I visited Kaziranga in the summer of 2011, en route to fieldwork in Arunachal Pradesh. As a wide-eyed teenager, looking to embark upon a career in wildlife, the thought of visiting Kaziranga made me feel like a kid in a candy store, even though I was to be there for only a few hours. A landscape of flat alluvial plains that rise towards the Karbi hills, the ~400 sq km limits of Kaziranga hosts enigmatic large mammals and many species of reptiles, amphibians and birds. Testament to this incredible diversity, Kaziranga boasts the tags of National Park, Tiger Reserve, World Heritage Site and Important Bird Area. It is almost unfair that Kaziranga’s identity is reduced to ‘land of the Rhino’.

Lush grasslands, with the Karbi Anglong hills in the backdrop
Kaziranga is home to 2/3 of the world’s population of Greater One-horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicorns)
The Eastern Swamp Deer (Rucervus duvaucelii), a subspecies of the Barasingha is endemic to Assam and its most significant population occurs in Kaziranga
Kaziranga is also the world’s most significant habitat for the Asiatic Water Buffalo. Assam alone harbours 90% of their total population.

The actual visit to the park was rather uneventful. Rains in the early part of the day meant the sightings of wild animals were restricted to Rhinos and Asiatic Water Buffalos from a watchtower. We did manage to see a few Rhinos close to the Safari Jeep on our return, one of which mock charged at the vehicle, marking the most exciting (?) part of the day trip. The views of the place were lovely though. The driver mentioned a King Cobra had been found only two days back, and I could only wish I had more time here.

Fast forward a decade, I visited Kaziranga as a trainee in the Indian Forest Service in December 2021. Much water had flown in the Brahmaputra by then. Between these two visits, I had finished a masters degree in Wildlife Ecology, worked as a project fellow, joined (and left) a PhD program, before taking up the current role in forest administration — no longer the wide-eyed enthu-cutlet, with a very dispassionate view on my ‘passion’ towards wildlife. Kaziranga was as lovely as ever. We were getting a full day this time, not just visiting the landscape, but also understanding the finer nuances of park management, which as I found out went much beyond the pretty picture.

Rhino horns fetch very high prices in China and Southeast Asia, where they are sold as a miracle potion for anything ranging from erectile dysfunction to cancer. They go for as much as 60$ for a gram, making them significantly more expensive than gold. Indian Rhinos have smaller horns than African Rhinos but are marketed as being more potent. Rhinos are poached in Kaziranga and their horns are carried through the adjacent Karbi Anglong all through Nagaland till Moreh in Manipur. From here they are sent to Tamu in Myanmar, eventually entering the infamous Golden Triangle. There are many other ‘minor’ smuggling routes through Nagaland and Silchar as well.

From 12 individuals in 1908, Rhino numbers have grown close to 2500 in the Kaziranga National Park today. Just like any public cause, political commitment backed by provisions of required resources and manpower has been key to this success story. The actions sanctioned towards this cause though, have been the subject of much scrutiny across different sections of society. The administrative measures have raised social, political and ecological dilemmas in equal measure.

Conservation, in practice, must bring in facets of science, society, politics and economics” — was a line I often used in my graduate school application essays. Only in this visit did I come to fully appreciate the layers to this sentence.

A land not just of the Rhinos

Rhinos in Kaziranga, or Assam for that matter, are a social and political symbol. Parties have used the gain and loss (to poaching) in Rhino numbers as an election agenda. The park management has been accused of inflating rhino populations in the years where a high number of poaching incidents happened, probably to give a semblance of stable rhino numbers in the park. This trend gives a perception that all is not well within the Kaziranga boundaries.

Many conservationists have attributed Kaziranga’s success to an alleged ‘shoot on sight’ approach towards suspected poachers. The forest guards (and all forest officers in Assam) have the protection of Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, through a notification issued in 2010 by the State. No criminal prosecution can be initiated against any public servant for acts done in “discharge of his official duty” without prior sanction of the State government. Describing this as ‘shoot on sight’ is definitely an overreach since the notification does not provide for complete immunity but only “initial” immunity from prosecution.

The case of the Rhino and Kaziranga is different from the other megafauna, say tigers or elephants. Kaziranga is a relatively small national park and the Rhino is far easier to poach and more valuable. A carton of Rhino tusks is as valuable as a carload of tiger parts or tusks. Thus, the need to step up the anti-poaching operations is much more pertinent in this landscape. The Kaziranga model of conservation comprising of heavily armed and trained forest guards has even been suggested for other protected areas grappling with rampant poaching.

