The authorities at a national park in India protect the wildlife by shooting suspected poachers dead. But has the war against poaching gone too far?
Kaziranga National Park is an incredible story of conservation success.
There were just a handful of Indian one-horned rhinoceros left when the park was set up a century ago in Assam, in India’s far east. Now there are more than 2,400 – two-thirds of the entire world population.
This is where David Attenborough’s team came to film for Planet Earth II. William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, came here last year.
But the way the park protects the animals is controversial. Its rangers have been given the kind of powers to shoot and kill normally only conferred on armed forces policing civil unrest.
At one stage the park rangers were killing an average of two people every month – more than 20 people a year. Indeed, in 2015 more people were shot dead by park guards than rhinos were killed by poachers.
Innocent villagers, mostly tribal people, have been caught up in the conflict.
Rhinos need protection. Rhino horn can fetch very high prices in Vietnam and China where it is sold as a miracle cure for everything from cancer to erectile dysfunction. Street vendors charge as much as $6,000 for 100g – making it considerably more expensive than gold.
Indian rhinos have smaller horns than those of African rhinos, but reportedly they are marketed as being far more potent.
But how far should we go to protect these endangered animals?
I ask two guards what they were told to do if they encountered poachers in the park.
“The instruction is whenever you see the poachers or hunters, we should start our guns and hunt them,” Avdesh explains without hesitation.
“You shoot them?” I ask.
“Yah, yah. Fully ordered to shoot them. Whenever you see the poachers or any people during night-time we are ordered to shoot them.”
Avdesh says he has shot at people twice in the four years he has been a guard, but has never killed anybody. He knows, however, there are unlikely to be any consequences for him if he did.
The government has granted the guards at Kaziranga extraordinary powers that give them considerable protection against prosecution if they shoot and kill people in the park.
Critics say guards like Avdesh and Jibeshwar are effectively being told to carry out “extrajudicial executions”.
Getting figures for how many people are killed in the park is surprisingly difficult.
“We don’t keep each and every account,” says a senior official in India’s Forest Department, which oversees the country’s national parks.
The director of the park, Dr Satyendra Singh, is based at the park’s impressive colonial-era headquarters.
He talks about the difficulties of tackling poachers in the park, explaining that the poaching gangs recruit local people to help them get into the park but that the actual “shooters” – the men who kill the rhinos – tend to come from neighbouring states.
He says the term “shoot-on-sight” does not accurately describe how he orders the forest rangers to deal with suspected poachers.
“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?”
Dr Singh reveals that just in the past three years, 50 poachers have been killed. He says it reflects how many people in the local community have been lured into the trade as rhino horn prices have risen. As many as 300 locals are involved in poaching, he believes.
For the people who live around Kaziranga the rising death toll has become a major issue.
Kaziranga is densely populated, like the rest of India. Many of the communities here are tribal groups that have lived in or alongside the forest for centuries, collecting firewood as well as herbs and other plants from it. They say increasing numbers of innocent villagers are being shot.
In one of the villages that borders the park live Kachu Kealing and his wife. Their son, Goanburah, was shot by forest guards in December 2013.
The only picture they have of him is a fuzzy reproduction of the young man’s face.
Goanburah had been looking after the family’s two cows. His father believes they strayed into the park and his son – who had severe learning difficulties – went in to try and find them. It is an easy mistake to make. There are no fences or signs marking the edge of the park, it just merges seamlessly into the surrounding countryside and fields.
The park authorities say guards shot Goanburah inside the forest reserve when he did not respond to a warning.
“He could barely do up his own trousers or his shoes,” his father says, “everyone knew him in the area because he was so disabled.”
Kachu Kealing does not believe there is any action he can take now, especially given the unusual protection park guards have from prosecution. “I haven’t filed a court case. I’m a poor man, I can’t afford to take them on.”
Conservation efforts in India tend to focus on protecting a few emblematic species. The fight to preserve them is stacked high with patriotic sentiment. Rhinos and tigers have become potent national symbols.
Add to this the fact that Kaziranga is the region’s principal tourist attraction – its 170,000 or more annual visitors spend good money here – and it is easy to see why the park feels political pressure to tackle its poaching problem head on.
In 2013, when the number of rhinos killed by poachers more than doubled to 27, local politicians demanded action. The then head of the park was happy to oblige.
