It was a news item hidden under the very many pages of politics in India. In all the excitement of who will become the PM and who might not, the general lay public missed upon a circular spread by the Assam government, wherein it carried a rather stark proposal. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) & Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam has constituted a committee to ascertain the feasibility and the necessity for trimming of horns on translocated and stray rhinos in Assam.
The committee has invited the opinions of all citizens of Assam in writing on the pros and cons of trimming of horn as an experimental measure to help save population growth of translocated rhinos in Assam and for rhinos that often stray out of the rhino-bearing areas such as Kaziranga National Park, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, and Manas National Park, etc.
The idea is simple; the primary reason for poaching of the one-horned rhino is the conical-horn that grows over the snout. Ironically, the horn that is similar in structure to horses hooves, cockatoo bills and turtle beaks and are made up of calcium, melanin and keratin, is used in Chinese medicines as an alleged cure for cancer, an aphrodisiac, and also as a cure for rheumatism, gout, fever, and other illnesses. Thus for these cures, the world’s second largest mammal is brutally gunned down and its horn extracted. The problem has taken such alarming proportions that, only some 2800 odd rhinos remain in India, and the numbers are fast dwindling.
Assam, the gateway to the North East, is home to a bulk of the rhino population, with Kaziranga, Pobitora, Orang and Manas Park having the magnificent mammal. It is also has the grim statistic of maximum annihilation of the beast, with as many has 90 rhinos succumbing to these poachers. Under the pressure from the courts, the Assam government has come out with a proposal to dehorn the rhino, namely cut the horn from near the base.
It is not the first time that dehorning would be attempted, in fact back in the 90s; Namibia was the first nation to do so. Followed by Zimbabwe, South Africa and even Kenya. While initially there were reports of success, but in a few years’ time, the numbers told a different story. In the African nations, the dehorned rhinos were as mercilessly killed as the ones that were not. And the reason was not hard to guess. With dehorning the horns usually grow back at about 3-4 inches every year, which means you are looking at total regrowth every 3-4 years, so you have to dehorn again and again. Thus, one needs to constantly keep dehorning the mammal. And this involves the second big issue, namely, the safety of the rhino. According to estimates, there is about a 5% chance when you sedate a rhino that the animal dies due to the sedative. You cannot know if the rhino has underlying medical condition that could cause it to succumb. There are also risks in that if the dehorning is not done professionally the rhino can get infected. In many cases those doing dehorning are vets so the risks are very low. Also, the procedure by no means is a cheap one; it takes oodles of money and expertise to dehorn a rhino. According to some figures it could be as high as Rs. 90000 per single instance.
Over the years, it has been noted that dehorning by itself is never a solution. It needs to be coupled with stringent and pervasive security, only then will the poachers be de-incentivised against killing the rhino. Considering, that our security apparatus in the parks is in tatters and just unable to face up to the might of the well-armed poachers, the success of dehorning is highly debatable. Take the case of Zimbabwe, where an entire flock of dehorned rhinos were exterminated by the poachers, once the security cover is removed. Thus the success of dehorning in India is highly questionable.
Strangely, the dehorning debate has been caught in a completely different matter; with the banned militant outfit United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent), led by Paresh Baruah thumbing its support for dehorning. Meanwhile, a lot many of them are speaking against the move.
In the end, the question that arises is if a state cannot protect its own emblem, the keystone species, how can it safeguard anyone else. The problem of poaching is that not many poachers have been punished, with little, if any, concern that is shown to the rhino. In fact, the rhino has not really got its due, simply because everyone else in the nation seems to be obsessed about tiger, which has time for the fat, armored, indolent beast.
By going on the protectionist route, the government is sending a very wrong message, namely, that we are unable to curb the menace. And then it is not going to solve any problem, since with the lax security poaching will carry on unabated. Like every other grand scheme, there will be a lot of wastage of precious funds on the project, and then it will be another of those failed lofty projects that promised much but delivered little.
Come to think of it, the one-horned rhino has been around on this land for a long long time. One of the seals found in the Indus Valley civilisation sites, have am image of the magnificent animal, proving that at one time, the rhino must have been a common sight from modern-day Pakistan to Assam. Sadly, the rhino that is supposed to be one of the strongest in the animal kingdom is now on the verge of extinction. And if we don’t do something substantial and something fast, and not stupid like dehorning the rhino.
Thus, the rhino has a better chance of survival in India, if we instead of wasting our resources, time on dehorning and spent the same in refurbishing and modernizing the security aspects at the wild life parks. The question that we need to answer is that while we are talking of dehorning the rhino to save it now, will we talki about deskinning to save the tiger? In that sense, the very proposal is a defeatist one. And that does not bode well for the one-horned rhinos. No Sir, it certainly does not.
P.S. If the One-horned rhino is dehorned what will it be called? Formerly one-horned-now-dehorned-rhino?
Rhinos killed from 2008-2013 in Assam
Kaziranga National Park
- 2008 – 6
- 2009 – 6
- 2010 – 5
- 2011 – 3
- 2012 – 11
- 2013 – 26
Manas National Park
Orang National Park
- 2008 – 6
- 2009 – 6
- 2010 – 2
- 2011 – 1
- 2012 – 2
- 2013 – 3
Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary
- 2008 – 0
- 2009 – 0
- 2010 – 0
- 2011 – 3
- 2012 – 1
- 2013 – 1
(Inputs by Abhijit Deb)