and Project Elephant, the government has enhanced the sum for compensation for loss of life and property up to Rs 33.2 million (US$660,000).
Speaking to this writer at Kaziranga recently, local resident Sunil Das revealed that the villagers belonging to Shildubi village have never received any compensation from the forest department. He also alleged that the wild animals (buffalo, elephants, and tigers) often destroy their crops and kill cattle, but the authorities always put a deaf ear to their grievances.