MK Yadava wrote a report which detailed his strategy for tackling poaching in Kaziranga. He proposed there should be no unauthorised entry whatsoever. Anyone found within the park, he said, “must obey or be killed”.
“Kill the unwanted,” should be the guiding principle for the guards, he recommended.
He explained his belief that environmental crimes, including poaching, are more serious that murder. “They erode,” he said, “the very root of existence of all civilizations on this earth silently.”
And he backed up his tough words with action, putting this uncompromising doctrine into practice in the park.
The numbers of people killed rose dramatically. From 2013 to 2014 the number of alleged poachers shot dead in the park leapt from five to 22. In 2015 Kaziranga killed more people in the park than poachers killed rhinos – 23 people lost their lives compared to just 17 rhinos.
And, as the park’s battle against poaching gathered in intensity, there were to be other casualties.
In July last year, seven-year-old Akash Orang was making his way home along the main track through the village, which borders the park.
His voice falters as he recounts what happened next. “I was coming back from the shop. The forest guards were shouting, ‘Rhinoceros! Rhinoceros!'” He pauses. “Then they suddenly shot me.”
The gunshot blasted away most of the calf muscle on his right leg. The injuries were so serious he had to be rushed to Assam’s main hospital five hours away.
He was there for five months and had dozens of operations but, despite the hospital’s efforts, Akash can still barely walk.
His father, Dilip Orang, bends down and removes the bandage from the boy’s leg to display the wound. His leg appears to be stripped of its skin – the calf muscle is bunched into tight ball. It doesn’t flex. “They took the muscle from here and grafted it here,” he says. “But it hasn’t worked very well. Just look at it.”
It is clear just how terrible his injuries are when Akash gets up to move out of the sun. He can barely limp the few feet into the shade. His older brother now has to carry him to the local shop.
“He has changed,” Dilip says. “He used to be cheerful. He isn’t any more. In the night he wakes up in pain and cries for his mother.”
The park admits it made a terrible mistake. It paid all his medical expenses and gave the family almost 200,000 rupees ($3,000; £2,400) in compensation. Not much given the scale of Akash’s injuries, says his father, who worries whether his son will ever make a living.
The crippling of Akash led to a huge outcry from villagers. It was the culmination of long-simmering disquiet over the mounting death toll in the park. Hundreds marched on the park headquarters.
In a house a short walk from the park HQ, human rights campaigner Pranab Doley, himself a member of a local tribe, pulls out a bag stuffed with paperwork. He has made a series of requests under India’s Right to Information Act and says the replies show that many cases aren’t followed up properly.
“In most cases you don’t have things like the magisterial inquiry, the forensic report, the post mortem reports,” he says, rifling through the stacks of paper.
The park says that it’s not responsible for investigating the killings, and whatever action it does take follows the law. Even so, some of Mr Doley’s documents reveal a surprising lack of information. He pulls out a table listing deaths in one of the park’s four districts. It shows nine suspected poachers killed in one year, six of whom are recorded as unidentified.
And there are other indications that careful investigation is not a priority when it comes to wildlife crime in Assam. The park says that in the last three years just two people have been prosecuted for poaching – a striking contrast to the 50 people who were shot dead in the park in the same period.
The park justifies the number of deaths, saying the figures are so high because the heavily armed poaching gangs engage guards in deadly shoot-outs. However, the statistics indicate that these “encounters” are more one-sided than the park suggests. Once again, firm figures are hard to come by, but according to the reports we can find just one park guard has been killed by poachers in the past 20 years, compared with 106 people shot dead by guards over the same period.
Mr Doley argues the high number of deaths is because, at least in part, of the legal protection the park and its guards enjoy. “This kind of impunity is dangerous,” he says. “It is creating animosity between the park and people living in the periphery of the park.”
That animosity is deepened because so many of the local community are tribal people who claim they and their ancient way of life are – like the animals the park is trying to protect – also endangered.
Their cause has been taken up by Survival International, a London-based charity. It argues that the rights of tribal people around the park are being sacrificed in the name of wildlife protection.
“The park is being run with utmost brutality,” says Sophie Grig, the lead campaigner. “There is no jury, there’s no judge, there’s no questioning. And the terrifying thing is that there are plans to roll [out] the shoot at sight policy across [the] whole of India.”
