India’s Rhino Poaching Gangs: A Closer Look

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Assam’s rhinos remain under threat by poaching gangs who recruit impoverished locals and prey on precious pachyderms.


Poaching gangs targeting the greater one-horned rhinos of Kaziranga and Orang National Parks are the scourge of Assam’s conservation efforts – but who are these murderers and where do they come from?

Different players, same tragic results

Illegal rhino killings have increased sharply over the past few years, with a devastating effect on both Asian and African rhino species. Experts agree by now that the rhino poaching surge is a direct result of increased wealth and insatiable demand from Asia’s growing population; the major end-use markets for rhino horn today are China and Vietnam.

In African countries, the killing is carried out by sophisticated, well-funded poaching syndicates – often with connections to “legitimate” trophy hunting operations, where horns and money are laundered. These cartels can afford to use aircraft and the latest weaponry to slaughter rhinos – knowing that the Asian appetite and Chinese prosperity will pay the bills.

Recently, it was estimated that one rhino is killed every 41 hours in South Africa.

Although the same economic forces are at work in India (illegal killing of rhinos to profit from Asian demand for rhino horn), the tactics and players differ from rhino poaching in African countries.

Tragically, the results are the same: Rhinos needlessly massacred because of superstitions about so-called “medicinal powers” of rhino horn.

Who is killing the rhinos of Assam?

A recent report, Rhino Poaching in Assam: Challenges and Opportunities, revealed interesting details about the organization and methods used by poaching gangs targeting Kaziranga and Orang National Parks in Assam.

According to interviews of poachers conducted by one of the authors, world-renowned rhino trade expert Dr. Esmond Martin, the gangs are small groups of just three to five people who travel from Nagaland to Assam in order to kill greater one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga and Orang National Parks.

Rhino poaching gangs: Kaziranga National Park

In Kaziranga, the shooters themselves are usually from Dimapur, Nagaland (a hub for illegal wildlife trading), and sometimes from the Karbi Anglong area, south of the park. One or two of the men are impoverished locals – recruited with financial incentive to guide the killers to their helpless target.

Poaching gangs usually consist of three to five people. According to several sources, generally one helper is local and familiar with the area; another, also usually local, carries the provisions; and one or two others are from Nagaland, but occasionally from the Karbi Anglong area directly south of the Park, who are in charge of the gang and who do the shooting.

The Nagas bring rifles, commonly .303s from Dimapur, a trading town on the Assam-Nagaland State border. They give an advance payment of 2000–30,000 Indian Rupees (INR) (USD 42–625) to the field helpers and sometimes promise to pay more money after the rhino is killed, although this does not usually materialize. The poachers shoot one rhino per park visit and usually only remove the horn.

It then takes two or three days for the killers to travel back to Dimapur, where the rhino’s horn is sold to a trader.

The Nagas then return to Dimapur with their guns and the horn, preferring to walk all the way to avoid detection. A trader in Dimapur, who may or may not have organized the gang, pays INR 200,000–500,000 (USD 4167–10,417) per kg for the horn.

One of the poaching gang members interviewed by Dr. Martin was an 18-year-old from the Karbi tribe named Rajan. He was a field helper on four rhino killing expeditions into Kaziranga National Park.

They also employed three poachers from the Karbi Anglong region to shoot the rhinos with .303s brought from Dimapur. The gang entered the Park in January, May and July 2007 and shot a rhino on each visit.

On the last trip into the park, forest guards managed to kill one of the shooters and arrest two other gang members. Rajan escaped; fortunately, he later surrendered to the Forest Department at the insistence of his parents.

Dr. Martin also interviewed another poacher from the Karbi tribe, a 28-year-old named Balak. He guided a gang of three Nagas into Kaziranga National Park on five occasions. The gang killed one rhino on the final trip; Balak eventually surrendered.

