New Delhi: In the run-up to the 2016 assembly polls in Assam, the rallying point of political opponents challenging the then-15-year-old Congress government to safeguard the “jati mati bheti” (‘home and hearth’) of the indigenous population of the state included the protection of the state animal: the one-horned rhinoceros.
At the time, Rockybul Hussain, the forest minister of the then Tarun Gogoi government, had been facing flak from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) about the rising incidents of rhinoceros death due to poaching, particularly in the Kaziranga National Park (KNP). AGP accused Hussain, an MLA from Samaguri, which covers a part of KNP, of being “personally involved in poaching”.
AGP was soon joined by BJP in that criticism, sensing the growing public sentiment against killing for profit of an animal that symbolised their state. According to government records, poachers killed 239 rhinos between 2001 and July 2016, roughly covering the 15-year Congress rule. However, in 2008, relenting to demands of the All Assam Students’ Union, the Gogoi government said it would hand over rhino poaching cases in the state to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). It never happened.
Hussain’s explanation was that, despite the rampant poaching that did need to be stopped by taking better measures, the number of rhinos in the state was actually increasing.
In a white paper on wildlife conservation presented in the state assembly in 2014, Hussain said, “We are taking various steps to protect rhinos with the help of wildlife experts and legal professionals. As per the last rhino census, the population of the world famous animal has grown to 2,544 in entire Assam in 2013 from 2,006 in 2006.”
Hussain’s ministry conducted another rhino census in 2015, according to which the number of rhinos went up to 2,431 even though the census couldn’t be conducted in two of the four sanctuaries.
On March 21, a group of RTI activists representing a well-known whistleblowers’ organisation – Swaraj Asom – accused Hussain’s ministry of cooking the books to not just match the ‘Rhino Vision 2020’ goals but also to likely deflect rising public anger against poaching.
‘Rhino Vision 2020’ is a collaborative effort of the International Rhino Foundation with the Assam government, the Bodoland Territorial Council, the World Wildlife Fund and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It aims for the state to have at least 3,000 one-horned rhinos in the wild, spread over seven protected areas, by 2020.
In a press meet held at the Guwahati office of Swaraj Asom, its convenor Bhaben Handique cited an RTI reply from the authorities of the state’s Orang National Park to say:
According to our information, the number of rhinos is shown more in the census reports to meet the target of India Rhino Vision 2020. As per Rhino Vision, the number of rhinos in India should be 3,000 by 2020. Since Assam is the home of the one-horned rhino, authorities in our national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are artificially fudging the numbers in the census reports for funds from international agencies given for rhino conversation.
(Swaraj Asom is also the organisation that petitioned the Gauhati high court for a probe into the multi-crore Louis Berger corruption case, leading the court to hand it over to the CBI recently.)
Handique told The Wire that it felt like a conspiracy. “Apart from the numbers being doctored keeping international funds in mind, it was most likely done to also dilute the public anger against rampant poaching. We suspect that some NGOs also played a role in it.”
Swaraj Asom, he added, “has, therefore, demanded a committee that includes more local organisations in rhino census for transparency.”
Handique also pointed out,
Though rhino census is done once every three years, it was done in 2012 after 2009 and then in 2015 again after 2013. Now the question arises, were those census done to put a lid on the finger pointed at the government then for not being able to stop poaching? It certainly raises doubt. As per the RTI reply we have received, it shows a rise of rhino population in Assam from 2,329 in 2013 to 2,431 in 2015. This, even though the census couldn’t be done in Orang National Park and Pobitora wildlife sanctuary in 2015. The 2013 number, the RTI says, was only from Kaziranga as that year the census was not done in Pobitora, Orang and Manas National Park. While the 2012 census report counted 22 rhinos in Manas, the number rose to 30 in 2015. The 2012 census, like the 2009, was carried out in all the four sanctuaries and showed the number at 2,505 from 2,201.
Looking at the numbers given in the RTI reply also raises questions as to which data Hussain mentioned in the 2014 white paper to say that the total number of rhinos ‘across the state’ in 2013 was 2,544, even though the census could be taken only in Kaziranga that year.
