The Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar initiated a welcome step this month on his “Mission Rhino” visit to Assam. He announced that there would be zero tolerance towards rhino poaching and the Central Government’s efforts would be to bring down the number of rhino poaching incidents to zero. He also announced that a Special Rhino Protection Force of local youth would be raised to check poaching in the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) and other rhino-populated areas in Assam. The poaching must be stopped at the earliest to save nature’s most priceless and precious endangered species.
This comes close on the heels of the alert that poachers have killed 22 rhinos since the beginning of this year.
It is an appreciable move by the Central Government as since the last few years it is the Assam Government which has been working strenuously to stop poaching which is done by poachers to supplement the evil trade of rhino horns.
Rhino horns are smuggled to China and are sold to traditional therapists who believe rhino horn to be a cure for many health illnesses. Historical mention of other uses for the rhino horn dates back thousands of years. In Greek mythology, it was said to have the properties to purify water. The ancient Persians of the Fifth Century B.C. thought that vessels made from the horn could detect poison in liquids. Now, science is stepping in to dispel some of the mystery and fiction. Rhino horn is not, as once believed, made simply from a clump of compressed or modified hair. Research by the Ohio University using computerised tomography shows that the horn is in fact, similar in structure to hooves, beaks and bills. The centre has dense mineral deposits of calcium and melanin — a finding that may explain the curve and the sharp tip of the horn. The calcium strengthens the horn while the melanin protects the core from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. As the softer outer portion gets worn out over time, the inner core is sharpened into a point, much like a wooden pencil. Overall there isn’t much evidence to support the plethora of claims about the healing properties of the horn.
Assam became the first state in India to issue ‘shoot at sight’ orders for poachers in Kaziranga National Park, boosting the rhino population. Poachers are known to carry sophisticated weapons like AK-47s, and are ruthless. It is the sheer hard work of Assamese forest guards and their commitment towards natural justice that has seen numerous poachers being killed in recent years and some guards being martyred. All Indians are indebted to these brave and daring fighters who are on the alert 24X7 to save one of Mother Nature’s wonders. We must show our gratitude towards these men and women of Assam forest department who have given their all to save our country’s ecology and tourism industry (as hundreds of foreign tourists throng to Assam to witness the majestic creature). The poaching must be stopped to save nature’s most priceless and precious endangered species.
But lately, the Assam Government has started showing signs of defeat and exhaustion as is evident from the move of the Assam Government to constitute an expert committee to consider the ‘feasibility and necessity’ of de-horning rhinos, in a move to ‘save’ them. The Central Government has stepped in at the right moment to strengthen the Assam Government in the fight against rhino poaching and has revealed its resolve to address this issue on a war footing.
The reasons why dehorning our rhinos would be a bad move are:-
- Unlike the African rhino, the Indian rhino has a single horn. This horn is made of keratin and if cut in a way that includes the skull, it will not grow back. If cut in a manner which excludes the skull it is likely to regrow.
- The rhino is considered the most coveted animal in the illegal trade. By removing its horn, we assume that there is perfect complicity between demand and supply of this product, the horn. But this is not the case. Evidence suggests that poachers kill anyway out of vengeance. For example: in African countries, where de-horning has been tried as a measure to protect rhinos, poachers have killed dehorned rhinos out of vengeance. In India, poachers have killed female rhinos for their horns, even though they have horns significantly smaller than those of males. In a nutshell then, poachers trap, shoot or kill opportunistically, and the size of the horn (or even its presence) may not be a deciding factor.
- If the audience for the dehorning exercise is the poacher, then we cannot assume he will leave poaching altogether because stray rhinos (which are technically easier to poach) don’t have horns. In fact, this may victimise regular rhinos more, and it is most likely that rhinos with horns inside protected areas like Kaziranga, Pobitora and Manas may be attacked with greater gusto.
- The role of the rhino horn has been poorly understood. Field observations confirm that successful males are also those who have large horns, and the horn has been seen as used in foraging for food. We need to ask ourselves the question: can the rhino lead a normal life without the horn?
- Intervening to remove a rhino’s horn, in response to a patently illegal activity, may set a dangerous precedent. There are several species which are highly prized in the poaching trade, and these include tigers, lions, tokay geckos, and elephants. Tigers and lions are killed for their skins, nails and bones, tokay geckos for their body parts, and till recently, elephants were slaughtered in India for their ivory. Dehorning rhinos may or may not stem poaching of rhinos. But it may set a precedent for similar such exercises, which are seen as a management tool, but have unknown impacts on the actual life and ecology of the animal. If we dehorn rhinos, we may at some time also consider de-tusking elephants. Finally, the impact intended on the ‘audience’ of poachers itself is unknown. In the absence of rhinos, will poachers pack their bags, or will they move towards capture of other species? And is it ethical to dehorn a rhino?
- While proposals for dehorning the rhino demonstrate intent to solve the rhino poaching problem, it is also a complete admission of defeat, and that too, to unregulated forces. These are forces which we should not buckle to, for reasons both logical and ethical. The answers will lie in demonstrating seriousness in solving the actual problem: through higher conviction rates for poaching cases, enforcement, vigilance and carrying forward the commitment the Assam government has already shown. There is no other means of saving the unfortunate rhino.
- Setting up of fast track courts to ensure that arrested poachers were brought to justice through speedy trial.
- According to Aaranyak, a society for biodiversity conservation: “Dehorning is not the ultimate solution to check poaching; it is only a strategy to buy time used by African countries.”
- The government should take proactive measures, including intelligence gathering and combat training for forest guards and range officers manning Kaziranga and other rhino-bearing national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
- Instead of making the harmless beast its target, the government should focus on fighting poachers and directing funds to train and equip guards with state-of-the-art weaponry and other gadgets and all-weather clothing and footwear.
- The Government must explore the use of an indelible dye, a technique used in the Rhino Rescue Project, South Africa. Here, the dye is introduced which turns the inside of the horn bright pink. It is similar to products used in the banking industry to permanently stain stolen bank notes. It is visible on an X-ray scanner even when the horn is ground to a fine powder. Thus, airport security checkpoints can pick the presence of this dye in a treated horn. The dye could also discourage the use of horns for ornamental purposes. This will reduce smuggling of rhino horn which costs $60-$140 a gm in the international market. We need to explore all possible options to disincentivise and stop the evil of poaching.
In the words of Rudyard Kipling:
“Wearing a suit of armour, a great beast which survived the Pleistocene Mass Extinction of animals, and whose single, mounted horn is both a mystery and a product of exceptional evolution.”