Kaziranga National Park in India has an unusual way of protecting their endangered species.
When the park was set up a century ago in Assam, in India’s far east, the majestic species were severely endangered and a handful of rhinos were sent to live in the park as a concerted conservation effort.
Now 2,400 Indian one-horned rhinos happily inhabit the marshlands of Kaziranga – and it’s all down to the park’s merciless policy towards poaching.
Park rangers controversially have the authority to shoot and kill poachers; a power normally only given to armed forces when policing civil unrest and protecting the public.
According to a BBC report, during the height of their vigilantes, park rangers killed an average of two people every month. In 2015 more than 20 poachers were shot dead by park guards – which is many more than the number of rhinos killed by poachers.
Rhinos have been hunted throughout history for their horns, which are sold on the black markets in China and Cambodia at a price higher than gold for the horn’s supposed medical qualities, which locals believe can cure everything from cancer to erectile dysfunction.
One of the park rangers, Avdesh, told the BBC:
The instruction is whenever you see the poachers or hunters, we should start our guns and hunt them… [We are] fully ordered to shoot them.
Whenever you see the poachers or any people during night-time we are ordered to shoot them.
The director of the park, Dr Satyendra Singh, tells a different story, saying ‘shoot-on-sight’ does not accurately describe the park rangers’ official directive.
Dr Singh explained:
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?
One family claim their son, Goanburah Kealing, who had severe learning difficulties, tragically fell victim to the park rangers’ trigger-happy attitudes.
In 2013 Goanburah was shot dead after the families’ cows strayed into Kaziranga. Kealing had failed to respond to a ranger’s warning.
A seven-year-old boy named Akash was also caught in the crossfire of the rangers’ executioners order. Akash was shot in the leg as he walked home from school via a track that borders the park. A year on and the youngster still can’t walk.
The family have since been compensated after the park admitted its mistake.
The incident does call into question the techniques encourages at Kaziranga National Park, which is administered and managed by the Forest Department of the Government of Assam.
A debate has been sparked by Survival International, a London-based charity which argues that the rights of tribal people around the park are being sacrificed in the name of wildlife protection.
While the National Park – which has been featured on Planet Earth II and visited by HRH Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton – is undoubtedly making huge strides in its conservation of rhinos and tigers, the question has to be asked: At what cost?