Grasslands of Grey: The Kaziranga Model Isn't Perfect – But Not in the Ways You Think

While the BBC has faltered in its investigation on multiple fronts, it would be naïve to believe that Kaziranga's management and forest guards are themselves faultless.

Do Kaziranga's increasing militarised conservation measures necessarily imply a greater security for its wildlife? Credit: shashankgupta/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Do Kaziranga’s increasing militarised conservation measures necessarily imply a greater security for its wildlife? Credit: shashankgupta/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

This is the second of a two-part essay composed as a rebuttal to the BBC’s documentary on Kaziranga national park and the harsh conservation practices its officials allegedly abide by. Both essays are available at this link.

The success of Assam’s Kaziranga national park in protecting the Indian one-horned rhinoceros has long been credited to what has been called, by supporters and detractors both, a “shoot at sight” policy. However, the situation is not as straightforward as popular narratives claim. The BBC documentary ‘Killing for Conservation’ alleged excessive use of force and human rights violations in Kaziranga. Although their report was under-researched and demonstrably biased, they have brought out issues that are pertinent to the global discourse on conservation militarisation.

Satyendra Singh, the current field director at Kaziranga, has categorically denied the existence of such a policy and claims that guards only retaliate when they receive fire. Similarly, in a recent interview, B.M. Talukdar, a former range officer at Kaziranga, explained the situation: “Just by seeing someone, you can’t say whether he is a poacher. We only fire when fired upon.” He also suggested that if they were shooting trespassers indiscriminately, thousands would have died because a large number of people entered the forest for collecting firewood and other forest produce.

However, the language used in a 2014 report, authored by then field director of the tiger reserve (which Kaziranga was made in 2007), M.K. Yadava, and submitted to the Guwahati High Court by the park management, has contradictory messages for the staff and uses worrying language. “It matters who shoots first and who has the better firepower,” it says, suggesting Yadava did not believe in firing only in self-defence. He justifies this position by arguing that such a policy is for the staff’s safety. He then provides a blueprint called ‘Mission Poaching Free Kaziranga’, writing in it that poaching “must be controlled at any cost, however high that cost may be.”

Yadava also says that the guards must follow a SMART anti-poaching strategy which comprises the SMART GUARD supposed to follow a SMART COMMUNICATION system/protocol. It has the following acronyms attached to it:

S Sustain Stamina 24*7*365
M Motivated
A Action Oriented
R Ready to Act
T Trained and Tactically Superior
G Get down to the Poachers
U Undeterred by Adverse Conditions
A Always Armed
R Right Thinking at Right Time
D Develop Yourself

C Capable of telling your immediate X,Y [coordinates]
O Operating 24×7
M Master has the first right to talk
M Must obey or get killed
U Uniformly distributed all over
N Never allow any unauthorised entry (Kill the unwanted)
I Include a surprise
C Catch the culprit
A Always available
T Tell who talked where (and what?)
I Indicate what’s going on
O Overpower others
N No to mobiles when inside Kaziranga border

Some points under these strategies are particularly disturbing. For example: “Master has the first right to talk”, “Must obey or get killed”, “Kill the unwanted”, “Overpower others”, etc. These commands, along with others, are distinctly militaristic in nature. Such protocols are usually used in warlike scenarios or as part of counter-insurgency operations, and showcase a more reactive strategy to anti-poaching than a defensive one.

Kaziranga’s guards are also protected under section 197 of the CrPC, which provides them conditional immunity from court proceedings if they are to kill or injure somebody in the line of duty. Supporters of such policies argue that guards need these powers to defend themselves because they are up against poachers armed with sophisticated automatic weapons. However, this argument relies on the premise that guards will only react to defend themselves when fired upon. What happens when guards use these powers to take a more active and preclusive form of action, as argued in the 2014 report?

