“The instruction is whenever you see poachers or hunters, we should start our guns and hunt them.”
“You shoot them?”
“Yah, yah. Fully ordered to shoot them. Whenever you see the poachers or any people during night-time we are ordered to shoot them.”
This exchange took place between journalist Justin Rowlatt and a wildlife preserve guard in India and highlights a practice that’s produced both encouragingly positive and heartbreakingly negative effects — all in the name of conservation.
Last week, BBC detailed a story unfolding at Kaziranga National Park, a wildlife conservation area in east India.
Since 2014, the Indian government has granted the power to park guards to shoot and kill any and all suspected poachers with little worry they’ll face legal consequences afterward.
“Kill the unwanted,” M.K. Yadava, then-director of the park — and the man who introduced the controversial policy — recommended in a 2014 report.
He also stated his belief that environmental crimes such as poaching are more serious than murder, as “[t]hey erode the very root of existence of all civilizations on this earth silently.”
Kaziranga is home to several endangered species, most notably tigers, rhinos, and elephants. And strictly in terms of conservation, there’s no question the park’s efforts have been effective, as Rowlatt, South Asia correspondent for BBC, points out:
“There were just a handful of Indian one-horned rhinoceros left when the park was set up a century ago in Assam, in India’s far east. Now there are more than 2,400 — two-thirds of the entire world population.”
But the means by which the government has achieved this success have, from time to time, produced tragic results.
The problem, explains Rowlatt, reporting from India, is that “[m]any of the communities here are tribal groups that have lived in or alongside the forest for centuries, collecting firewood as well as herbs and other plants from it.”
And with no fences or clearly defined borders, some villagers who unwittingly crossed over onto parkland have found themselves in the crosshairs of Kaziranga guards.
Rowlatt spoke to one father whose disabled son was shot and killed by guards after he strayed into the park while tending to the family cows.
“He could barely do up his own trousers or his shoes,” Kachu Kealing said. “Everyone knew him in the area because he was so disabled.”
In July of last year, a seven-year-old boy had most of his calf muscle blown away after he was fired by guards while walking along the edge of the park. To this day, the boy can barely walk and is usually carried where he needs to go by his older brother.
Worse, there seems to be little interest on the part of the Indian government to investigate park shootings — or even the illegal poaching itself. Only two people have been prosecuted for poaching in the last three years. During that same period, 50 have been shot dead by guards.
“This kind of impunity is dangerous,” human rights activist and local tribal member Pranab Doley told BBC. “It is creating animosity between the park and people living in the periphery of the park.”
Sophie Grig of the London-based charity group Survival International seems to agree.
“The park is being run with utmost brutality,” she said. “There is no jury, there’s no judge, there’s no questioning. And the terrifying thing is that there are plans to roll [out] the shoot at sight policy across [the] whole of India.”
The hard fact is that, currently, fewer rhinos are being killed by poachers than people being killed by guards. And it’s a fact both the Indian government and local communities are struggling with.
It’s a question of human rights versus environmental conservation, and how to proceed with protecting both at the same time. As Rowlatt concludes for BBC:
“Of course, there’s no arguing that endangered species must be protected and preserved, but the costs of the human community need to be taken into account too.”