India’s Kaziranga national park and the Streisand effect

The controversy over Kaziranga National Park’s brutal anti-poaching policy continues. Over the past 20 years, 106 people have been killed in the park in north-east India. Shockingly, almost half of those people were killed in the past five years.

In February 2017, the BBC’s South Asia correspondent, Justin Rowlatt, reported from Kaziranga. Rowlatt’s reports were titled “Killing for Conservation” and “Kaziranga: The park that shoots people to protect rhinos”. The National Tiger Conservation Authority’s response was to ban the BBC from all of India’s tiger reserves for the next five years.

Clearly there are serious questions about freedom of speech associated with the BBC ban. Satyendra Singh, Field Director, Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, told DNA India that,

“After viewing BBC’s documentary, we sent a report to the Assam government, and recommended that BBC should be debarred from filming in tiger reserves in the future. The final documentary was entirely different from the subject they had provided while seeking permissions.”

Which reveals the power the director of the national park has to clamp down on public debate about what happens in Kaziranga.

Fortunately India is not immune to the Streisand effect, named after Barbra Streisand’s attempt to get an aerial photograph of her home in Malibu, California removed from the internet.

By the time a judge threw the US$50 million lawsuit out of court, the photograph was famous.

The BBC’s broadcasts have triggered an intense debate about conservation in India. This post looks at some of that debate.

Shoot on sight policy

After the BBC documentary was broadcast, Dr Singh, Kaziranga’s director, said in an interview with First Post,

I must strongly emphasise that we do not follow a shoot at sight policy. Our forest rangers have been provided immunity in the use of firearms under the code of criminal procedure Section 197. Given the circumstances under which they are working, especially with the rise of militancy in the North East, they need to be given immunity but this is not the same as stating they are following a shoot at sight policy.

On the BBC’s documentary, Dr Singh explains the park’s policy on shooting as follows:

“First we warn them – who are you? But if they resort to firing we have to kill them. First we try to arrest them, so that we get the information, what are the linkages, who are others in the gang?”

Whether this is a “shoot on sight” policy may be up for debate. There is no doubt that this is “shoot to kill” policy.

Do Kaziranga’s guards have legal impunity?

Writing on, environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta argues that there is no blanket impunity from criminal prosecution for Kaziranga’s forest guards.

Dutta writes that,

So far as legal immunity from criminal prosecution is concerned, the forest guards and for that matter all forest officers in Assam, have the protection of Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 as a result of a Notification issued in 2010 by the State government. This provision states that no criminal prosecution can be initiated against any public servant for acts done in “discharge of his official duty” without prior sanction of the State government. The Notification does not provide for complete immunity but only “initial” immunity from prosecution.

Whenever a forest guard fires a gun, the police can only start a criminal case if a Magisterial Enquiry found that the shooting was “unnecessary, unwarranted and excessive”.

After the 2010 Notification, the number of poachers shot by forest guards increased. From 2000 to the end of 2010, 17 poachers were killed. In the next six years 59 poachers were shot dead and 274 were arrested.

Meanwhile the number of rhinos killed also increased. In the ten years to December 2010, the average was 6.1 per year. Rhino deaths increased to 17.1 per year from 2011 to 2016.

In the BBC documentary, Rowlatt spoke to human rights campaigner Pranab Doley in his documentary. Doley has made a series of requests under India’s Right to Information Act about shootings in Kaziranga. He says,

“In most cases you don’t have things like the magisterial inquiry, the forensic report, the post mortem reports.”

While impunity for Kaziranga’s guards may not be written in law, it is de facto impunity. Doley tells Rowlatt that,

“This kind of impunity is dangerous. It is creating animosity between the park and people living in the periphery of the park.”

Is Survival International promoting rhino poaching?

Some of the debate is just silly. The Assam Times quotes Nitul Nath, the coordinator of the Assam Environment NGO Forum, as saying, in reaction to Survival International’s launch of a tourist boycott of Kaziranga:

“Why then Survival International is targeting Kaziranga National Park? What is the motive of Survival International asking international tourist not to visit Kaziranga? Are they instigating rhino poaching in Kaziranga and on whose interest, they are working for?”

