On October 21, rangers in India’s Kaziranga National Park found the carcass of a male rhinoceros who had been shot dead with his horn sawed off by poachers. Rangers had been searching the forest since they heard the sound of gunshots on October 19, according to local media reports. They eventually found the body, but by then the poachers and the horn were long gone. The killing was at least the 16th in the state so far in 2016.
This latest incident highlights an ongoing problem in Kaziranga Park in Assam state, home to the majority of the country’s greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis). The park suffered a major embarrassment in June: A rhino was killed by poachers during a well-publicised visit by the Assam’s new environment minister, who came to Kaziranga to discuss anti-poaching efforts. That followed an even more high-profile incident in April, when a rhino was poached within hours of a visit by William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Another rhino was killed just days before the royal visit that was intended to highlight the plight of endangered animal in India.
These killing are fueled by a seemingly insatiable demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and China, where the horn is believed to have medicinal properties. “Poaching and the pressure is ever existing. And if we just slow down on our efforts, or if we lag in our efforts, the poachers always try to take an upper hand,” says Amit Sharma, WWF India’s senior coordinator for rhino conservation.
Reasons for optimism?
Despite this toll, Sharma says there are many reasons for optimism. First among these is the fact that India’s rhino population is rising steadily despite deaths from poachers, disease and natural disasters – in 2008, the IUCN downlisted the Indian rhino’s status from endangered to vulnerable. In Kaziranga, where the majority of India’s rhinos live, a 2015 census counted 2,401 rhinos, up from 2,290 in 2012. Poaching numbers are down too, he says. In 2015, 21 rhinos were poached in Assam, down from a recent peak of 41 in 2013.
Sharma also believes that the state’s new government, which took power in May, is serious about its pledge to crack down on poaching.
In recent months, headlines have been dominated by a string of arrests. On September 12, Assam police and forest officials arrested an alleged “poaching kingpin” who was wanted in connection with the killing of 20 rhinoceroses over the past four years. Earlier that month, a forest team apprehended a gang of five suspected poachers, including a sharpshooter, in nearby Orang park. This followed a batch of lower profile arrests across the state. On August 24, five men were arrested and charged with poaching after a tip-off by locals in Guwahati City. According to local media, they were in possession of rhino horns when the were arrested, and confessed to involvement in several poaching cases in Kaziranga. In June, six suspected poachers were arrested on the outskirts of the park. Five more alleged poachers were arrested in the nearby Biswanath district in July.
Are arrests a good sign?
According to Sharma, the string of recent arrests is a sign that anti-poaching efforts are becoming more effective, rather than an indication that more poachers are targeting rhinos in Assam.
“The police and the forest, the cooperation was low maybe five to six years back. Now the cooperation is increasing, and day by day we are seeing better joint operations that are leading to a higher number of arrests and seizures,” he says.
In May, the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the Assam state elections, bringing an end to the Congress party’s 15-year reign in the state. With many in the state pinning hopes on an increase in wildlife tourism bringing much-needed funds, rhino conservation was a prominent feature of both parties’ campaigns. According to Sharma, the new government has, so far, kept its word and “entirely supported” conservation efforts. “The anti-poaching measures and some of the steps they have taken have been really, really strong and prompt,” he said.
The incoming BJP government also vowed to investigate allegations that park workers and local officials had ties to rhino horn traffickers. Those investigations are ongoing, though Sharma said he personally reserves judgement. “Yes, the news came out but the truth has not come out, meaning that investigations have not come to an end,” he said. “I doubt whether all this news is true. At some level, at the very lower level there may be some truth, but at the broader higher scale I think there needs to be more investigation to find out, to figure out what really has happened or taken place.”
Sharma noted that unfortunately, stronger anti-poaching efforts in Assam may simply mean the problem is pushed elsewhere. With constant demand for rhino horn and well funded and well-armed networks eager to supply it, trying to crush poaching can feel like a game of whack-a-mole: tackle the problem in one area, and it pops up in another.
“Wherever and whenever there is a rhino, there is always a threat or a pressure from the poachers, Sharma said. “When anti-poaching measures are tough in Nepal, the pressure is more in India. Or rather, if it comes to India, if the measures are too tough in Kaziranga or in Assam, there is a bit more pressure in West Bengal.”
Just days before the most recent poaching in Assam, four men were arrested in possession of rhinos horns and an AK-47 rifle in West Bengal, indicating an escalating level of militarisation of poaching networks in that state.
Even arresting poachers doesn’t necessarily get them off the streets – or out of the forests – long term. “If you go by the arrests, maybe during 2016 you’ve had more than 60 arrests of poachers that happened,” Sharma said. “But if we go to the convictions, to the court of the law, we see that nothing has happened as yet. There is a lot of lag in the legal front. Firstly, it takes a lot of time and secondly, there are a lot of loopholes. The convictions are not happening. And so the legal part is not becoming a deterrent for the poachers.”
India’s anti-poaching laws are robust, Sharma said, but investigators struggle to present the evidence required to win cases. “On the legal front our expertise or the strength of investigation is still on the lower side, for which we are not able to get the convictions from the court,” he said.
Sharma hopes that new technologies will help rangers and police put together stronger cases. As an example, he points to RhoDIS, a rhino DNA database that allows investigators to identify the individual rhino poached horn comes from and is already being used in prosecutions in South Africa. India has plans to join the database, perhaps as early as next year Sharma says.
Until then, despite poaching and deaths from floods and other natural disasters, India’s rhino population seems to be on a solid upswing. Cooperation and support from the government, local and international conservation groups and local populations have combined to bring India’s rhinos back from the brink of extinction, Sharma says. “That is why rhino conservation is a success story for the state of Assam.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.