“The grass in northern India is the tallest on the planet. Home to some of the most impressive creatures to tread the earth.”
That’s David Attenborough talking about Kaziranga National Park for the Grasslands episode of his Planet Earth II series. We see elephants, rhinos, water buffalo and lots of grass.
We also see armed guards. “The guard carries a gun in case a warning shot is needed”, Attenborough tells us. “And with good reason. More people are killed by buffalo than by any other animal in Kaziranga.”
The park guards accompany Attenborough’s camera team. They find a dead rhino. They seem more interested in fresh tiger tracks nearby than what might have killed the rhino. “Nothing attracts tigers like a rhino carcass,” Attenborough says.
“It looks like there’s a tiger cub,” one of the guards says, as he inspects the tiger tracks. “So it should be a tigress with cubs coming to feed on this rhino carcass. It’s pretty cool.”
Sandesh Kudar, Attenborough’s cameraman spends five days in a grass hide waiting for the tigers to come back. Kudar gets some extraordinary footage of a tiger eating the dead rhino.
Watching Attenborough’s beautifully filmed wildlife documentary, you could be forgiven for thinking that Kaziranga is a pristine wilderness, inhabited only by wild animals.
No one asks how the rhino died. Attenborough doesn’t explain that the guards in Kaziranga carry guns to kill poachers. And of course he doesn’t mention the National Park’s notorious shoot to kill policy.
The dark side of conservation
This week, the BBC World Service broadcast a programme about the dark side of conservation at Kaziranga. Justin Rowlatt, the BBC’s South Asia correspondent, is the presenter:
“This is the story they don’t tell you on the glossy wildlife documentaries, and one the tourists never hear. The story of how in the name of protecting animals, the park authorities stand accused of making victims of people.”
The programme starts with a seven year old boy, Akash Oram. Last year guards shot him in the leg. He can still barely walk, despite dozens of operations. He explains what happened:
“I was just coming back from the shop. The forest guards were shouting, ‘Rhinoceros, rhinoceros.’ Then the forest guards suddenly shot me.”
There are more than 1,200 guards in Kaziranga. All are armed. Avdesh, a forest guard, explains the shoot to kill policy:
“Whenever you see the poacher, we start our guns and hunt them…
“We are fully ordered to shoot them. Whenever you see the poachers, or any people during night time, we are ordered to shoot them.”
Dr. Satyendra Singh the park’s director tells Rowlatt that 50 people have been killed in the last three years. In the past 20 years, only one park guard was killed, while more than 100 poachers were killed.
Why will WWF not speak out against the shoot to kill policy?
For the last 10 years, WWF has worked with the Assam Forest Department. WWF provides equipment and funds to the Forest Department. On its website, it links to tourism companies offering tours to Kaziranga. But it has never spoken out against the park’s shoot to kill policy.
Rowlatt explains that,
The World Wildlife Fund is one of the biggest conservation organisations in India, with 400 staff and a budget of US$5 million a year. In the past, it has funded combat and ambush training for Kaziranga’s guards, and has provided specialist equipment included night vision goggles for the park’s anti-poaching efforts.
Rowlatt spoke to Dr. Dipankar Ghose, director WWF’s species and landscapes programme in India:
Rowlatt: What would you use night-vision goggles for in anti-poaching?
Ghose: Well, primarily two things. One is to monitor how the rhinos are doing. And also to monitor if there is any people moving deep inside the park.
Rowlatt: It’s quite likely those goggles have been used to target people, subsequently killed, and I wonder how WWF feels about providing equipment for a park that is killing that many people.
Ghose: Well, we have not come across any incident where the park has said that the goggles have been used for spotting people.
Rowlatt: But to be honest, would they report that?
Ghose: Well, the thing is, killing people, nobody is comfortable with killing people. Right. What is needed is on-ground protection, the trade has to stop.
Rowlatt: The illegal trade in rhino horn.
Ghose: Yes. So that has to stop. The poaching has to stop.
Rowlatt: But shouldn’t WWF speak out? Because obviously WWF is funded mostly by individual donations. What do you think your donors would feel about WWF’s involvement with a park which is involved with killing dozens and dozens of people, with maiming people, now there are allegations also of torturing people?
Ghose: Well I said we want the whole thing to reduce. We don’t want poaching to happen. And the idea is to reduce it with involving other partners. It’s not just the Kaziranga authorities, but also the enforcement agencies, also the local people. So I think the main thing is to work with the local people.
There are plans to double the area of Kaziranga National Park.
In September 2016, three villages were evicted in the buffer zone of the park. Villagers protested the evictions. Park guards and police beat the villagers. Villagers charged the police, throwing stones. The police used tear gas, then gunfire. Two villagers were killed.
India is planning a huge expansion of its National Parks. As many as 200,000 people could be evicted to make way for these conservation plans.
PHOTO Credit: Screenshot from Sandesh Kudar’s footage of tigers in Kaziranga National Park.