The recent arrest of a senior forestry official on corruption charges in northeastern India may be linked to a rhinoceros-poaching ring that helps fund local rebels and involves park rangers, officials said.
“The scary fact is that militant groups in the region have made it [animal poaching] their main source of income, and poaching is fast becoming an organized industry,” a police official close to the investigation in Assam state told BenarNews.
Police have recovered high-end arms and ammunition from most of the suspects arrested in poaching cases, “including AK-56 and AK-47, .303 rifles and pistols, such as the 7.65 mm, which is made in Spain,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Suvashish Das, district forest officer at Kaziranga National Park in Assam, confirmed that poachers were receiving sophisticated weapons from at least one tribal separatist faction, the Karbi People’s Liberation Tigers (KPLT). The group has been fighting for an autonomous state since 2011.
The KPLT is “directly involved in the smuggling of animal body parts to countries like Vietnam and China,” Das told BenarNews.
Of the 22 rhinos poached in Assam this year, 21 were killed within the 430-square-kilometer (160-square-mile) Kaziranga National Park, according to official figures. About 2,400 rhinos were in the sanctuary as of 2015, Das said.
The Great One-Horned Rhinoceros
On June 14 police arrested Mahat Chandra Talukdar, an acting divisional forest officer for Assam state, after officers seized unaccounted cash totaling more than 20 million rupees ($296,516) and animal hides and ivory during a raid on his home.
"We suspect that wealth he [Talukdar] he has amassed has come from being part of a larger racket of smuggling rhino horns," the anonymous police official said.
During the 1980s and 90s, Talukdar served for four years as a forest ranger at Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Assam that is home to the Great One-Horned Rhinoceros, an indigenous species listed as “vulnerable” by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the 111-year reserve in Assam hosts two-thirds of the world’s population of this sub-species of rhino. The Great One-Horned Rhinoceros is the largest among rhino species and is native to the northern Indian subcontinent, according to WWF.
Yet the rhinos in Kaziranga have been threatened by poachers in recent years. Rhino horn is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fever, rheumatism, and gout among other disorders, while in Vietnam it is used as an aphrodisiac.
Since 2009, more than 260 people have been arrested for poaching rhinos in Assam, but no suspects have been convicted, according to official figures.
In 2015, 11 rhino poachers were killed by security forces and 20 arrested in Assam state.
In 2014, 22 were killed in encounters while 40 of them were arrested, official figures show.
‘Offensive against poachers’
Promila Rani Brahma, the state’s new minister of the environment and forests, said her office was investigating allegations that some staff members at Kaziranga National Park were involved in the illegal trade of animal parts originating from the reserve.
“We have drawn out a comprehensive strategy to put a complete stop to poaching in the park. Local police have been asked to join the offensive against poachers,” Brahma, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently won state assembly elections, told BenarNews.
Brahma said she had sought a report on incidents of rhino poaching in the Kaziranga National Park during Talukdar’s tenure at the sanctuary.
“I think all the animal parts recovered from [Talukdar’s] house are from Kaziranga National Park. His association with rhino poachers is something that should be part of the investigation. A thorough probe will bring this fact to light,” she told reporters earlier.
As many as 189 rhinos were killed between 1989 and 1993 when Talukdar was a forest ranger in the Kaziranga National Park, local media reported, quoting figures from Assam’s forest department.
Officials said Talukdar was involved in smuggling animal parts, particularly the prized horn of the rhinos.
Das, the district forest officer at Kaziranga, said efforts to curb poaching had proved effective.