Not surprisingly, the local media is these days rife with stories focusing on the ground reality that the internationally-famed Kaziranga National Park, the pride of the Northeast for having earned the rare distinction of being the world heritage site has been facing a serious identity crisis for a host of man-made problems. Concocted though the news-report may seem at first sight, given its international status, but in practice, they are not something that can be discounted as unfounded because it has also become a talking point even among the wildlife lovers and conservationists.

Kaziranga National Park in the Golahat and Nagaon districts of the state of Assam is a world heritage site, the park hosts two-thirds of the world’s Great One-horned Rhinoceros. Kaziranga boasts the highest density of tigers among protected areas in the world and was declared a Tiger Reserve in 2006. The park is home to large breeding populations of elephants, wild water buffalo, and swamp deer. Kaziranga is recognized as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International for conservation of avifaunal species. Compared to other protected area in India, Kaziranga has achieved notable success in wildlife conservation. Located on the edge of the Eastern Himalaya bio-diversity hotspot, the park combines high species diversity and visibility.

Kaziranga is a vast expanse of tall elephant grass, marshland, and dense tropical moist broadleaf forests, crisscrossed by four major rivers, including the Brahmaputra, and the park includes numerous small bodies of water. Kaziranga has been the theme of several books, songs and documentaries. The park celebrated its centennial in 2005 after its establishment in 1905 as a reserve forest.

According to the rhino census conducted last year, there were a total of 2,505 rhinos in Assam, including 22 rhinos in Manas National Park. However, the major concentration of rhino was in Kaziranga with a count of 2,290 rhinos followed by 93 in Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Morigaon district and another 10 in the Rajiv Gandhi National Park at Orang in Darrang district of Assam.

Over 40 one-horned rhinos were killed in 2012 in Assam. While close to 30 rhinos were killed in various protected areas due to devastating floods, more than 12 were killed by poachers, including seven of them killed inside the high security Kaziranga National Park. The poachers, who kills the rare, one horned rhinoceros for its prized horn, whose price in the International market varies from Rs 40 Lakhs to Rs 90 Lakhs.

One aspect of the problem that does pose a serious threat to the very existence of the Park is the haphazard growth and development of tourism-related infrastructure, polluting industries. This deleterious development is not just precipitating environmental hazard in the No Development Zone (NDZ), the park but, more particularly, blocking natural animal corridors in the area as well. There is no element of doubt in mind that the tourist-inflow to the Park will increase if there is growth of tourism-related industry within or its peripheries. For this will, in turn, enable the State government to earn huge amount of money by way of revenue, but, commercial exploitation of the Park at the expense of wild animals cannot be support-worthy. In Kaziranga, animals like leopards, rhinos, elephants desperately need natural corridors that are available in the Park to migrate temporarily to the contiguous hilly areas of the district of Karbi Anglong during the rainy season every year when most of the Park remains inundated by the mighty Brahmaputra. These hills contribute immensely to the Park’s well-being. But the animals are facing, constant threat of being killed of growing settlements, tourist’s facilities and industrialization which has in turn not only affected the traditional animal corridors but also degraded much of the contiguous areas. As a result of which, voracious poachers who are always  on the look-out for a God-sent opportunity becoming active to make the most of the emerging situation resulting from hundreds of distressed animals straying during floods as has been witnessed in the recent years.

Poachers killed a on horn rhino and after killed they cut the horn at Kaziranga National park under Bagori RangeTrue, the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) run by the International Fund for Animal Welfare-Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW_WTI) and the State Forest Department has carried off in readdressing the balance, which is, in rehabilitating a fairly good number of the rescued wildlife, displaced elephants, and calves in particular, in and around Kaziranga National Park. For this is called a superlative job on its part, the CWRC deserves a pat on its back. But rhinos and leopard facilities especially, continue to be high across the State which is indeed shocking. The deaths of several straying leopards in the hands of unruly mobs in Gauhati towards the beginning of 2012 testify to it. The authorities, therefore, need to do two things at the earliest: first is to chalk out a well-considered action plan for dealing with straying wildlife and to equip the forest guards with all the required infrastructure for enabling them to tackle crisis situations.