There have been journalistic investigations that have reported that forest personnel in Kaziranga do not always ask for poachers to surrender before gunning them down. Considering the need to protect a highly endangered species, defending themselves against armed poachers and the difficulty in patrolling a challenging terrain with meagre salaries and inadequate social support systems, one could argue that guards need such powers to keep themselves motivated and work on the frontlines of conservation. The question, however, is: what happens when these powers are misused and result in undesirable social outcomes for people who live around the park and bear the brunt of conservation?

Moreover, while BBC has indeed faltered in its investigation on multiple fronts as elucidated in part-one of this essay, it would be naïve to believe that the park management and forest guards are never in the wrong either.

The case of Gaonburah Kealing

Although the Assam forest department and most conservationists have zealously defended the Kaziranga model, everything doesn’t seem to be as clean as suggested. First: while hundreds of poachers have been shot dead in encounters over the years, not a single forest staffer has been killed in an encounter between 1985 and (June) 2014, according to the department’s 2014 report. In fact, while close to 30 field staff members have died in the line of duty in various accidents between 1968 and (June) 2014, only two guards have been killed by poachers in this period (in 1968 and 1985). In the same period, three were injured in encounters (in 1994, 1996 and 2006).

In parallel, the park shot down 76 poachers over a 17-year period (from January 2000 to December 2016). The management explains these figures by arguing that, since the staff knows the terrain intimately and sometimes has prior intelligence, it has an inherent advantage over poachers as many of them are non-locals and are not familiar with the terrain. Not all those who are killed are identified either. The report notes that “several poachers shot dead inside the Park during encounters have been found to be unidentified Naga/Paite/Kuki/Arunachali tribesmen”.

However, an investigation by Hindustan Times alleges that there have been multiple instances of extrajudicial killings. One case is particularly disturbing. Rahul Kutum, a minor, had been shot in the Bogpur area of Kaziranga in May 2010. Per the report, pictures that were circulated in the media as well as the post-mortem showed unnatural injury marks on his body. According to a local reporter, they “indicated signs of his hands being tied up with a rope-like material.” A complaint lodged by the family led to the arrest of an individual named Hariprasad Doley, who allegedly helped the officials plan the killing. But no action was taken against the officials.

The same report writes of another incident, in which a 20-year-old student named Horen Doley, from a local college and who was known to a range forest officer (RFO) from the park, was shot. His body was marked as unidentified. Horen’s family, who vouch for his innocence, question how the body remained unidentified for a number of days when Horen had been known to the RFO.

These alleged planned killings raise important and uncomfortable questions. The report suggests that these killings may have been the result of personal feuds or even local politics.

Yet another incident (covered by the BBC documentary as well), and which led to a large protest by various tribal groups and students associations, was the killing of Gaonburah Kealing, reportedly a physically and mentally challenged man. He was killed in what activists and locals have alleged was a staged encounter, since his body was reported to have been shot multiple times and also carried cut-like wounds, as if he had been stabbed with a sharp object.

The family of the victim filed a complaint with the Assam State Human Rights Commission (AHRC), but the fact-finding team dismissed the victim as a poacher, a position that has since been repeated by some conservationists as well. However, the victim’s family alleged that the AHRC published the report without ever consulting or involving any members of the family or people known to him.

There have also been allegations of torture, as in the case of Mono Bora and the violent evictions of people, such as the one at Bandardubi village (where two villagers were killed in police firing). Both of these were covered by the BBC. Such incidents have been known to perpetuate an increasing sense of alienation and anger among the local populace against the department as well as the notion of conservation as whole. This can never bode well for the park’s future and its wildlife.

This is precisely – and justifiably – what was pointed out by Pranab Doley, the tribal rights activist featured in the documentary. Moreover, apropos the evictions, even if the villagers were indeed illegal encroachers, as the department and many conservationists have pointed out, and the department was merely following the orders of the Guwahati high court, there are better non-confrontationist ways to solve such impasses and make room for wildlife. There have been a few examples of a compassionate forest department management successfully achieving this elsewhere in India.

