Guwahati, April 11 (IANS) Even as the CBI is set to probe the poaching of one-horned rhinos in Assam, forest officials and conservationists here feel that tightening the investigative process and denying bail to poachers will deter them from repeating the crime.
A senior forest department official said that while the CBI inquiry will be able to find out the reason for the sudden spate in killings - 16 this year alone - and whether militant outfits are behind the illegal trade of rhino horns, the government must make serious efforts like upgrading the department's infrastructure and tightening the investigation process so that the arrested poachers cannot get bail and again commit the crime.
"The recent arrest of some poachers has failed to deter criminals from killing more rhinos. The arrested poachers often manage to escape imprisonment and again commit the crime," the official said, requesting that he be not identified.
The Wildlife (Protection) (Assam Amendment) Act, 2009, has made poaching of Schedule I and Part II of Schedule II species a non-bailable offence. However, poachers often get bail even after committing the crime, the official pointed out.
"The reason is it is difficult to prove their involvement as most of them are arrested much after the crime and none of them is arrested from the crime scene," the official added.
Assam Environment and Forests Minister Rockybul Hussain recently said that the government had received a letter from the Department of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions accepting the state government's request for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the poaching of one-horned rhinos.
Hussain had also informed the state assembly that a staggering 126 rhinos have been killed by poachers during the last 10 years.
The state had recorded a sudden spate in rhino killings since last year, particularly after the price of rhino horns soared in the international market.
Thirty-six suspected poachers have been arrested this year and 141 in 2012. However, the conviction rate is almost zero in most of the cases, the forest department official said.
"It is a big challenge for us. Despite our continued efforts in arresting poachers, they manage to get bail. There are instances of those on bail committing the crime again," the official said, adding that the department is now training its personnel up to the level of foresters to properly probe poaching and other wildlife-related crimes so that the arrested persons cannot get bail.
He also pointed out the need for improved coordination between various agencies - the forest department, police and even inter-state agencies.
"The poaching of rhinos and the illegal trade of wildlife parts, including rhino horns, involves multi-layered networks and groups. Intelligence sharing needs to be institutionalised and should spread to neighbouring states and countries to tackle the crime," the official said.
Somyadeep Dutta, conservationist and secretary of Assam-based wildlife NGO Nature's Beckon, welcomed the Assam government's move to hand over cases of rhino poaching to the CBI, saying it would help check the illegal trade of horns and would help identify the domestic and international elements involved in the crime.
"A CBI investigation will also unearth the involvement of militant outfits in the trade of rhino horns and other animal parts. However, the government must upgrade the infrastructure to prevent the killing of rhinos," Dutta added.
The Assam government had earlier this year instituted a CID inquiry into the poaching of one-horned rhinos.
After the spate in poaching since last year, the Assam government had also created an elite battalion - the Assam Forest Protection Force (AFPF) - and armed it with automatic weapons to deal with the menace of poaching.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority, in association with the Assam forest department, the Wildlife Institute of India and WWF International (Switzerland), had also conducted four-day trails of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the Kaziranga National Park (KNP). The Assam government is now awaiting the defence ministry's approval to introduce the UAVs as a regular feature.