The gang had to enter the Park five times before managing to kill a rhino due to the heavy presence of Park staff. On the fifth time, they entered the Park at 0300h and shot a rhino with four bullets from a .303 rifle at 1400h. The Nagas took the horn and went on foot back to Dimapur. Balak then returned to Balijuri but did not receive more money. Later, the ecodevelopment committee in his home village found out about the poaching and pressurized Balak to surrender.

Rhino poaching gangs: Orang National Park

Rhino poaching gangs operating in Orang National Park do so in a similar fashion to those in Kaziranga, with members consisting of Karbis and Nagas. However, the “guides” are usually Bangladeshi immigrants who have settled in the surrounding area.

Those with the guns are Karbis from Assam or poachers from Nagaland and Manipur States east of Assam. The field helpers are thought to be mostly immigrants originating from East Bengal/Bangladesh, who are the main inhabitants of the fringe villages surrounding the Park.

After the rhino is slaughtered, the horn is taken to middlemen in Dimapur.

Speculation surrounds smuggling routes

Unfortunately, authorities do not yet know precisely how the rhino horn gets from Dimapur to its final destination of east Asia.

There is speculation that smuggling routes are via West Bengal, Bhutan and Nepal to China. Or perhaps from Dimapur via Myanmar into Thailand, a well-known hub for illegal wildlife cargo destined for China. Other routes may be through Siliguri to Nepal or Bangladesh, and to Myanmar via Imphal. Shillong to Bangladesh and Silchar to Imphal or Aizawl to Myanmar via Bangladesh are also considered occasional routes.

The authors note that cooperation from Nagaland authorities is sought in the matter of illegal rhino horn trading and smuggling; this appears to be an ongoing bottleneck for gathering intelligence about the shooters and Dimapur traders.

The greater one-horned rhino: Still a conservation success story

Despite the ever-present danger to Assam’s greater one-horned rhinos, the latest study (November 2009) shows that the population has increased overall.

And considering this species has recovered from fewer than 200 individuals to a population of around 2,800 today, the greater one-horned rhino remains a conservation success story.

Sources:

  • Rhino Poaching in Assam: Challenges and Opportunities; Esmond Martin, Bibhab Kumar Talukdar and Lucy Vigne. Download from Pachyderm
  • African and Asian Rhinoceroses – Status, Conservation and Trade; IUCN/SSC, African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC. Download from CITES.

Image: istock.com

Rhishja Cota-Larson

I am the founder of Annamiticus, an educational nonprofit organization which provides news and information about wildlife crime and endangered species. I am the Editor of Rhino Horn is Not Medicine and Project Pangolin, author of the book Murder, Myths & Medicine, a writer for the environmental news blog Planetsave, the host of Behind the Schemes, and Producer for the upcoming documentary The Price. When I'm not blogging about the illegal wildlife trade, I enjoy gardening, reading, designing, and rocking out to live music.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. It makes no difference where in the world this happens – all you have see is the word “IMPOVERISHED” and this is the key word. Unless World leaders can deal with poverty, then nothing, nothing you do will help as the people who are behind the poaching prey on the poor and the hungry – get rid of poverty, give better education and healthcare and the “impoverished” of the world will not do the bidding of the people who actually get rich from stripping the world of its animals and resources.

    Recently India donated $25 million to their neighbours a very noble gesture, but what are they doing about the millions of unemployed and impoverished in their own country. I am a South African, and here we are 16 years after democracy and the gap between the rich and the poor has not diminished – it has grown larger.

    To what lengths will you go to put food on the table for your children ?

  2. Elizabeth Olney

    I am shocked to learn that the torture & slaughter of Rhinos goes on in India.
    I agree with what Renee has to say for I live in the US, a country also guilty of such hypocrisy. America toots it’s horn about what it does for others and fails it’s own people.
    Simply because the government claims to represent the people whereas it’s supposed to be the other way around. We are beginning to take better care of one-another and stand up to government yet, we have a long way to go.
    Meanwhile, I cannot help but wonder if many officers in government & power hungry individuals have ever heard of the circle of life. To harm another creature is to harm ourselves.