Home to some 2,600 of Assam's most prized and endangered inhabitants, Assam's Kaziranga National Park has long been a target of poachers seeking to profit from the illegal trade of rhinoceros horns. But in the last two years, the park has seen a dramatic decrease in poaching thanks to a combination of crack commandos, high-tech devices, and canine units.
A special task force, comprising members of the Assam police and the forest department, deserves much of the credit. These commandos, trained in the same vein as the National Security Guard or NSG and experts in counter insurgency operations in the state, are responsible for securing the park's fringe areas and carrying out strikes at known poacher launch pads. They even travel to other states to capture fleeing poachers.
"We cracked the entire poachers' network last year alone," said Dhrubajyoti Nath, a senior officer in the Kaziranga Special Task Force. "Last year alone, we arrested 58 rhino horn poachers, and four were neutralised... not just us, but together as a task force. In the task force, we conduct joint operations and investigations."
The results speak for themselves: in 2021, only two rhinos were poached and in 2022, none. This marks the first time since 1977 that no rhinos have been poached in the park. This contrasts with the killings of some 190 rhinos between 2000 and 2021 by poachers armed with sophisticated weapons sourced from smaller terrorist groups.
But the fight against poachers is ongoing, as the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn remains a profitable enterprise in East Asia, where the horns are sought after for use in traditional medicine and jewellery. "At that time, our coordination with the police to nab poachers was bad," said Jukti Bora, a forester working in Kaziranga's Burapahar range. "We did not have sophisticated weapons or enough manpower. Now, with modern arms, we have a special Rhino protection force and technology, and the deadly commandos."
The game-changer in the fight against poachers has been the use of technology. Electronic eyes, thermal sensors, camera traps, and night vision cameras are placed strategically throughout the park, and speed meters and high-resolution cameras monitor the national highway at the park's periphery. Drone surveillance and satellite phones for forest guards also play a role, with all data feeding into the command centre of the task force. Quick response teams are on standby to respond to every technical tip-off. The canine unit which has the famous Belgian Malinois dogs has also been a major help.
The World Life Trust of India (WTI) has also been working in Kaziranga for decades to raise awareness about the issue of poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. "We at WTI also tried to make locals aware of the issue yet the huge money involved in illegal wildlife market and rhino poaching, so some of the local populations also got involved since they found this lucrative," said Dr Samsul Ali, project head of WTI at Kaziranga.
Today, Kaziranga is home to the world's largest population of rhinoceros. Thanks to the efforts of the task force, these rhinos are now able to live in a safer environment and roam the park's elephant-grass meadows, swampy lagoons, and dense forests more safely than ever before.