Wildlife protection activists are alarmed after 46 single-horned Indian rhinoceroses died prematurely this year in India's northeastern state of Assam.
Assam forest minister Rockybul Hussain says 28 rhinos were drowned during the devastating floods that ravaged the state during the monsoon this year. But at least 18 more have been killed and stripped of their horns by poachers.
Some 78 rhinos died prematurely in Assam between 2001 and 2011, so losing more than half that number in just one year have sparked concerns about the state's horned population.
"We are now trying to strengthen protection, specially in the Kaziranga sanctuary, where most of the rhinos died. We need more guards, and the guards need better weapons and equipment and surely more mobility," Hussain said.
Assam's Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to 2,290 rhinos, according to statistics from the end of 2011. That comprises more than 80 per cent of the total population of single-horned Indian rhinos. The state has three other game sanctuaries for rhinos, but Kaziranga is the largest.
The rhinos are killed because a full-grown horn fetches a huge price in Asian black markets, with officials from the Wildlife Trust of India putting the figure between $90,000 to $100,000 for an average-sized horn. They are used in several East Asian countries as medicine, and, once powdered, the horns are valued as an aphrodisiac.
Kaziranga sits on a marshy floodplain watered by the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries. In 1966, when it was earmarked as a conservation site for the endangered animal, the sanctuary had fewer than 400 rhinos. Twenty years later, their numbers had quadrupled.
"Kaziranga is a success story in endangered animal conservation, but the problems were soon to come," says Hussain. "Growing numbers of rhinos attracted poachers looking for the prized horn."
"The poachers kill the rhino and immediately saw off the horn. That is their target."
- NK Vasu, park director
The biggest increase in Kaziranga's - and Assam's - rhino population came in the mid-1990s, when park officials reported a "baby boom". Hundreds of baby rhinos could be seen roaming the wilds of Kaziranga, Oraon and Pobitara sanctuaries. But as the babies matured and their horns grew, they attracted poachers in ever larger numbers.
The poachers are generally drawn from local Karbi and Naga tribesmen known for their sharpshooting skills and their knowledge of the local terrain. But the illegal trading chain that extends all the way to Southeast Asia and China includes men keen on making a fast buck - including migrant boatmen who ship out the horns, North Indian traders who smuggle the illegal consignments, policemen who are paid off to look the other way, and Chinese importers supplying the traditional medicine producers.
Poachers sneak into the Kaziranga and other rhino sanctuaries in gangs, armed with assault rifles and even night vision equipment. Sometimes the rhinos are neutralised with tranquiliser bullets and the horns are sawn off while the rhino is still alive.
Some poachers have cut high-voltage electric wire from poles, laying it on a path used by the rhinos. When a rhino steps on the wire, it is electrocuted.
But this technique, popular in the 1990s, has now been largely abandoned because it requires the poachers to wait for a long time.
"The poachers kill the rhino and immediately saw off the horn. That is their target," says NK Vasu, the Kaziranga park director. "Sometimes when our guards move in quickly enough on hearing the shooting, the poachers have to flee without the horn. But then [the] animal dies anyway."
A regional symbol
The rhino, like the elephant, is a proud symbol for Assam. Youth clubs, tour and travel agencies, business ventures and more are named after the endangered animal. The Assam regiments of the Indian army even shout "Rhino charge!" when taking on the enemy.
Assam's leading separatist group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), used to punish rhino poachers and those trading its horn. In the 1990s, when the ULFA was the peak of its strength, it carried out summary executions of several rhino poachers and traders.
Many described these as publicity stunts, but the rebels said the rhino meant much to them in emotional terms. "We were serious about stopping rhino poaching. It is our national asset," says Sunil Nath, a former ULFA leader.
But the ULFA has been weakened by internal strife, surrenders, desertions, and deaths in encounters with police and the Indian army.
Al Jazeera Correspondent - The Last Rhino
The rhinos draw tens of thousands of tourists who flock to Kaziranga and Assam every year. "The rhino safaris are Kaziranga are very popular," says local tour operator and hotelier Tridib Sarma. "They are the biggest tourist attraction here in Assam."
No wonder opposition parties and Assamese youth groups are demanding strong measures to preserve the rhinoceros population by cracking down hard on poacher gangs. They blame the high casualties this year on an "irresponsible state government" that runs the game sanctuaries.
Assam’s government, headed by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi of India’s ruling Congress party, says it has asked the army to patrol the Karbi Hills to keep out armed poacher gangs.
There is even a demand for an inquiry by India’s federal police, the Central Bureau of Investigation, into the unexpectedly high number of rhino deaths in Assam this year. Gogoi says he is not against such a probe, but many responsible for wildlife protection say such investigations would not help.
The outcry over the high number of rhino deaths in Assam prompted a visit to the Kaziranga sanctuary by India’s new environment and tourism minister, Jayanthi Natarajan.
Natarajan described Kaziranga as "a very well-maintained wildlife sanctuary", but admitted the park faced a significant challenge to save its rhinoceroses.
Assam faces devastating floods every monsoon - sometimes as many as three floods in a year - and rhino sanctuaries such as Kaziranga are often badly hit. In the past, mounds have been constructed where rhinos can take refuge during the floods. But if the floodwaters fail to recede, the rhinos can face a shortage of food.
If this happens, says forest guard Dilip Bora, the rhinoceroses "tend to flee towards the neighbouring hills. ... That is when they become easy targets for the poachers".
The Kaziranga park officials want more forest guards as well as better weapons, communication equipment, and transportation. But they know it will not be easy to curb poaching - especially during the floods when the rhinos run for higher ground.