In India, elite forces on the ground and drones in the sky aim to safeguard Assam's wildlife.

Assam, which has been in the national and international media for incidents related to insurgency turned terrorism, is on the verge  of witnessing a new battle. Unmanned remote-controlled aircraft popularly referred to as drones which are being used by NATO forces in Afghanistan, are to become operative in the state.

One Horned Rhinos in Assam: Drones to the Rescue

In India, elite forces on the ground and drones in the sky aim to safeguard Assam's wildlife.

Assam, which has been in the national and international media for incidents related to insurgency turned terrorism, is on the verge  of witnessing a new battle. Unmanned remote-controlled aircraft popularly referred to as drones which are being used by NATO forces in Afghanistan, are to become operative in the state.

But unlike Afghanistan, the drones in Assam would be conservatory in nature. The Indian Union environment and forest ministry has cleared the proposal from the Assam government for flying the conservation drone for aerial surveillance on poachers targeting the precious wildlife which are abundant in the jungles of Assam.

The Assam forest department had already tested the conservation drone in the Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Permission from the ministry of defense is being acquired to fly these drones on a regular basis.  

The drone can be programmed to fly at an elevation of nearly 650 feet with the high-definition cameras assisting the forest officials in tracking the poachers. This series of drones do not have the capacity to strike (as like the military drone). They are expected to function as deterrent to the poachers.

The Kaziranga world heritage site, situated in central Assam on the southern bank of mighty river Brahmaputra, is famous for being home to 2329 single horn rhinos. The reserve park gives shelter to 2/3 population of one-horned rhinos surviving in the world.

Rhinos, a pre-historic creature, are fast loosing their habitats in the world because of climate change and human encroachments. The bulky vegetarian animal, grows horns on the nose that help them for defenses. An Indian one-horned rhinos may weigh around 1,500 to 2,500kg with 3 to 4m length and 1.5 to 2m height (at shoulder). As the name suggests, it has only one horn. The rhinos are primarily grazers and survive on grasslands and riverine forests habitats.

Besides rhinos, Kaziranga is also home to nearly 100 Bengal tigers, 1150 Asian elephants, 1900 buffaloes, 1200 swamp deers, 550 species of birds, both domestic and migratory, with significant population of Indian bison, swamp and hog deer, sloth bears, leopards and other jungle cats, gibbons, wild boar, jackals, pythons and monitor lizards, and so on.

The famed forest reserve is protected by over 900 forest officials, including over 300 personnel from the elite Assam Forest Protection Forces. The 430 square km reserve has over 150 anti-poaching camps inside the park. Many forest-guards have sacrificed their lives on duty fighting the poachers. On the other hand, 54 poachers were killed and over 550 were apprehended by the authority in a decade.

Rampant poaching in Kaziranga is threatening the very survival of these rhinos; 19 rhinos have lost their lives in the national park since January 2013.

In a recent session of the Assam legislative assembly, the state forest and environment minister, Rockybul Hussain, admitted that over 140 rhinos have been slaughtered in Kaziranga over the last 12 years.

The one-horned rhinos (with its official name of Rhinoceros Unicornis) are poached across the world for their horn that fetches a few million dollars in illegal international markets as many people believe in myths regarding its aphrodisiac qualities. The rhino horn is often called "black ivory" that is also understood as a cure for many ills in traditional oriental medicine practiced in China and Vietnam. But there is no scientific evidence that horn has any medicinal or sex-stimulating value.

Rhinos are mainly shot by the poachers using traditional guns or sophisticated rifles, with its horns chopped off. As there is no fencing in Kaziranga to separate the park with fringe villages, the poachers often wait for their preys as they come out of the park for grazing. Occasionally the culprits attack the rhinos inside the reserve park. The barbarity of these attacks manifests itself in the fact that on a few occasions, the horns were cut away by the poachers when the injured animals were still alive.

Various forest reserves of Assam, including Kaziranga, give shelter to over 2500 one-horned rhinos with other prized wildlife. In 2012, the rhino census conducted revealed that besides Kaziranga, the Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park (100 rhinos), Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary (93 rhinos) and the Manas National Park (22 rhinos) also support the precious animal in India.

The government has initiated the Indian Rhino Vision 2020 programme in collaboration with International Rhino Foundation, World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF-India) and the local council administration in Bodoland. The programme, which involves translocation of rhinos to the Manas sanctuary in Assam, has also run into trouble with poachers killing the rhinos after translocation.

Manas forest reserve had earlier lost all its rhinos due to poaching. WWF-India has reportedly declared that “further translocation of rhinos to Manas could be done only after effective protection measures are established to ensure zero poaching” in the reserve.

Crying fouls at the inability of the authority to prevent poaching across the state reserves, various wildlife NGOs, students’ organizations, media forums and political parties have resorted to protests in order to pressurize the government into taking effective action.

The state opposition political parties like Asom Gana Parishad, the BJP, and AIUDF, have criticized the Forest Minister Hussain for his "surrender" to the poachers. Similar views have been aired by various students and civil society groups including All Assam Students’ Union, Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad, and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity.

The protests have highlighted the failure of the Congress government in protecting precious lives of rhinos.

Nature’s Beckon, an Assam based NGO, has alleged that few officials of the Assam forest department are involved in the illegal practice. Soumyadeep Dutta, director of Nature’s Beckon claims have created a flutter in the environmental community: “We suspect that most of the preserved rhino horns have been sold in the illegal market by the corrupt forest officials and those are being replaced with fake horns.”

Journalists’ Forum Assam has also advocated for a forest accountability committee on lines of police accountability committee. The committee is expected to monitor the wildlife conservation activities and continues interacting with the habitants of fringe villages of all reserve forests in the state. The journalist forum president, Rupam Barua, has also urged the state forest department to start a helpline to engage the common people in rescuing the wildlife across Assam.

Facing the heat, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation Bureau (CBI) inquiry into the rampant poaching of wildlife in the state. But with time running out fast for the one horned rhinos, the drones could perhaps provide succour.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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