Guwahati: The death of 39 rhinos in and around the world-famous Kaziranga National Park in less than 10 months has brought to the fore the threat faced by the endangered animal.
The threat comes from poachers, who kill the rare one-horned rhinoceros for its prized horn whose price in the international market varies from Rs 40 lakh to Rs 90 lakh, and flood which is an annual occurrence in Assam.
Early last month, the poachers killed five rhinos in four days taking advantage of the flood waters that submerged 90 per cent of the UNESCO world heritage site.
The poachers removed the animals' horns and left them to bleed to death while the forest guards did not have an inkling of what was going on.
Coupled with the rampant poaching, blamed mostly on illegal Bangladeshi migrants while not ruling out involvement of militants of the Karbi Peoples' Liberation Tigers, is the lack of adequate staff in the heritage sanctuary and equipment with the forest department.
The Kaziranga National Park boasts of a 2,290-strong rhino population as per the last census conducted this year.
Assam Forest Minister Rakibul Hussain said poachers have killed 11 rhinos, including six inside the park, and five in the neighbouring Karbi Anglong district where the animals shifted to escape the flooded forest.
He also said that another 28 rhinos drowned in the floods during the year.
Official sources said that there were intelligence reports about the involvement of militants of the Karbi Peoples' Liberation Tigers in the poaching of rhinos and removal of their horns.
The sources said that in the 1988 flood 1,203 rhinos were killed while 10 years later 652 of them died in another wave of devastating flood.
Assam's forest department has come under flak from different quarters for its alleged failure to protect the animal, particularly during the time of floods.
''We feel the management of the forest department has failed to protect the rhinos during flood and there is lack of coordination between the department and the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council where many animals shift to escape being drowned,'' prominent conservation group 'Aaranyak' said.
Firoz Ahmed, an official of the NGO, alleged there had been a failure in intelligence gathering and a complete lack of prior planning to face the annual natural calamity on the part of the forest department.
Absence of rapport and coordination with the fringe communities have also weakened the Forest Department's monitoring mechanism over the peripheral areas of the Park, Soumyadeep Dutta of Nature's Beckon, pointed out.
Asom Gana Parishad president Prafulla Kumar Mahanta pointed out that the ruling Congress had settled illegal migrants inside the buffer zone of the Park to increase the party's vote bank.
A section of these people are directly involved in poaching or have links with the poachers, he alleged.
The forest minister, however, refuted the allegation, stating it was during the rule of the AGP government, led by then chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, in 1996 an order was issued to settle 96 landless families in the buffer zone.
Hussain said the state government had already taken adequate steps to deal with the spurt in poaching which include recommending a CBI inquiry into poaching cases during the last three years and deployment of Army and central para military forces in areas adjoining the national park to foil the attempts of poachers.
''A hundred-member team of the elite Assam Forest Protection Force for the protection of the animal has been already sent to the Park while another 50 personnel of the elite force would be sent to the park within this week'', Hussain said.
Environmental conservation organisations have also demanded that perpetrators of the crime be pursued and brought to justice and authorities responsible for protection of natural heritage be held accountable.
Ahmed pointed out that there was an urgent need to build adequate number of 'scientific' highlands for shelter of flood-hit animals in the Park and strengthen the intelligence network system to ensure steady flow of information regarding poachers.
Besides, the local people residing in fringe areas of the Park must be taken into consideration through a participatory approach in intelligence gathering in order to nab the poachers.
All vacancies of frontline staff in the Park must be filled through direct recruitment from local people and they should be equipped with advanced equipment and arms, besides setting up of more anti-poaching camps in Karbi Anglong districts, he said.
The area of concern where rhinos are being poached in Karbi Anglong should also be immediately annexed to the Park under its jurisdiction and a dedicated veterinary centre should be set up inside the Park.
Dutta pointed out that the forest and police departments must properly follow all cases pending at courts against poachers, so that bail is not granted to poachers and high rate of conviction must be ensured.
He also demanded exemplary action against those forest officials responsible for lapses leading to poaching.