Guards with Assault Rifles - will rhino poaching stop now?

The Forest Guards of Assam are sporting a smile on their faces nowadays. That’s because the authorities have now armed them with sophisticated assault rifles in their fight against rhino poaching. This decision will definitely boost the morale of our Forest Guards and will act as a stiff deterrence for the poachers. Earlier, the poachers had an upper hand against our poorly armed Forest Guards. The authorities must also ensure this decision adheres to all clauses and subclauses of the Arms Act of the country. If not, they should peruse with the Central Government for amending the Arms Act. The parliament should legislate to empower Forest Guards to use sophisticated weaponry against poachers. 

But the authorities cannot be complacent because the threat to rhinos is not yet over. They have their task cut out.

Fight against rhino poaching requires an effective intelligence network

To put up stiff resistance in the fight against the poachers, the authorities require an effective intelligence network. And this is possible only with the active participation and trust of the local community. But winning the trust, broken over decades of neglect, may not be a straightforward task. Better late than never, a few initiatives might go a long way in assuaging the grievances of the community. 

Education will play a major role in winning back the trust

Wildlife Conservation and anti-poaching measures encompass a host of other things apart from sophisticated weaponry. The most important of those is the quality of education among the local community. Students from the fringe villages are the future custodians of our fragile ecosystem, and consequently they deserve the best of education and exposure. To ensure the co-operation of the fringe areas in the fight against rhino poaching, the authorities should overhaul the existing education infrastructure, including quality of teachers and support staffs.  The morale of the students and their parents will receive a massive boost from activities such as Field Trip, Nature Orientation Camps, Excursions and Library Facilities. Related developments such as all-weather roads and continuous power supply to these areas will be a bonus. 

Crop and Livestock Protection Insurance Schemes

The socioeconomic status of the fringe area villages are pathetic and this encourages a few among them to opt for rhino poaching. The authorities should ensure the protection of their crops and livestock through innovative insurance schemes. Such actions will shield the villagers from economic deprivations because of natural calamities or wildlife rampages. Man-animal conflict in the fringe villagers has become a common occurrence in Assam. If proper remedial measures are not in place, it wouldn’t be long before these simple villagers turn into deadly enemies for our already fast diminishing wildlife. These measures will instil a sense of pride among them and provide the motivation to work against rhino poaching.

Employment opportunities for locals

It needs no reiteration that the first preference for any vacancies in the Forest Department should go to the local youths of the fringe villages. Local youths are serving as casual labours in the department with minimum wages for over 20 years without their services being regularised. These youths spent the prime of their life saving the rhino in hostile conditions, but their employment is at the whims and fancies of the authorities. These brave, hardworking, underpaid foot soldiers cannot dream of an insurance policy for their family or a pension when their services are no longer required.

The bureaucracy, fed by huge taxpayer’s money, is living in a fool’s paradise to expect that these untrained, underpaid, over-worked locals, with no security in life, equipped with outdated firearms, living in penury, demoralised and demotivated, and under constant threat to their life’s from poachers and animals, will be successful in curbing rhino poaching. Isn’t it the duty of a welfare state to care for the families of forest guards who have laid down their lives, or gravely wounded in their line of duty? Don’t they deserve a pension income after being eased out of service?

Dedicated Wildlife Crime Cell against rhino paoching

The next logical step to counter rhino poaching is to form a dedicated Wildlife Crime Cell. Professionals with skills in wildlife laws, investigation and forensic science should man the cell. Because of the absence of eyewitnesses in rhino poaching cases, our officials have to depend on circumstantial evidence to get a conviction in the courts. So they should lay protocols for investigations such as sealing off the crime scene and collecting forensic evidence for fruitful prosecution. The Government should equip the cell with dedicated and experienced lawyers to pursue the matter in the courts to its logical conclusions. Such an act will free our overworked forest officials from court-related matters. We should leave them to concentrate on anti-poaching activities, including strengthening the informer networks in the fringe areas. The Government also needs to set up a dedicated Wildlife Crime Courts to fast-track the legal processes.

Change in Policy

Last but not the least, the authorities and the right meaning people of Assam have to be very vigilant on the activities of some Multinational NGOs flush with funds from International Donor agencies. Let us take the instance of Kaziranga, the most visible face of wildlife conservation in the country. Zealous activists have ensured that a secret clause of NO DEVELOPMENT ZONE within 15 KM radius of Numaligarh Refinery Ltd, which has destroyed the economic freedom of the people of the Kaziranga region. It an irony that the refinery which came into existence as a by-product of the historic Assam Accord (meant for socio-economic development of Assam) has been used to trample the basic human rights and economic freedom of these people. 

Kudos again to the Government for initiating such a step. If they are keen to put an end to the menace of rhino poaching, the concerns of the local communities should reign supreme.

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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.