…no matter from the heart.” Shakespeare could have been commenting on governments everywhere.

Guernica recently featured a Carly Nairn piece that made one central point: The rhino is poached for its horn, each of which can be worth up to $300,000. The conservationist is rapidly losing the war against the poacher, so perhaps the only option left is to domesticate this quintessential animal of the wild, and ‘benignly’ de-horn it so there is no reason for the poacher to kill. That is what the discourse around anti-poaching efforts has been reduced to — tame what we cannot protect.

Earlier this week, meanwhile, two poachers who killed a one-horned rhino in Assam’s Orang National Park have been found guilty — using, for the first time ever, evidence from camera traps — and sentenced to two years and a Rs 25,000 fine apiece. Good enough, as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go very far. The point of deterrence — and prescribed punishment is essentially about deterrence — is to deter. Compare the risk (two years in jail, and a penny-ante fine) against the reward (a potential $300,000 windfall), and it is apparent that the punishment — even on those rare occasions when a culprit is actually captured, brought to trial, and convicted — is nowhere near harsh enough to make the risk unacceptable.

Add official apathy to the mix, and you get the perfect storm. During an official visit to the Kaziranga sanctuary in Assam last year, Minister for Environment Prakash Javadekar announced a plan: the state government would create a Rhino Protection Force to patrol the 800-plus sq km park housing a rhino population of over 2400, and the Center would fund it. Submit a proposal, the minister told the state government.

And then, the sorry sequel: The Assam government estimated that it could recruit 1000 young men as the nucleus of the RPF, and submitted a proposal to that effect. You can have 100 people tops, Javadekar’s ministry has responded, and no more. Besides, the ministry has given the state no assurance that the Center will bless any future expansion.

“Undertaking piecemeal measures will not yield results,” Assam’s environment minister Atuwa Munda told The Telegraph.

Munda said Dispur has written to Delhi saying it would go ahead with the plan only if the Centre agrees to recruit a thousand personnel.

He hoped the Centre would reconsider its decision, going by the concern it has shown over rhino poaching.

Saying cheese (Image courtesy Indian Express)

Which brings you right back to Shakespeare. ‘Expressing concern’ costs nothing and buys cheap headlines, photo ops, and favorable media mentions.

But as he did with tigers recently, Javadekar seems only too happy to claim credit for ‘good news’ that had nothing to do with his ministry’s efforts, and move on to the next photo op and self-serving statement. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground worsens, as RTI activists discovered.

Javadekar maintains that the significant increase in the rhino population is an example of the “good success of conservation efforts”. The minister argues that while there were 20-odd rhino poaching cases, some 30-odd poachers were killed in encounters. However, to look for the silver lining in the incidents of rhino poaching in Kaziranga would be a terrible mistake, according to wildlife activists and experts.

The CAG’s performance audit on the Kaziranga National Park is categorical in its indictment of the manner in which the threat of poaching has been handled. While the audit highlights a number of good practices, it states that “most important aspect of wildlife management, that is the management of habitats, took a back seat”.

But hey — we have a Rhino Protection Force, no?

Elsewhere — remember the earlier post about money for tiger conservation in Karnataka’s forest reserves? Here’s an update from the MoE, who was responding to a Rajya Sabha question on the death of over 40 big cats in Gujarat over a two-month span:

He said that special tiger protection forces has been raised, armed and deployed in four tiger reserves – Bandipur (Karnataka), Pench (Maharashtra, Tadoba-Andhari (Maharasthra) and Similipal (Odisha).

So ok, we have a Tiger Protection Force, too. Moving on…

Also Read:

Inside Kaziranga’s one-horned dream by Urmi Bhattacharjee

In South Africa, a home for orphaned rhinos, via the LA Times