Poachers saw off horn, but leave rhino alive in a unique case in Assam

NAGAON, APRIL 7: One horned Indian rhonos gazing at swamp area near Bagori range under Kaziranga National Park in Nagaon district of Assam, India on Thursday.For years, rhinos have been widely slaughtered for their horn, a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicines. Destruction of their habitat over the years, has brought the rhinos to the brink of extinction. These animals are among the worlds' most endangered species.PIX BY DIGANTA TALUKDAR

  • A sub-adult male rhino was dehorned by poachers at Orang National Park, a protected area in Assam, last month. The forest department suspects that the rhino was tranquilised before its horn was cut off.
  • It was the first poaching incident in Orang in five years. As per official data, 190 rhinos have been poached in Assam since the year 2000.
  • Even as the debate on the mode of immobilising the rhino continues, a section of conservation experts flags concerns about poachers getting innovative and the need for people’s participation in conservation.

On May 9, during regular patrolling on elephants at Orang National Park in Assam, forest guards found a rhinoceros bleeding from the nose and its signature horn missing. It was the first poaching incident in five years at Orang, famous for one of the highest densities of one-horned rhinoceros in the country.

The bleeding sub-adult male rhino was discovered in the Magurmari-Juroyapukhuri area of the National Park. Park authorities initially assumed that infighting with other rhinos led to the loss of the horn but it was later found that the horn was cut off using a sharp weapon.

The forest department suspects that the rhino was tranquilised and then dehorned by the poachers, making it a first-of-its-kind incident in Orang. Earlier, a few failed attempts of this kind were made in Kaziranga National Park (KNP), with 2-3 poachers caught with tranquiliser darts and drugs. Questions have been raised over the method that the poachers adopted to shear off the horn in the latest incident, even as a section of conservation experts flag concerns about poachers getting innovative.

The Orang incident is the second rhino poaching incident in Assam this year. Earlier in January, an adult female rhino was killed in Kaziranga National Park (KNP). As per official data, 190 rhinos have been poached in the state since 2000. However, anti-poaching drives seem to have borne fruit resulting in a significant reduction in poaching incidents in the last five years.

Sending a strong message to perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade and busting myths around the use of horns in traditional medicine, Assam, in September 2021, consigned a stockpile of nearly 2500 rhino horns to flames in a public ceremony. These horns were primarily seized from illegal trade and stored in treasuries across the state.

Rhino horns being verified before being burnt in September 2021. Photo by Kaziranga Media Group.

Pradipta Baruah, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Mangaldoi Forest Division and Field Director of Orang National Park, in a conversation with Mongabay-India, said that the tranquilisation theory holds as no external wound or bullet injury was found on the herbivore.

“A team from the office of Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) and a veterinarian from Guwahati Zoo visited the site and examined the rhino after tranquilising it. We will know what exactly happened when we get their report. However, we suspect that the poachers tranquilised the rhino because had they fired a gun, the sound would have alerted the guards who were on patrol that night.”

“Generally, when the horn of a rhino is cut off, maggot forms on the wound in one or two days which didn’t happen in this case. It seemed that the poachers might have applied some antibiotics on the wound,” he added.

Uttara Mendiratta who works on countering the illegal wildlife trade says the fact that the poachers immobilised the animal by tranquilisation and did not use a firearm suggested that they could have been worried about gunshot noise that can be heard by the forest department and local residents and therefore result in enforcement action.

“But they are being innovative and it is much cheaper than getting a gun. It isn’t easy to tranquilise (a rhino) but they obviously felt confident which is worrying,” Mendiratta, Program Head (India), Counter Wildlife Trafficking at Wildlife Conservation Society, told Mongabay-India.

As for the legal implications of the act, it falls well within the ambit of the Wildlife Protection Act because it is still hunting. Hunting is defined by this law to include ‘injury’ and removal of body parts, she observed.

