Published: Monday, 27 November, 2006, 10:41 AM Doha Time
KAZIRANGA, Assam: India's endangered one-horned rhinoceros is charging back from the brink of extinction with forest wardens roping in villagers to combat poachers.
The sight of carcasses of two-tonne rhinos littering the Kaziranga National Park in the northeastern state of Assam was common a few years ago, but rangers said wanton killings have slowed down.
"No one thought rhinos would survive till 2006 with 100 animals perishing every year – half of them killed by poachers and the remaining dying of natural deaths," park warden Utpal Bora said.
The 430sq km park is now home to the single largest population of one-horned rhinos in the world.
According to latest figures, 1,855 of the world's estimated 2,700 one-horned rhinos lumber around the wilds of this riverine game park, their numbers ironically making the giant, herbivorous mammals a favourite target for poaching.
Park wardens, however, have reported a downslide in rhino poaching in the past five years. Only four were killed so far this year, compared to the early 1990s when some 50 rhinos used to be slaughtered annually in the park.
Organised poachers kill rhinos for their horns, which many believe contain aphrodisiac qualities, besides being used as medicines for curing fever, stomach ailments and other diseases in parts of South Asia. Rhino horn is also much fancied by buyers from the Middle East, who turn them into handles for ornamental daggers.
Profits in the illegal rhino horn trade are staggering.
A kg of rhino horn can fetch up to Rs1.5mn ($33,550) in the international market.
"Intensive protection mechanisms and a better intelligence network, coupled with support from local villagers living on the periphery of the park have helped us bring down incidents of poaching," Bora said.
Park officials last week arrested a poacher, while police seized a large cache of weapons believed to be meant for the rhino horn trading syndicate.
Until recently, many villagers acted as guides for poachers in Kaziranga, earning about Rs1,000 ($23) for showing them rhino tracks. But a series of anti-poaching awareness camps, set up by park authorities, seem to have won them over.
"The support from the villagers is unbelievable. The locals actually act as the first line of defence and tip us off whenever they spot suspicious looking people around the park," another ranger said.
Bhaben is a reformed man now - until recently he was involved with a rhino poaching gang here.
"I know I was not doing the right thing. At least the realisation dawned on me and when I think about my past, I really feel very bad. It would have been a nail in the coffin had the poaching activities not slowed down," said the middle-aged man who now takes tourists inside the park in his jeep.
Several villagers now earn a living by taking tourists on wildlife safaris inside the park, and others have formed vigilante groups to foil attempts by poachers to kill rhinos.
"Kaziranga is the source of livelihood for a majority of the people living in the vicinity of the park. From setting up eateries to resorts, hotels and guest houses, besides running jeeps for taking tourists, the locals are surviving on the park," said Arun Das, a young resident of the area.
"Who would come to Kaziranga if the rhinos are not there? It is for our own interest that we help the authorities in combating poaching." —IANS
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