Kaziranga National Park in north-east India is home to the endangered Bengal Tiger and the One-horned Rhino. Both animals urgently need protection.
Two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos live in the national park, and the park has the highest density of tigers in any protected area in the world. It also has a large population of elephants.
But Kaziranga’s “shoot to kill” policy on suspected poachers is having a serious impact on local tribal people.
In July 2016, a seven-year-old boy, Akash Oram, was shot by a park guard. He was injured in the thigh and was treated in hospital. Two guards were suspended, Manas Borah and Anil Kalita.
Here’s how the New Indian Express reported what happened:
According to Kohora Range Officer Manoranjan Barman, Manas had joined the Range’s Mihimukh-Halmora (Tongi camp) two days back on deputation from Dibrugarh district. Manas, who was new to Kaziranga, saw a rhino making movement near the KNP Park at Mihimukh point and picked up the rifle of Anil Kalita who was out from the camp for shopping, to fire and scare away the rhino, Barman said.
On thinking that the rhino might stray outside to the adjacent village, Manas tried to stop the rhino, but his finger touched the trigger of the loaded rifle and a bullet hit Akash, who is from the village and regularly visits the camp, the police said.
Between 2005 and 2012, park guards killed 66 people in Kaziranga National Park. More than 500 were arrested for poaching. Guards recovered more than 70 rhino horns. In 2015, 20 rhinos were killed by poachers. No forest rangers have died.
A visit from William and Kate
In April 2016, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Kaziranga National Park and took part in a jeep safari there. Three days before they arrived, poachers killed a rhino. And less than 10 hours after they left, poachers shot and killed another rhino in the national park.
The royal visit caused controversy among conservationists. Survival International wrote to Prince William asking him to “raise the concerns of tribespeople about heavy-handed conservation policies with the Indian authorities.”
Gladson Dungdung, a prominent tribal activist, said:
“If the prince is visiting this tiger reserve, I think if he loves tigers he should also love Adivasis [Indian tribal peoples], because you cannot select between these two, wildlife, forest and Adivasis, they co-exist, so you have to love them together. If you want to protect a tiger reserve you also have to protect the Adivasis and the forest, only then they will exist, otherwise if Adivasis are not there you won’t find tigers as well.”
Shoot to kill
Under Kaziranga National Park’s shoot to kill policy, guards can shoot anyone that they suspect of poaching. The guards are given legal impunity, and will not be prosecuted regardless of whether they shoot first or in self-defence.
As Lewis Evans, a campaigner at Survival International, points out in an article in The Ecologist, this is extrajudicial killing, with “no trial, no jury, no judge or laws or charges.”
Forest guards even receive cash bonuses to their salary for wounding or killing a poacher.
The shoot to kill policy was put in place by Bishan Singh Bonal, the former head of Kaziranga National Park. Bonal is now head of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
In a 2015 interview with Sanctuary Asia he said,
Our determination and almost religious belief that protecting the rhino is the only reason to live. It’s open war when poachers enter Kaziranga.
The journalist interviewing Bonal said he would never visit Kaziranga after dark because the forest guards “cannot tell between a rhino poacher and the editor of a wildlife magazine in the dark”.
“Yes, its true,” Bonal replied, laughing.
Survival International’s Evans notes that this is precisely the problem:
There is no way of telling whether the people who end up being shot actually were poachers. Further, impunity allows the guards to shoot people on the merest suspicion they are planning to poach even if they haven’t actually done anything.
Of course, wildlife poaching in Kaziranga is a serious problem. But shooting innocent villagers in the name of conservation is not the solution.