In September 2016, the Assam Environmental NGO Forum put out a press release welcoming the violent evictions of 300 villagers from Kaziranga. Two people were killed during the evictions.

“Minimum force”

Four conservation NGOs, Aaranyak, Wildlife Trust of India, Assam Elephant Foundation, and The Corbett Foundation, put out a statement earlier this week, in which they argue that only “minimum force” is used at Kaziranga:

India is a democratic country and its elected leadership knows very well how much and where to use minimum force to protect the sanctity of its national assets. The propaganda launched by international organisations asking tourists from abroad not to visit Kaziranga is malafide and totally uncalled for. Be it Kruger or Kaziranga, or any other rhino bearing area in the world, to protect their rhinos all of them have to strengthen their security and Kaziranga is not the only rhino bearing area where gun battles between protection forces and well-armed poachers occur and casualties are accounted for due to such occurrences.
Even in Africa, rhino poachers have been gunned down by park authorities during encounters. Then why is that International Organisations have just selected Kaziranga for its propaganda?

The statement argues that the criticism of Kaziranga from international organisations is “misleading and aims at demoralising” the Kaziranga staff.

Villagers support the BBC documentary

The Citizen reports that villagers living in and near Kaziranga support the BBC documentary. Soneswar Narah, advisor of Jeepal Krishak Sramik Sangha (JKSS), a farmers’ organisation says,

“This is very unfortunate to put a ban on media which is trying to highlight the truth. We condemn this act of the NTCA and the Indian government and we demand that the ban on BBC should be lifted.”

And Babul Gogoi, an activist and journalist, told The Citizen,

“I have been to all the villages nearby the KNP. Poaching should be controlled and the poachers should be punished but the innocent people should not be harassed. Rather the neighbouring villagers should be taken into confidence to help in minimizing the illegal activities. And when we talk about the documentary done by Justin Rowlatt, the BBC has nowhere mentioned anything controversial or given wrong information. The forest guards and the park director himself have questioned the conservation methods giving the details.”

Is Kaziranga a conservation success?

Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta writes that,

Kaziranga National Park is among the most poorly managed and administered conservation parks in the country. It is a story of neglect and apathy.

Dutta argues that the increase in poaching since 2010 is linked to new militias that formed near to Kaziranga around that time, such as the Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger and the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front.

Dutta concludes that,

The government of Assam must give priority and consider Kaziranga as a park that needs serious attention and not just as a showpiece for tourist and high-profile visitors to come and feed orphaned rhinos and elephants. Conservation groups should seriously reconsider the opinion that the Kaziranga model of conservation should be replicated in other parks as a solution for all conservation problems.

Trishant Simlai is a conservation scientist from Pune and Raza Kazmi is a Jharkhand-based conservationist. They’ve written two thoughtful pieces for the New Delhi-based website The Wire about Kaziranga and the BBC documentary. Their first piece is critical of the BBC Documentary, accusing it of widening the “prevailing distrust between the forest department and conservationists who wish to critically analyse the Kaziranga model”.

Their second piece is critical of the Kaziranga model of conservation. Simlai and Kazmi write about abuses of power by Kaziranga forest guards, and torture carried out by the guards.

They challenge the argument that poachers are often armed with AK-47s and that they therefore belong to local militias. They point out that in the decade up to December 2015, not a single rifle of the AK series was recovered from poachers.

But Kaziranga’s director, Dr Singh argues that,

Our guards are equipped with SLR rifles. We definitely cannot match the firepower of the poachers and feel our rangers need to be given more sophisticated arms.

“Clearly, all is not well with the Kaziranga model,” Simlai and Kazmi write. They conclude that,

[The conservation model] needs to be revised while outstanding issues with the local communities need engagement through widespread consultation. It is also time that conservation organisations and conservationists stop referring to allegations of excesses by the department as “unfortunate but acceptable”, “collateral damage” or dismissing all such cases as accidents. Doing so legitimises the use of illegal force on marginalised people, who bear the largest costs of conservation. Such discourse shows an attitude of indifference towards local people, adding fuel to the fire and gives more ammunition to anti-conservation groups.


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