Her strong language is testimony perhaps to the concern felt by activists like her that traditional communities might be sacrificed in the name of wildlife protection.
She says some of the biggest animal conservation charities in the world, including the World Wildlife Fund, have turned a blind eye to the activities of the park.
“WWF describes itself as a close partner of the Assam Forest Department,” says Ms Grig. “They’ve been providing equipment and funds to the forest department. Survival has repeatedly asked them to speak out against this shoot-on-sight policy and extrajudicial executions which they have so far failed to do.”
According to the WWF India website, it has funded combat and ambush training for Kaziranga’s guards and has provided specialist equipment including night vision goggles for the park’s anti-poaching effort.
“Nobody is comfortable with killing people,” says Dr Dipankar Ghose, who helps run much of WWF’s conservation programme in India. “What is needed is on the ground protection. The poaching has to stop.”
The bulk of WWF’s funding comes from individual donations. So how would the WWF’s donors feel about the organisation’s involvement with a park facing allegations of killing, maiming and torturing? Dr Ghose does not answer the question directly.
“Well, as I said, we are working towards it. We want the whole thing to reduce – we don’t want poaching to happen, and the idea is to reduce it involving all our partners. It is not just the Kaziranga authorities but also the enforcement agencies, also the local people. So I think the main thing is to work with the local people.”
And there are plenty of conservationists that accept that, in some circumstances, there must be a tough response to poachers. “No park would exist in India without having regular anti-poaching operations,” says naturalist and writer Valmik Thapar. “Anti-poaching is an essential element of conservation.”
“There are some that do it well. There are some that fail miserably… and they don’t have any tigers. So there are some tiger reserves in India, that actually don’t have any tigers at all because they have all been poached.
“In some exceptional cases you can use the gun against the gun, but in other places in India you need to use community intelligence, because the local community are the eyes and ears of the forest.”
Three months after Akash was shot and villagers marched on park headquarters once again – this time to protest allegations of torture.
Mono Bora was sitting at a roadside cafe when he was picked up by forest guards. He claims he was punched in the face repeatedly as he was driven to park headquarters. Once inside the offices the questioning became even more violent.
“They gave me electric shocks here on my knees, and here on my elbows. And here on my groin too.” Mr Bora describes how he was tied in a stress position to bamboo staves.
“They kept on hitting me,” he says. The ordeal lasted for three hours until finally his assailants became convinced they had the wrong man.
Kaziranga confirmed it did bring Mono Bora in for questioning but categorically denies any harm came to him, adding that it “never uses electric shock during interrogation”.
The chief of Mono Bora’s village picked him up from the park headquarters. Biren Kotch says he did not believe Mr Bora had any involvement in poaching. “How can they justify torture?”
But it isn’t just the anti-poaching effort that threatens local people. Big wild animals like tigers and rhinos need lots of space.
To accommodate them India is planning a massive expansion of its network of national of parks. It is great news for conservation, but the plans involve relocating 900 villages. More than 200,000 people will have to leave their homes, it is estimated.
Kaziranga will double in size and an eviction order has been issued. State police recently evicted two villages amid chaotic scenes in which stone-throwing villagers were beaten with batons and fired on by police. Two people – a father of two and a young female student – were killed.
Diggers were brought in and the national park provided a team of elephants to help raze every home to the ground.
In the wreckage of the village critics might see more evidence of a brutal approach to conservation. The problem is the park’s tactics appear to have worked. Since the crackdown in the park began in 2013 the numbers of rhinos poached has fallen back. Last year just 18 rhinos were killed.
But the important question is what the long term cost will be, says Pranab Doley, the tribal rights campaigner. He believes the park’s behaviour betrays a misguided attitude to conservation. “That’s what their policy and philosophy is – move the people out of here and create pure pristine forest.”
He says the park is on a collision course with local tribal people. If it gets its way, he says, it will destroy the ancient culture of tribal people like him, but could also end up frustrating its own efforts to protect its animals.
“Without the people taking care of the forest, no forest department will be able to protect Kaziranga. It’s the human shield which is protecting Kaziranga.”
Of course, there’s no arguing that endangered species must be protected and preserved, but the costs on the human community need to be taken into account too.
By Justin Rowlatt South Asia correspondent
Additional photos by David Reid