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Drive against rhino poaching finally comes of age in Assam

After years of adopting a fire-fighting approach, the government is now trying to address the root cause of poaching in state, says new book

Guwahati: After years of adopting a fire-fighting approach to tackle rhino poaching in Assam, the state government finally seems to be addressing the root cause of the menace, says a new book by veteran journalist Mrinal Talukdar.

Mandalay, the recently-released book written in Assamese, attempts to trace the trail of rhino horns across Southeast Asia. The book is a result of the author’s 35-month-long research across the region including in countries like China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand.

In an exclusive conversation with this author, Talukdar said earlier, the Assam government had a fire-fighting approach in combating the menace of rhino poaching, that is, short-term fixing of problems rather than understanding and addressing the factors that cause the problem.

However, in recent years, the outlook of Assam police and forest officials has become more professional. This can be attributed to the significant drop in the number of rhinos killed by poachers in the past few years. As per reports, since 2015, 48 rhinos have been killed in Assam. However, from 2012-2014, a staggering number of 79 rhinos were killed across the state.

Talukdar gives credit to the sheer commitment showed by officials from both the police and the forest department for the decrease in poaching cases. He particularly mentions two officers -- Deben Bora, officer-in-charge of the Jakhalabandha police station that is located near Kaziranga National Park’s Burapahar Range, and Pranjal Baruah, range officer of the park’s Northern Range -- in his book for doing exemplary work in this regard. He says that the officials have been giving importance to protecting rhinos from a very strong nationalistic sentiment.

Bora shares, “I used to feel very strongly about the poaching menace. I had this in mind that if someday I get transferred to Bokakhat or Jakhalabandha, I will do my best to bust the poaching ring.” As per reports, his efforts have borne fruit, as poaching incidents have come drastically in Burapahar, considered as the most vulnerable range in Kaziranga National Park.

Talukdar, however, rues that despite the best efforts by the Assam government, poachers coming from Nagaland and Manipur remain elusive. “We don’t have any inter-state coordination with Nagaland and Manipur police. Once the poachers cross Bokajan and enter Nagaland, they go out of hand,” he says.

He suggests that an orientation on combating rhino poaching should be started in the North East Police Academy (NEPA) at Umiam, as this will give the entire mission a much required cohesiveness.

The cover of veteran journalist Mrinal Talukdar’s new book, <i>Mandalay</i>
The cover of veteran journalist Mrinal Talukdar’s new book, Mandalay
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Network of poachers

As per the book, the poaching cartel is controlled from Myanmar and here it is operated through two separate networks. People know mostly about the Nagaland network as they take help from the local scouts. However, in recent times, that network has suffered some huge setbacks after police successfully infiltrated their chain of local spotters and informers. The eviction of encroachers from villages near Burapahar also helped in this regard.

The second network is being run by terrorist outfits from Manipur who camp deep inside Anjukmani Hills of Karbi Anglong and operate from there. They hide for weeks/months before slipping out of Assam. The presence of this network was hitherto unknown to police until a supplier named Simon Lakra was caught.

According to the book, the worrisome factor is the emergence of a third network in northern bank with Itanagar/Naharlagun coming up as the new market. Here, the immigrant Muslims living in the chars double up as both suppliers and shooters.

Eventually, the horn goes out of the country via the Dimapur-Imphal-Churachandpur-Kale (Myanmar)-Mandalay-Mongla (Myanmar-China border)-Kunming sector.

Breaking the myth

Even though Vietnam is often cited as the main destination for rhino horns, Talukdar says 95% of the horn is consumed by China. Hanoi in Vietnam is used as the landing port as the horns enter mainland China through the porous China-Vietnam border.

Connecting the surge in poaching to the global recession in 2007, he says, “After the Wall Street crashed in 2007, people had cash but no place to invest. There is a suspicion that some Chinese millionaires used rhino horns as an investment tool, leading to a spike in poaching activities.”

Chinese fetish for horns is driving rhinos towards sure-shot extinction, says veteran journalist Mrinal Talukdar in his new book
Chinese fetish for horns is driving rhinos towards sure-shot extinction, says veteran journalist Mrinal Talukdar in his new book
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Comparing Chinese obsession for horns to Western obsession for diamonds, he said, “There is an oriental revivalism in the whole world, especially in China to counter West. The Chinese gives the same importance to rhino horns as Americans would give to a diamond. Diamond is nothing but transformed coal. Countries after countries in Africa like Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo have been ravaged in the quest for this stone. Similarly, the Chinese fetish for horns is driving these animals towards sure shot extinction.”

Talukdar says that poaching in Assam can be curbed to some extent but cannot be finished completely as long as the rising demands from China continue to fuel the trade. “We are faring much better than our African counterparts when it comes to the conservation of rhinos. In Africa, they lose around 5% of their rhino population annually to the poaching cartel. For us, the figure would be somewhere around 0.5%. If in the coming days, we can bring our neighbouring states into the scheme of things, the figures will reduce further,” he ends on a positive note.