Handique said though he filed an RTI in June 2016 seeking data of the rhino census and the methods used to conduct it at KNP, he has not got a reply till date. In November 2017, he filed another RTI seeking the same information from the authorities of the Orang National Park, one of the five national parks of the state, situated about 80 km from Guwahati.
I filed RTIs seeking these information from all the park and sanctuary authorities but got a reply only from the Orang National Park authorities. The information we got from the reply has further firmed up our doubts. For instance, the park has 17 blocks but most of the 100 rhinos counted in 2012 in the park were from two blocks – Satsimalu and Chaila – where state forest department officials were involved. However, the wildlife activists and the neutral observers virtually didn’t spot any rhino in the other blocks.
He also pointed out the names of two observers mentioned in the 2012 rhino census in Orang: Papori Khatoniar and Manas Jyoti Bora. “But their names were not in the formal observers’ list. So who were they? Those mentioned in the formal list never went to the ground then?”
One such name mentioned as an independent observer in the RTI reply was Rathin Barman, joint director of the Wildlife Trust of India. Surprisingly, Barman, through an email response, told this correspondent, “I have never participated in a rhino census in Orang.”
According to the RTI reply, the method used for rhino census was “direct visual count”. It continued: “Visibility is of utmost importance for counting rhinos in this method. But like in most estimation years, all tall grassland could not be burnt due to excessive moisture. In most of the compartments, enumerators could not see all the animals hiding/resting in tall grassland or in the thick jungle. In future, other ecological methods like line transect should be employed.”
On asked whether line transect is indeed a better method to count rhinos, Barman, also the head of the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation, said, “For a species like the rhino, which you can spot very easily, total count method is a better option. Line transect is generally followed where chances of seeing the target species is low.” In addition, he felt “distance sampling may be done as an extra tool to get an additional estimate.”
Barman, who has been participating in rhino census since 1998 in Kaziranga, however, refuted the Swaraj Asom’s allegation of the data being doctored, stating, “These complaints are baseless and don’t have any merit. Increase of rhino [numbers] is obvious in Assam where recruitment ratio is quite high as our base number is high. In a year, 15% increase [in new born calves] would be normal. The current poaching number is not significant as far as population dynamics of rhinos in Assam is concerned. In simple words, you get 100 new rhinos added per year and lose 30 rhinos to poaching. You are still in [an] increasing trend.”
Since it is a serious charge that the number might have been artificially raised to meet the Rhino Vision 2020 target, The Wire tried to contact Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, the project leader of the International Rhino Foundation, multiple times for a response but couldn’t succeed. The foundation’s activities include “anti-poaching, monitoring, translocations and community conservation” but not helping out in conducting rhino census.
Though the state government is yet to respond in detail to the allegation, the current forest minister Pramila Rani Brahma said, “We have asked the enumerators to ensure maximum transparency.”
N.K. Vasu, chief conservator of forests (Wildlife), too called it a transparent exercise. “He (Handique) is most welcome to participate in a rhino census, for which he has to register himself as a volunteer. Rhinos are counted in a census through the head count process being followed for a number of years. There is nothing to hide in the process.”
Former minister Hussain has also not responded to the allegations yet.
Handique added, “As per data provided by Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Mahesh Sharma, in the Parliament this past March 16, the one-horned rhino is among 17 species of animals facing extinction or under urgent need of preservation in the country. Even state forest minister Brahma recently admittedly that some officials might be involved in the poaching of the animal. Since it was an electoral promise of the BJP, we hope that all steps will be taken to protect the animal. We have seen that this government has not been successful in controlling poaching. In such a situation, it should seriously look at all the questions we are raising.”
Meanwhile, a census of rhinos was conducted in Pobitora wildlife sanctuary this past week after a gap of six years. As per local media reports, 102 rhinos were counted. A similar exercise was conducted in Kaziranga on March 25. The data will be added once it is announced.