The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is in trouble with the environment ministry of India for allegedly misrepresenting facts in a documentary on poaching at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
According to reports, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has issued an official memorandum recommending the "blacklisting" BBC's South Asia correspondent, Justin Rowlatt, for portraying the anti-poaching measures taken by the authorities in a bad light. In addition to the documentary he's made, Our World: Killing for Conservation, which was broadcast on 11 February, Rowlatt has also written a detailed account of what goes on in the park in the name of anti-poaching measures and conservation. The report makes for a chilling read.
While Kaziranga, which is home to the one-horned rhinoceros, has done remarkably well to protect the endangered species, it has also employed violent, often inhuman, methods to achieve its goals. About a hundred years ago, when the park was set up, there were only a handful of rhinos left in India. Now they number at 2,400 and incidents of poaching are declining by the year, thanks to the vigilant team guarding the premises.
But what are these protectors of wildlife doing to ensure the safety of the species? According to Rowlatt, they have "shoot on sight" orders to tackle the menace of poachers, though authorities differ on the exact understanding of the term.
The director of the park, Satyendra Singh, describes their policy differently. As he explained to Rowlatt, "First we warn them — who are you? But if they resort to firing we have to kill them. First we try to arrest them, so that we get the information, what are the linkages, who are others in the gang?"
Nonetheless the number of human casualties in and around the park have seriously increased in the last few years. In 2015, as many as 23 poachers lost their lives as against 17 rhinos that were killed by them. Over the past 20 years, 106 poachers have been killed in the park compared to one forest guard who lost his life in a shootout. While the numbers may vary due to the absence of exact records, the scale of the losses can be gauged from Rowlatt's report.
Singh, however, cited a different statistics to The Indian Express. According to him, Kaziranga guards killed "23 and 22 suspected poachers in 2015 and 2014 respectively, when poaching claimed over 40 rhinos in the reserve". Moreover, five intruders each were killed in 2013 and 2016.
Apart from killing poachers, unsuspecting locals too have lost their lives, for having strayed into the park, which doesn't have a designated boundary. A young boy, with severe learning difficulties, was shot at and maimed for having trespassed into the premises looking for his lost cows. Another man was picked up from a roadside tea-stall and tortured on suspicion of being a poacher, before he was released by the guards.
Given the impunity with which the rangers carry out their duty, well-aware that even killing a human being would not be held against them, there is an air fear and intimidation in the neighbouring areas. As Rowlatt calls it, the threat of "extrajudicial killings" carried out in the park is palpable.
The forest authorities, on the other hand, are upset with the BBC crew for deviating from their original plan to showcase the achievements of the park. Visited by dignitaries such as Prince William and his wife Kate last year, it is projected as a success story for India's wildlife conservation efforts.
The debate, in the case of Kaziranga, doesn't only pertain to conservation of wildlife but also the habitat and traditional ways of life of the tribal people who live in the vicinity of the park. Whatever the outcome of the government's conflict with the BBC, it will be forced to be more accountable in the way it employs its anti-poaching policies.
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