One recalls the days when animal lover Maneka Gandhi was the Union Minister for Environment and Forests, she had disallowed the transportation by road of heavy machinery being used to set up the Numuligarh refinery. The reason behind such a ban was to safeguard the animals of the world famous Kaziranga National Park from being disturbed by the noise created by the movement of heavy vehicles. This ban that was absolutely eco-friendly and of sound method paid off. the machinery was since transported by river. But, surprisingly, even a decade and a half after the 1996 Notification issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forest itself, the conditions for removal of the polluting industries and units located within the NDZ including, inter alia, 33 brick kilns, 11 stone crushers and a saw mill, have not been implemented. This can be attributable to the State Forest Department that is solely responsible for maintenance of the Park and protection as well as welfare of its animals.

The park certainly does not have adequate man-power. Nor does it have necessary infrastructures as has been borne out by the wanton killing of rhinos.

Another shocking aspect of the overall scenario pertaining to the future of Rhinos in the Park is that they are being butchered with alarming regularity and impunity by rapacious poachers. But what upsets one is that their menace is not showing any signs of abetment. Last year will probably go down in the history of wildlife in Assam as one of the most mournful year, as it is witnessed poaching of about two dozen rhinos. First two months of the current year are yet to roll by, but, shockingly, the toll of poaching-induced rhino are yet to roll by, but, shockingly, the toll of poaching-induced rhino fatalities has already reached eight. Incidentally, many of them killed this year were gunned down by AK rifles. This indiscriminate killing exposes nothing but the existing security system in the Park far from being effective. It is possible that the Park authorities do not have the required manpower of trained forest guards who are well-equiped with sophis ticated weapons to face upto the challenges of the nefarious gangs of poachers.

Tell you, last year and this year’s rhino fatalities are not the new development in the National Park. Vindicating one’s view point in this regard, the ominous trend begun in the 80’s and continued upto the 90’s when more than 700 rhinos were reportedly killed by poachers in the Park. In 1985 alone 43 lost their lives at their hands, while in 1996, 23 were killed by poachers.

Rhino horn’s smugglers arrested by CRPF Jawan and Police in Nagaon District.Rhinos face similar problem of extinction even in several other wildlife sanctuaries such as Manas National Park, Orang sanctuary popularly known as the Rajiv Gandhi sanctuary. Like Kaziranga National Park, Manas National Park has also been in newspaper headline stories barely a few weeks before not for any good reason but for the depressing incidents of poaching of translocated rhinos. This development has brought into sharp focus how vulnerable the animals are even in a protected zone, an area that had sometime before witnessed large-scale killing of wild animals and wanton destruction of trees. Decades ago the park had quite a good number of rhino populations. But it is a pity that during the zenith, of the Bodoland movement, poachers killed all the rhinos and destroyed valuable trees that had accounted for part of the exquisite landscape of Manas. There is a famous adage, “to lock the stable when the mare is stolen”. Our condition is the same. Now that the die has already been cast, a section of the BTC leadership is active and leaving no stone unturned to restore Manas to its glory.

However, from the overall picture emerging from Kaziranga, today, it can be conclusively said that rhinos are not cent-percent secure in the national park. Large-scale preying on rhinos in a protected area like Kaziranga, ruthlessly by poachers at frequent intervals is not a matter of joke. But in spite of it, the Forest Department’s failure to apprehend them must have taken many by surprise. If you ask why these incidents cannot be prevented? The answer is that many of the poaching incidents came about outside the park’s boundary.

Whatever may be the case, the foremost task before the authorities is to ensure a secure future of the rhinos. This is possible only if a secure future of Kaziranga is ensured. So to notch up that, it is urgently needed that its area is expanded by bringing the adjoining hilly forests of Karbi Anglong under a full-proof security mechanism so that, the traditional animal corridors remain preserved. The park certainly does not have adequate man-power. Nor does it have necessary infrastructures as has been borne out by the wanton killing of rhinos. There is therefore an urgent need to recruit more security guards who should not only be well-equipped with the latest weapons but also be trained in crowd control and dealing with poachers. Involving in mindless mudslinging with political rivals will hardly help to defuse the crisis. The Forest Minister would do well to immediately correct the wrong. This habitat of rhinos may, who knows, degenerate into poacher’s haven.