Empowerment for rhino conservation - are we in the right direction?

Rhino Conservation is big news in Assam. A few years back, a TV reporter claimed rather proudly that he was seriously engaged in rhino conservation. Enthused, I ventured to ask him more about his initiatives. He shot back at me with incredulity written all over his face “Haven’t you seen me on the Television?” Ill-informed journalists egged on by some armchair crusaders have all but relegated rhino conservation into an event where a few individuals reign supreme on the Idiot Box. No one seems to be interested that the solution to rhino conservation lies in empowering the local community. Nothing highlights this scenario better than the death of an unfortunate rhino in the hands of poachers, and these peddlers have a free run on the idiot box, often casting aspersions on the local community.

READ Rhino Poachers – the new avatar

Rhino Conservation and the role of NGOs

In the rat race to be visible in the media, the genuine issues confronting Kaziranga National Park remain hidden. The milieu that ensures opens up a profitable avenue for a few self-proclaimed experts and multinational NGO’s. They promptly hijack the issue by engaging in technical semantics to show off their superior intellect. With stupendous zeal, they work overtime to organize seminars ostensibly to discuss the issue. The outcome of such seminars in five-star hotels would unfailingly be the same. The decision would be to undertake a study tour to learn more about rhino conservation and in the process the opportunity to go begging for funds.

Thus the death of an unfortunate rhino turns into an enormous cash churner and an opportunity for many to globe trot on the pretext of study tours. Try as much as I did, I haven’t been able to phrase a better term to describe these people, other than terming them as Glorified Beggars. 


The unsolicited and ill-informed intervention of these glorified beggars relating to all matters related to rhino conservation in Kaziranga has spelt doom for this place. And the matter is all the more aggravated by a few high-ranking Forest Officials, who patronize them. As a result, these forces (flush with overseas funds) have adroitly manoeuvred the Forest Department’s rhino conservation policies over the last decade to ensure that this goldmine is and will always be there’s for eternity. One needs to understand here that overseas funds will continue to pour in only if there is a crisis. 

There can’t be a better place and opportunity than the world heritage site of Kaziranga to continue to earn a livelihood by highlighting, or even engineering, a crisis. Shedding a few crocodile tears in the event of a crisis, appearing on a few talk shows and being active in social media, is all that it takes for these people to hijack the issue. They regain their premium position as the sole custodians of our forests to engage in further loot with renewed vigour. 

Wildlife Conservation and the local community

Let’s dwell on the life of the villagers in the park’s vicinity. The schools here are devoid of desks, benches, blackboards, drinking water, trained teachers and toiletsNearly all the school children have heard about rhino conservation, but cannot afford to go inside the National Park for a safari. During medical emergencies, the ambulances are reluctant to come here since the roads would qualify only for dirt-track racing. At this age of digitization, quite a few villages have yet to witness the light of electricity. For them, it is Kerosene lamps which serves to dispel the darkness of the night in their tiny huts. The agricultural produce is invariably at the mercy of either the floods or the wild animals which venture out. And losing livestock’s to animals of prey is a common occurrence. Crop damages because of animal depredation attract a Government compensation at approximately one-tenth the market price. And similarly for livestock loss, it is even less around one-fifth the market price. And on the top of it, even this pittance of a compensation arrives only after a year. As a result, these people have no other means but to search for daily wage labour to sustain their families.
 
Looking for a respite from the miseries of their daily existence, the local youths here are always on a lookout for a steady income source. And this is where one can either deviate to an easy source of earning or else slog it out. The simple way off-course is to fall prey to the machinations of the poacher-network. But the ones who want to lead a respectable living, hopes and lobbies for a job in the Forest Department. For them, the post of a Forest Guard is their passport to ensure a better future for their family. And, when the opportunity arises, they jump on to start their career as a casual employee. Toiling tirelessly day in and day out, ill-equipped and underpaid, their only dream is to be lucky enough to land with a permanent jobA job which pays relatively well to feed and educate their children and ensure a pension after retirement.  
 

Conservation and casual employees

Alas, the life of these foot-soldiers in the dense forests of Kaziranga is nothing more than glorified bonded labours. It is a constant balancing act between life and death, their survival at the mercy of the very wildlife they protect. Danger lurks in every corner in the form of the poachers and wildlife. Constantly living a life on the edge can unnerve even the bravest. Slowly, yet inevitably, these youths graduate into middle age with no perceptible change in their lives. Their dream lies in tatters when their names don’t figure in the new list of permanent employees. Some of these would have toiled for over two decades, hoping against hope. They had mortgaged the prime of their life, hoping to secure their future. In their untiring effort to protect the wildlife and the habitat, they had lost out on alternate skill-sets to survive in this world. It would be a miracle if this demotivated group dors not turn to rhino poaching for a better life.
 
Read my article RHINO POACHERS – THE NEW AVATAR where this prophecy turns true.
 
But then, these issues do not find merit in the discussions and seminars of the glorified beggars. Deliberating on these sacrifices is not an agenda in their seminars and workshops. The simple act of empowering the local villagers for rhino conservation is an act of sacrilege for the multinational NGOs. Because they are smart enough to understand and know that empowerment of locals would lead to their own untimely demise.

This article is also available in https://agoratoliresort.in

Bhaskar J. Barua

Bhaskar J. Barua is the founder of Agoratoli Ecotourism Jungle Lodge and co-founder of Kaziranga Foundation and Kaziranga Organics. He is passionate about wildlife conservation, empowerment of locals, ecotourism, and wildlife photography. Having lived in Agoratoli from 2010, he is closely associated with the local community of the fringe areas of Kaziranga. He believes in empowering the local community for conservation works through ecotourism and sustainable agriculture.

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