Sunday, August 17, 2008


Horns of a dilemma


The rhino saw contrasting fortunes in Nepal and India in 2007. A look at the possible reasons and the lessons it has for future conservation efforts.

Photo: Pankaj Sekhsaria, Ritu Raj Konwar

Rescuing the Rhino: We need to evolve case-specific conservation techniques.

Recent news from the two strongholds of the Asian Rhino, the Kaziranga National Park in Assam and the Chitwan National Park in Nepal presents an intriguing scenario. For Kaziranga, the year 2007 was one of the worst in almost a decade as far as rhinopoaching was concerned. At least 20 of these endangered animals were poached (mainly shot) in and around these extensive grasslands on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra. In Nepal, in comparison, 2007 turned up looking distinctly good for the rhino; only two animals, one each in the Chitwan and Bardia National Parks, were poached in the entire calendar year.

Compare this with the figures for the preceding 12 months and the contrast is conspicuous. 2006 was the complete opposite of 2007 and drastically so. Kaziranga lost only six rhinos in 2006 to poachers, while the number for Nepal was at least 20 with 14 being in and around Chitwan alone.

Remarkable turn-around

The turn-around in Nepal is remarkable considering the fact that almost 30 rhinos on an average had been poached here annually in the last few years. Most observers point to the political resolution that has taken place in the country and the peace that has returned.

Many troubled years of insurgency in Nepal had meant that the administrative mechanism and protection forces were simply unable to operate. The Royal Nepal Army that has always played an important part in wildlife protection here, had, for instance, 32 protection posts in the Chitwan National Park in 2001. By 2005 these had been reduced to only seven and in this four-year period more than a 100 rhinos had been taken out from the forests and grasslands here. The Bardia National Park, which has been one of the sites of rhino re-introduction in Nepal, too lost a staggering 67 rhinos in the three-year period from 2003-2006.

Nepal is believed to have one of the most successful community forestry programs but it did not seem to have helped the rhino. There have been reports in recent times even suggesting increased involvement in rhino poaching of the fringe villagers of Chitwan. Nearly half the rhinos poached in 2006 were, in fact, in the community forests bordering the park.

Things seemed to have changed, then, in 2007 because of the political stabilisation and the resulting possibility of deputing more attention and resources for the protection wildlife. While there is no doubting that this made a difference, it would be fallacious to infer that this is a simple, open and shut kind of case, where protection, guns and guards have all the solutions.

If that was the answer, the question takes us to Kaziranga. If the hardline gun and guard regime is the only one that will succeed, why did Kaziranga suffer such unprecedented losses in 2007? Not only is Kaziranga one of India’s most watched parks, it has also been held up all along as a model of how “protection” is the only thing that works. If there was one success story that was universally pointed to, it was the Kaziranga National Park and for good reason. This is the park that has played a key role in bringing the Asian rhino back from the brink of extinction.

Along the way, however, something has started to go wrong. There have been many reports in recent times pointing to drastic increases in human-wildlife conflict around Kaziranga and huge losses on account of wildlife depredation. The paradigm of conservation continues to be exclusionary and local communities that are not taken into confidence, nor benefit from conservation, can only be indifferent to poaching threats at best and actual partners in poaching at worst. Add to this the less than ideal condition of the frontline field staff and the crisis situation almost explains itself.

The case of the rhino is only illustrative of the complex realities of conservation in a landscape where the nature, magnitude and diversity of threats faced by wildlife and those striving for its protection are becoming increasingly powerful and insidious.

It must, however, be stated at the same time that there are no readymade answers. The intention here is not to suggest that community forestry has failed in Nepal or that local communities are responsible for the increased poaching of rhinos here. It is also not to suggest at the same time, that protection is not needed. A rhino whose horn is valued at thousands of dollars is bound to be constantly before the cross hairs of international wildlife trade syndicates and the guard can never be let down.

It seems clear that in today’s changing reality no single paradigm of conservation, be it community participation or stricter protection, will necessarily work by itself. The situation in Nepal, for instance, seems to re-establish the reality that wildlife conservation can only be a subset of the overall socio-political-economic context of any community and society.

Cooperation works

It has been shown in many places around the world that the resolution of conflict by negotiation and dialogue invariably benefits the landscape and the wildlife of the region. The story of Manas National Park in the Bodoland region of Assam is a good example. The rhino had, in fact, been poached out of existence in Manas during the many years of continued conflict. Now that peace has returned, attempts are being made as part of an ambitious re-introduction program to bring back the rhino as well. The political establishment is working with the park authorities and the local communities (former poachers included) in protecting Manas and taking it back to its “past glory”. Similar successes have been achieved with community participation in Kerala’s Periyar Tiger Reserve too. Kaziranga can learn from these experiences. While no stone should be left unturned to enhance the protection mechanism, support, train and equip the frontline field staff, effort also needs to be made to work together with the local communities.

There can be no place for complacency in Kaziranga. Half a dozen rhinos have already been killed here since the beginning of the year and if this continues, 2008 could well end up worse than the last one.

The challenge, clearly, is to find some kind of an ideal mean, a situation and case specific approach that does not rely predominantly on one paradigm but works together in finding creative, innovative and long term solutions.

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