Friday, May 09, 2014

Dehorning Rhinos to End Poaching : Theory of the Absurd!

The first time that I heard the government of Assam was planning to dehorn Rhinos to as a means of conservation, I thought it was a joke. And so I laughed. It reminded me of a folk tale where a man ate rice off the floor to prevent stealing of his plates.

Courtesy: Deviant Art
Today, after many weeks , I am still laughing. Because, it seems, the government is indeed serious about severing the rhinos' horns (so what if its not life-threatening?) to keep the poachers at bay. In other words, it is serious about following that man that ate the rice off the floor! 

But, the question is, why would anyone cook up such a plan?

Two words come to my mind: 1) desperation and 2) laziness. Assam - the only natural habitat of the one-horn rhinos has always been a target of wildlife smugglers and poachers.The largest number of the rhinos (2500) are found in Kaziranga national park. And, 41 rhinos have been killed in 2013 by poachers in this Kaziranga park alone. 

The government has so miserably failed to check this that you never hear of a single poacher being caught or a plan foiled. In fact, early this year, when the outgoing prime minister of India Manmohan Singh (who also represented Assam in the parliament) held his final press conference in New Delhi, an Assam reporter asked him what he thought of the rhino poaching and why he hadn't been able to stop it. The prime minister almost fumbled and said, "“Rhino is a national asset. Every effort should be made and will be made to protect this precious animal,”  

Yes, that was his reply, without any claim of any effective steps taken to save the rhinos rhinos.

Now, elections are being held across the country and its widely presumed that there will be a change of power in New Delhi. The Bhartiya Janta Party is going to form the next government, if projections are to be believed. It doesn't take a lot of effort to guess that the BJP-led government will not be as blind or kind to the Congress-led government in Assam as the previous one was, including on the issue of the uninterrupted rhino-poaching.

So, the state has a reason to be desperate. It's this desperation that might have led to the formation of an Experts committee to look into the feasibility of dehorning rhinos.

Thankfully, there are more voices of sanity outside of the government system than inside of it. These voices have been very loud, opposing the move to dehorn rhinos. A leading voice is that of my colleague and friend Mubina Akhtar (I am so proud of her!) - an environmental journalist and Coordinator of the Assam Environmental NGO Forum. Mubina, the NGO forum and several other environmentalists, wildlife activists, students groups, and the media have been lodging their protests against the proposed de-horning, equaling it to 'deforming' of the animal.

The government of Assam, last counted a decade ago, had over 61 thousand policemen. The number must have grown considerably now. It has successfully fought off one of the country's strongest ever anti-state terror movements - the ULFA and is fighting multiple other insurgent/ secessionist groups. It has the riches. It just doesn't make any sense that such a state can't fight off a few, armed rhino killers. 

Suppose it can't. Suppose it lacks the strength to save rhinos on its own. So what? What stops the state from asking the center to help it out? Doesn't it seek federal help when there is a disaster or a security crisis (involving humans)? Why can't it launch a joint operation to flush out the poachers?

But of course these are logical questions. And we don't hear answers.
A one-horn rhino in Kaziranga national park, Assam

In fact, even after two months of relentless protests, there still isn't any transparency on what this 'experts committee' is all about and what it is doing. The government sought public opinion for a short while on the issue, but we haven't heard a single senior official or a minister addressing the public concerns. Also, in this age of e-governance, you can't find a single document or word on this "experts committee" in the Assam government's website (the only source are the media reports).  How very typical of a government!

Should this absurd silence discourage us from protesting the government move? My answer is a loud 'NO'! The man who ate off the floor has been a village fool for centuries. Lets not allow our government to act like him. 

Lets eat out of our plates. And the rhino may keep its horn - something it was born with!

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