The darker side of conservation – and some solutions

Kaziranga National Park, in the Assam province of India, is renowned for its remarkable conservation success. In fact, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has often been credited with saving the Indian rhino population from extinction. While this park is particularly famous for its rhino conservation, it is also home to sloth bears, wild elephants, swamp deer and many other species. 

Recently, however, it has been in the headlines for a different reason: its ruthless response to poachers. These illegal smugglers can sell these small rhino horns for thousands of dollars in other parts of Asia.

Last week, The BBC published an article asking “Has the war against poaching gone too far?”

The article refers to shocking figures of poachers being killed by park guards and describes graphic stories about those who have experienced this violence first hand. Some of these stories were from innocent villagers who were mistaken as poachers and injured.

It appears that there is an attitude of “shoot on sight” amongst the park guards, something that senior officials insist is an exaggeration.

According to The BBC, on average more than 20 poachers are killed per year.

The BBC emphasises that the close relationship between the government and park officials has long been viewed with suspicion.

On the Kaziranga website the ways in which the government has assisted in anti-poaching procedures is listed extensively. In addition to increasing the number of poaching camps and staff, the government has also provided boats and elephants for patrolling, wireless sets and better arms to better protect guards from poachers.

This may seem like a valuable partnership to aid conservation, but this close relationship with the government has given rise to accusations of corruption. The government has given more than just material protection; guards are legally protected no matter what they do within the park boundaries.

Since many of the local people are unable to afford to file for court cases, the deaths of poachers are rarely investigated. Park guards can kill poachers and locals alike, but this is rarely examined by government officials. The BBC article draws attention to the lack of detail and accuracy in park records regarding information about the poachers killed; no one has followed up these cases.

Additionally, there are inconsistent figures across the media regarding conservation efforts for which the park should have official figures.

For instance, the BBC this week reported that there are 2,400 Indian rhinos on the planet. Two years ago, WWF stated that there were approximately 3,500. While National Geographic stated that 20 rhinos were killed in 2007, the BBC reported that 16 were killed in this same year.

These inaccuracies imply a darker world behind this famous conservation effort. In fact, just last year, a Kaziranga divisional forest officer was found with a tiger skin, some ivory and other animal parts; a sign that corruption may be rife in this conservation efforts.

The governmental interest lies in the fact that the park is a major tourist attraction and therefore is responsible for bringing a lot of money into India’s economy. In fact, this is where scenes for Planet Earth II were filmed and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have visited in the past. Perhaps this is why the guards have been granted such immunity; conservation is valued above the local people’s lives.

Whilst it can be easy to condemn Kaziranga as corrupt and brutal, the conservation successes cannot be disregarded. There are ways to prevent poaching that does not harm the local population.

Kaziranga National Park insists that a lot of locals are heavily involved in poaching, helping poachers get valuable information and access to parks.

The tensions between park officials and local people are exacerbating the poaching problem. The park guards are well-known for their brutal killings and so the local people rarely hesitate to assist poachers.

In a report to the Honourable Gauhati High Court, park directors had compiled an extensive list of changes in their poaching strategies: “electrocution, trap…gun shot indiscriminate firing at a very close range with AK series rifles…shooting randomly anytime to mention a few.”

This contradicts the community approach which Kaziranga stresses on its website. Highlighting the poverty within this area, Kaziranga claims that poachers take advantage of local people who help them commit their crime. Their solution is to spread awareness of conservation within local communities and to help reduce poverty so locals are less vulnerable to requests from poachers.

This collaborative, community-based approach would be a vital step forward for Kaziranga National Park, rather than fortifying guards with advanced weaponry and legal protection which only serves to increase tensions between locals and officials.

A piece written for “The National Student”.

Featured Image of rhinos at Kaziranga – courtesy of Wikicommons.

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