Categories of protectors

There are other aspects to this debate as well. For example, the two oft quoted arguments made in support of increased militarisation in Kaziranga are that it is necessary to arrest the increasing rhino poaching incidents and that all poachers are armed with automatic and semi-automatic weapons against the department’s rusty guns. However, it’s the department’s own report that seems to shoot holes in this popular narrative.

An analysis of the data furnished is startling. Between 2000 and 2010, 17 poachers were shot dead while 68 rhinos were killed. Interestingly, over a five year period (January 2000 to December 2004), not a single poacher was killed. In the same period, rhino poaching was also at its lowest, with 23 killed. And in 2004 alone, 38 poachers were arrested – the highest number of arrests in a single year between 2000 and 2012.

Evidently, the focus of the management at the time was on breaking the entire poaching network rather than gunning down a few poachers. The results were evident in the form of Kaziranga enjoying the lowest decadal rhino poaching figures from 2000 to 2010 (in a 52-year span for which data is available).

Then, on July 14, 2010, the Assam government passed an order that accorded legal immunity to all the officers and forest guards of Kaziranga when using firearms. This it did by bringing them under the ambit of section 197(2) of the CrPC, 1973: “Only if it is held by an Executive Magistrate through an enquiry that use of firearms have been unnecessary, unwarranted and excessive and such report has been examined and accepted by the Government, then alone any proceeding including institution of a criminal case of any nature or affecting an arrest can be initiated by police” (sic).

Notably, Kaziranga has three categories of protectors. The bulk is composed of the forest department’s frontline staff – the forest guards, though there is also a sizeable number of personnel belonging to a specialised armed force supervised and controlled by the park management. The latter is the Assam Forest Protection Force (AFPF), raised through a state legislation in 1986, while 129 Home Guards superintended by the Assam Police augment the protection (until June 2014). The AFPF had, according to the department, been raised to overcome limitations imposed on the forest staff’s use of firearms. Consequently, AFPF personnel have always been protected by section 197; the 2010 order only extended this immunity to all the staff of the department, including AFPF.

However, with the 2010 order, something changed in Kaziranga. There was a spurt in the number of poachers being shot. While 17 poachers were killed in the 11 years from January 2000 to December 2010, 59 poachers were shot dead in the next six years, from January 2011 to December 2016, and 274 were arrested. At the same time, a stunning 103 rhinos were killed in the same period. The annual average of rhinos being killed had nearly trebled from 6.1 (January 2000 to December 2010) to 17.1 animals. Clearly, killing more poachers wasn’t making Kaziranga’s rhinos safer.

So, do increasingly militarised conservation measures necessarily imply a greater security for wildlife?

Guns owned and recovered

Now, to address the necessity of immunity, keeping in mind the argument that poachers carry advanced weapons, especially AK 47s and 56s. The department’s report seems to burst this bubble as well. According to the data, between January 2006 and December 2015, just two automatic weapons – a Sten gun and a 0.85mm pistol – were recovered from poachers killed by the park. Apart from these, the department reported recovering the following:

It seems not a single rifle of the AK series had been recovered in this decade.

This isn’t to suggest that AK series guns have never been used by poachers. The same report noted a forest department patrol team having come under AK47 fire on a few occasions. On March 12, 2015 a joint patrol of Assam police’s specialised anti-insurgency unit, called the Assam Police Rangers Group (APRG), AFPF personnel and forest guards were fired upon by a group of poachers. In this encounter, a jawan of the APRG was killed, as was an unidentified poacher. Apart from a 0.303 rifle with silencers and cartridges, two empty shells of AK47 were recovered.

But it is clear from the department’s data that, contrary to popular narratives, the use of automatic weapons by poachers is rare and that not all poachers are armed with AK-series rifles. Moreover, in light of this analysis, a statement made by the author of the department report – as part of a larger discourse on calling for more militarised approaches to conservation – prophesying that the “time is not far when poachers would start using snipers and grenades” (sic) seems rather far-fetched.