Forest guards comprise the bulk of the Rhino protection team. The Assam Forest Protection Force (AFPF) was raised through state legislation in 1986 to overcome limitations imposed on the forest staff’s use of firearms. Until 2014, 129 Home Guards superintended by the Assam Police were also a part of the protection team. In 2019, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) raised the Special Rhino Protection Force (SPRF) for Assam, with personnel trained specifically for operations related to the rhino, with modern arms and ammunition.

The bigger question here, though, is what happens when these absolute powers are misused by the guards, resulting in the loss of lives for communities living around Kaziranga? BBC made this question the premise of their documentary ‘Killing for Conservation’. It was met with strong condemnation from the Indian conservation community for its visible bias. BBC has been now barred from filming in any of India’s protected areas. However, the documentary does serve some food for thought.

The forest administration has never quite mainstreamed the local population into conservation planning. Violent eviction against ‘encroachers’ are common leading to a sense of alientation among these communities. The Rhino, thus, does not enjoy much goodwill in its immediate surroundings. Assam’s local politics is volatile, with strong anti-migrant tones. Local militant groups like the Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger and Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front have been directly involved in Rhino killings. Rhino horns were used by insurgent groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland to strike cashless deals with illegal arms operators across the border. Rhino poaching is therefore, not just a conservation issue, it has serious ramifications for internal security in the region. Given the atmosphere of mistrust between the government and the local minority groups in the Kaziranga region due to evictions, shootings at perceived poachers and illegal migrations, enlisting their support for the Rhino’s cause is an uphill task. A basic level of policing must always play a role in conservation, but increased militarisation as a one-stop solution to all problems that ail conservation is unethical and unrealistic. The long term future of a landscape can only be secured with active support of the local communities.

The land of the Brahmaputra

Assam’s history, as much as its geography, has been shaped by the river Brahmaputra. The river valley covers almost 60% of the state. During the monsoons, extremely high rainfall events cause the river to have one of the highest flood potentials in the subcontinent. Kaziranga’s existence as a viable ecosystem with grasslands, wetlands and tree-less forests is hinged around the annual floods.

During floods, the animals in Kaziranga migrate to the upper reaches in Karbi hills, and return when the waters recede. Rapid development (case in point, the NH-37) around the park has blocked many of these migration corridors, resulting in the animals being stranded during the floods and consequently, drowning. Animals often cross the highways to escape floodwaters and get hit by vehicles. There are nine identified animal corridors connecting Kaziranga to the hills. Increasing human encroachment and mining/quarrying on the southern boundary have disrupted the animals’ natural refuge.

Rhino calves stranded during floods are rescued and nursed in Wildlife Rescue Centres, before reuniting with their mothers is attempted

Artificial ‘highlands’ were built as a temporary solution to this problem, to provide the animals with higher ground for safety during floods. However, with rapid landuse change around the park and river management for dams elsewhere on the Brahmaputra, highlands seem to have been decided as the long-term solution to habitat flooding in Kaziranga. Plans to ensure external connectivity to adjacent natural areas seem to have taken a backseat.

While Rhinos hog the limelight, Hog Deer are the species that bear the maximum casualty during floods every year

Recently, funds were sanctioned for 33 more artificial highlands, in addition to the existing 111. From a purely ecological point of view, highlands lead to erosions and more siltation in the grasslands, which are a habitat for many species including the Rhino. Erosion would hamper the natural cleaning mechanism of the ecosystem, possibly paving the way for invasive species like Water Hyacinths. Changes to hydrology might also change the floral composition of the park, possibly replacing palatable grasses with unpalatable ones for the wildlife in the long run. Some of these changes can be observed even now. The grasses in Kaziranga do not grow as tall as they used to a decade back. Flooding and animal migrations are a part of the annual cycle that maintain the integrity of Kaziranga ecosystem. Disturbances (such as through highlands) could mean that Kaziranga, as we know it, might cease to exist in a dew decades. Maintaining inviolate migration corridors for animals must be the way forward, instead of a quickfix solution of highlands.

Assam’s growth in GDP is among the lowest in the country. The economic problems in Assam have been exacerbated by long-term insurgency and civil unrest. Kaziranga, in this climate of economic gloom, is a rare bright spot. The park has had a steady inflow of tourists, raking in much needed revenue for the state. This probably explains the persistence of the administration with measures to ensure the number of Rhinos stays on the rise, in the face of much criticism. Juxtaposing these social, political, ecological and economic concerns together, Kaziranga faces a all too common dilemma — success in management within its boundaries is threatened by changes in the wider landscape. While efforts to save the Rhino would continue, the park management needs to adopt a landscape approach, looking beyond the boundaries of the protected area and work with the regional government, private interests and civil society.

Early morning Elephant Safaris, looking for Rhinos amidst the elephant grass

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