BBC banned from filming in Kaziranga and all of India’s tiger reserves for five years

In February 2017, the BBC visited Kaziranga National Park in north east India. Justin Rowlatt, the BBC’s South Asia correspondent, reported that “Kaziranga is a triumph of wildlife conservation.”

The number of rhinos in Kaziranga has grown from just a handful a century ago when the park was established, to more than 2,400 today. But Rowlatt also reported on Kaziranga’s dark side: the park’s ruthless anti-poaching strategy. Fifty people have been killed in the past three years.

DNA India reports that the BBC and Rowlatt are now banned from filming in tiger reserves in India for the next five years:

In an unprecedented step, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has banned the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and its South Asia Correspondent Justin Rowlatt from filming across any tiger reserves of India for “breach of trust” during the shoot of its controversial documentary on Kaziranga tiger reserve.

NTCA has also recommended that the Environment Ministry should ban the BBC from filming in any protected areas in India for the next five years. NTCA accused Rowlatt of providing a false synopsis on its filming plan:

“The producer has used spasmodic events as an umbrella to judge a gamut of conservation efforts that go into safeguarding our wildlife heritage, with scant understanding of the laws in place. The immunity provided to forest officials under section 197, of the Criminal Procedure Code has been construed as a ‘Shoot to Kill’ Policy.”

Rowlatt’s reports appeared on BBC World Service, on BBC Newsnight, and on BBC World News. Here’s the Newsnight broadcast:

And here’s the longer BBC World News broadcast:

Rowlatt also wrote an article for the BBC website: “Kaziranga: The park that shoots people to protect rhinos”.

“In 2015, more people were shot dead in the park than rhinos”, says Rowlatt in the Newsnight broadcast:

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Rowlatt ends his Newsnight broadcast with a question:

“Of course endangered species need preserving. But is Kaziranga’s strategy placing the welfare of wildlife too far above the welfare of the people we are told are best placed to protect it?”

Boycott Kaziranga

Survival International has been campaigning against Kaziranga’s shoot to kill policy for several years. On 1 March 2016, the organisation launched a tourist boycott of Kaziranga.

Survival International has written to 131 tour operators in ten countries asking them to join the boycott. So far, two French companies have done so. The letter states:

If your company is offering tours to Kaziranga, it is effectively supporting a brutal model of “conservation” which violates one of the most fundamental principles of human rights law – that lethal force may only be used if it is absolutely necessary to save human life. We urge you to cancel further visits to Kaziranga until the authorities confirm that guards will now be required to comply with this principle, and will be prosecuted if they fail to do so.

Raucous debate

The Indian Express reports that the controversy has triggered a “raucous debate” between conservationists and human rights activists.

The Indian Express article reveals another aspect to the controversy in Kaziranga:

[T]here have been allegations that guards settled personal scores in the name of anti-poaching operations, and even colluded with the very poaching syndicates they were supposed to be fighting. The park authorities were accused of harassing local villagers while shielding political bigwigs whose names had allegedly surfaced during investigations into poaching.

There is no doubt, as the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt points out, that endangered wildlife needs to be protected. But it is also clear that abuses are taking place in Kaziranga and that the park’s shoot to kill policy is brutal.

There is also no doubt that there are committed conservationists working to protect wildlife in Kaziranga. The poachers are armed, often with Kalashnikov assault rifles. Unarmed park guards would be unable to protect the park’s wildlife.

In an excellent piece looking at some of the issues raised in Kaziranga, Bhaskar Vira the director of the Conservation Research Institute, University of Cambridge, concludes that,

Conservation needs to recognise the need to build bridges, sometimes with its fiercest critics. While Kaziranga is in many ways a remarkable conservation success, its costs are considerable. The forces driving the world to overuse its resources haven’t gone away, and finding sustainable futures for both people and the planet requires coalitions that work together – let’s begin with Kaziranga.

Unfortunately, the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s ban preventing the BBC from filming in any of India’s 50 tiger reserves suggests that NTCA is not interested in bridge building. Rather than facing up to the problems it is causing for local communities and addressing them, NTCA seems keen to sweep the problems under the carpet.

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