India tightens security to fight rhino poachers
By Biswajyoti Das
KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK, India (Reuters) - Authorities in India's remote northeast said they were increasing security in the world's biggest reserve for the endangered great one-horned rhinoceros to save them from poachers.
Poachers have killed at least 10 rhinos in two national parks in Assam state since January, eight of them at the Kaziranga National Park.
"We are increasing the number of guards in Kaziranga because of a recent increase in poaching, and a probe has also been ordered," Rockybul Hussain, Assam's forest minister told Reuters on Wednesday.
Last year, two dozen animals lost their horns to poachers in Assam, for their medicinal value in the international black market.
Horns fetch up to $10,000 (400,000 rupees) and demand is soaring in China and Southeast Asian countries, wildlife experts say.
After failing to check poachers for years, officials at Kaziranga have asked the national police's Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate.
But conservationists now say the new steps will be meaningless unless the government improves the working conditions of the existing guards.
"The guards do not have proper training, face harassment from senior forest officials and are blamed when things go wrong," said Soumyadeep Datta, director of Nature's Beckon, a conservation group working for protection of rhinos in the region.
The thick-skinned, one-horned Indian rhinoceros is one of the five surviving rhino species in the world.
The global conservation group WWF estimates there are less than 3,000 animals left in the world. They are found mostly in northeastern India, with a few hundred in neighboring Nepal.
Inside Kaziranga, 1,800 of them live in swamps, forests and tall thickets of elephant grass, where poachers hide before trapping them with poison or just shooting them dead.
Morale among forest guards, often engaged in a lonely battle against poachers, is low.
"There is no coordination between the foresters and police," Hare Krishna Deka, a former police chief in Assam said.
Forest guards are poorly paid and often forced to patrol barefoot without raincoats.
They have old rifles and asked to counter poachers who have modern automatic weapons, some officials and conservationists said.
As a result, it has become easier for poachers to sneak into the park without worrying much about the guards.
(Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Sanjeev Miglani)