Equally misguided is the narrative that the Kaziranga forest department only possesses antiquated arms. Until June 2014, the park’s guards had a total of 1,439 weapons, categorised as follows:

On February 3, 2017, the Assam forest minister said that a proposal had been sent to the Center to allow the state to raise a new battalion of 112 forest personnel, called the ‘Rhino Protection Force’, all to be equipped with AK-series rifles.

Finally, there is also the question of corrupt elements within the system who may be involved in rhino poaching in Kaziranga. In June 2016, a divisional forest officer was arrested in a raid by the Assam police’s anti-corruption cell. Rs 2.07 crore in cash, gold and jewellery was recovered from his properties – as well as a tiger, some deer skin and ivory. This person had once served in Kaziranga as a range officer. And during his time in various ranges of Kaziranga between 1989 and 1993, an astounding 160 rhinos had been killed (184 according to some other reports).

Even the 2014 departmental report expresses the possibility of various government -backed armed forces being involved in rhino-poaching: “It needs to be mentioned that, in some cases, local hunters who are expert shooters such as Karbi/NDFB Militants (also possibly some local persons working in various armed forces) may be taking the risk of becoming shooters as the earnings are handsome and attractive.” These words suggest that there may be hidden dimensions to rhino poaching in Kaziranga that are shielded by the popular, eye-catching methods of aggressive anti-poaching operations.

Conservation as an inclusive process

Clearly, all is not well with the Kaziranga model. It needs to be revised while outstanding issues with the local communities need engagement through widespread consultation. It is also time that conservation organisations and conservationists stop referring to allegations of excesses by the department as “unfortunate but acceptable”, “collateral damage” or dismissing all such cases as accidents. Doing so legitimises the use of illegal force on marginalised people, who bear the largest costs of conservation. Such discourse shows an attitude of indifference towards local people, adding fuel to the fire and gives more ammunition to anti-conservation groups.

Moreover, the government’s knee-jerk reaction to threaten to blacklist a journalist and revoke the BBC’s filming permissions across India is immature. It sends out the wrong message to critics – that maybe the park does have something to hide. Such moves will only bolster the case for the BBC’s allegations. Such a position also shields genuine cases of violations and gives the impression that all is well with Kaziranga’s policies. Instead, the government must come out more objectively to describe why hardline protocols are necessary and how they make sure that powers are not abused. The forest department would also benefit by showcasing their engagement with local communities and encouraging participation in conservation activities.

While armed protection of Kaziranga is necessary since threats to rhinos are very real, and will only increase with the rising prices of the rhino horn in the black market, a relook at the perils of the Kaziranga model are necessary because the long-term future of the region’s wildlife can only be ensured by active support of the local communities. And while a basic level of policing will always play a role in conservation, the current narrative in Kaziranga and elsewhere supporting the increased militarisation of protected areas as a panacea to the problems that ail conservation is also unethical.

So, we need a balance between policing and community participation. This is a balance that will have to be negotiated on both a case-by-case as well as a region-by-region basis. The local communities should lead the discourse in deciding the nature and scope of this ‘balance’ in consultation with a wide body of experts from various fields – conservation, wildlife science, people’s rights, forest and civil bureaucracy, etc. And they will need to factor in the local history, socio-political attitudes, culture and traditions of the region. The day we achieve this democratisation of conservation, with broad-based consensus among all stakeholders, will be a red-letter day in the remarkable history of conservation in India.

Trishant Simlai is a conservation scientist from Pune. He is interested in the links between armed conflict, militarisation and conservation in India. Raza Kazmi, a Jharkhand-based conservationist, is interested in conservation militarisation, intersection of forest rights and conservation needs, and conservation in India’s conflict-ridden ‘Red Corridor’ landscape.