Baruah reckons the perpetrator had definite expertise in veterinary work. When asked how the poachers could have accessed the tranquilising dart and drugs, he said, “These things can be found in the grey market. They could be sent from countries like China and Vietnam, which are the consumers of rhino horn.”

While 190 rhinos have been poached in Assam since 2000 anti-poaching drives seem to have borne fruit resulting in a significant reduction in poaching incidents in the last five years. Photo by Utsav Muley/Wikimedia Commons.

Rhino conservation expert Bibhab Talukdar said that the staff in Orang might have become a little complacent. “Because of the fact that poaching didn’t take place in Orang for five years, certain complacency might have crept in. Their informer base might have also weakened. In any case, the government doesn’t provide a lot of funds to maintain the informant network which is absolutely vital to prevent crimes like poaching,” said Talukdar also the Secretary-General of the NGO Aaranyak.

Following the incident, on May 17, Assam Police announced a reward of Rs. 200,000 for anyone giving any information about the poachers, who cut and took away the horn. According to an official press release, a case has been registered against the unknown poachers.

Questioning the tranquilisation claim, Samshul Ali, veterinarian at the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI)-run Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre at Bokakhat said that it is highly unlikely that a poacher would take the risk of tranquilising the animal.

Speaking to Mongabay-India, he said, “It takes a minimum of 15-20 minutes for the tranquiliser to work on the rhino. Does the poacher have so much time? They, by all means, would try to finish the job quickly and flee. Also, a poacher can’t be expected to behave with so much empathy and keep the rhino alive. If that was the case, then he would not have cut the horn so brutally in the first place. Also, chances of success while tranquilising a big animal like a rhino is not very high, even for specialists like us.”

Speaking of other possibilities, Ali said, “Rhinos and elephants can get stunned by electric shock, collision or even nonfatal bullet wounds. Last year, one rhino was stunned after colliding with a car in Kanchanjuri in Kaziranga. It became senseless for some time because of the impact of the collision. Here, if the poachers managed to stun the animal for some time, they could have dehorned it.”

Another veterinarian, on conditions of anonymity, told Mongabay-India, “Lethal drugs like etorphine hydrochloride or M99 are used to tranquilise rhinos and they are not easy to procure. These drugs are not even manufactured in India. The poachers will also need very good tranquilising guns for an operation of this kind. Also, the rhino might move to some other location after being hit by the dart and chasing it inside the forest at night is not an easy task.”

During the investigation, a 50 mg vial of ketamine, a sedative, was recovered from the spot. The veterinarian who sought anonymity believes the vial was “planted evidence as one can’t tranquilise a rhino with 50 mg of ketamine.”

Veterinarian Kushal Konwar Sarma also said that there is 0.01% possibility that the rhino was tranquilised and demanded a thorough probe into the matter.

Despite the debate on the modus operandi it is clear that the perpetrators seem to be familiar with the basics of immobilising the animal and the workings of the forest department to pull the job off, says conservation researcher Trishant Simlai who, also like Pradipta Baruah, believes the involvement of someone with the know-how of veterinary science.

“Something like this is also very complex and difficult to pull off. To pull off a delicate process like tranquilising a large mammal like the rhino and then harvesting the horn illegally within a protected area seems unthinkable without the support from someone skilled in veterinary science. I am unconvinced that this was done without the collusion of some authorities at some level,” Simlai, at the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge, told Mongabay-India.

“Until you target end-user markets and provide a livelihood for people involved in conservation and not keep it so centralised and give all the power to the state, something like this will keep happening. Throughout the world, in the political economy of poaching whenever it is fought with violence, it never solves the problem of poaching. For example, in South Africa where rangers are equipped with arms and poachers just come with larger arms. The threat of poaching is not gone – sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down,” he added.

Banner image: One horned Indian rhinos grazing in Kaziranga National Park, Assam.  Photo by Diganta Talukdar/Wikimedia Commons.

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