The BBC documentary on Kaziranga National Park in Assam, Killing for Conservation, has generated a lot of debate as well as courted controversy. At the centre of the controversy, is the “shoot at sight” powers, as well as perceived legal immunity provided to forest guards from prosecution.

Many conservationists have attributed Kaziranga’s conservation success to this “guns and guard” approach, while others have claimed that such extraordinary powers have led to the “encounter” killing of suspected poachers and even innocent people.

Given this background, it is imperative to examine the legal reality as well as the challenges in protecting the wildlife of Kaziranga.

Blanket immunity?

The belief that forest guards in Kaziranga National Park have orders from the government, empowering them to “shoot at sight” any suspected poacher in the park and enjoy complete legal immunity from criminal prosecution is simply illusory.

No shoot at sight order has been issued by the government. This belief has gained currency since nobody has bothered to find out the facts. If such an order existed, it should be possible to find a copy of it somewhere.

So far as legal immunity from criminal prosecution is concerned, the forest guards and for that matter all forest officers in Assam, have the protection of Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 as a result of a Notification issued in 2010 by the State government. This provision states that no criminal prosecution can be initiated against any public servant for acts done in “discharge of his official duty” without prior sanction of the State government. The Notification does not provide for complete immunity but only “initial” immunity from prosecution.

The Notification clearly and unambiguously states:

“whenever firing is resorted to by any of the personnel (forest staff), each such incident shall be enquired into by Executive Magistrate of the locality and any proceeding including institution of a criminal case of any nature or effecting any arrest can be initiated by the police, only if, it is held, as a result of Magisterial Enquiry that the use of firearm has been unnecessary, unwarranted and excessive and such report has been examined and accepted by the Government”.

This provision nowhere provides any “blanket immunity”. Nor does it even by implication confer absolute power to forest department staff to shoot at sight. What is, however, significant to note is that as per the Notification, every case of firing has to be enquired by the Executive Magistrate, irrespective of whether death or injury takes place as a result of the firing.

The real face of enforcement

Kaziranga has been hailed as a conservation success in view of the increase in number of rhinoceros – from a mere handful to more than 2,400, as much as two-thirds of the entire world’s rhino population. It has been argued by some that other conservation parks should follow the Kaziranga model of conservation comprising of heavily armed and trained forest guards.

The reality is however different: Kaziranga National Park is among the most poorly managed and administered conservation parks in the country. It is a story of neglect and apathy. Nothing illustrates this better than the Performance Audit of the park done by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in 2014. The section of the CAG Report dealing with forest guards in Kaziranga is revealing. It states:

‘’Out of the 100 freshly recruited forest guard ... 73 were withdrawn within one year resulting in the deployment of aged staff on frontline duties’...reasons for transferring the fresh recruits out of Kaziranga National Park (KNP) despite increase in poaching cases/ arrests of poachers were not on record”.

With respect to the working condition of the forest guards, the report states:

“allotment of uniform, shoes, rain coats etc is irregular, forcing the wildlife guards to arrange these articles from their own sources......some wildlife guards reported borrowing used uniforms of their siblings serving in other forces’’.

The CAG report highlighted severe shortage of funds and highly inadequate anti-poaching infrastructure in Kaziranga. The situation on the ground remains the same despite the indictment by the CAG

Militancy and poaching

It is claimed that killings by forest department staff have increased after 2010 as a result of the so-called immunity conferred on the forest department staff. Statistically, it is true that more people were killed after 2010 as compared to previous years. However, to conclude that this can be attributed to the so-called immunity given to forest guards is too simplistic a formulation.

An analysis of poaching incidents based on right to information responses from the state government shows a dramatic increase in poaching post 2010 in and around the Kaziranga National Park. Almost one rhino was killed every two weeks in 2015.

If more poachers enter the park, it is more likely that there will be more confrontation with the enforcement staff.

The increase in incidents of poaching can be attributed to many factors, including increased international demand and laxity in enforcement. However, in case of Kaziranga National Park, one cannot overlook the close link between the sudden increase in poaching post 2010 and the birth of new militant outfits in the neighbourhood of Kaziranga. Specifically, in 2011, the Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger was formed with the stated goal of an autonomous Karbi State. The Karbi hills adjoins the Kaziranga National Park.

An analysis of complaints and chargesheets filed by the police and forest department in and around Kaziranga National park, between 2011 and 2014, reveals the direct involvement of this group as well as Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front in poaching of rhinos. The complaints specifically mention the chairman of the Liberation Tiger, Ron Rongpi, as well as defence secretary of the Liberation Front as being involved in poaching. There have been direct recovery of significant number of AK-56 and AK-47 rifles in addition to other sophisticated weapons and large stocks of ammunition.

A board proclaiming the biological heritage of the park. Image: Peter Andersen/Wikimedia [Licensed under CC BY 2.5]

The rhino has become a living gold mine and its high-value horn is not just a traditional Chinese medicine, but a currency to buy illegal weapons and fund terrorism. Rhino poaching is thus not just a conservation issue, it has serious national security implications.

In a way, the BBC documentary has drawn national attention to a conservation park which is naively considered as a conservation success simply because of its impressive rhino numbers. Irrespective of the merit of the BBC story, every incident of human rights violations – whether of tribals, locals or even so-called illegal immigrants – needs to be thoroughly investigated with all seriousness and action should be taken in accordance with law.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority, acted with unprecedented speed in taking action against the BBC for what it called a wrong portrayal of India’s conservation effort. One only hopes that the the Authority shows the same level of enthusiasm and initiative when it comes to protecting the tiger habitats, which is its statutory mandate. The government of Assam must give priority and consider Kaziranga as a park that needs serious attention and not just as a showpiece for tourist and high-profile visitors to come and feed orphaned rhinos and elephants. Conservation groups should seriously reconsider the opinion that the Kaziranga model of conservation should be replicated in other parks as a solution for all conservation problems.

Kaziranga is not a symbol of conservation success, it is the epitome of all the challenges faced in conserving and protecting wildlife in India. Its model cannot be and should not be replicated in other parks.

Ritwick Dutta is an environmental lawyer and leads the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment.