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Here’s why Assam govt is burning 2,467 Rhino horns today

By Saima Siddiqui 
Updated Date
Here’s why Assam govt is burning 2,467 Rhino horns today

Dispur: As the Assam will mark World Rhino Day 2021, on September 22, the sate forest department today is preparing for a unique ceremony where a stockpile of nearly 2,479 horns of the one-horned Rhinos will be burnt in the sporting field of Bokakhat, on Wednesday. The announcement was made by the state Cabinet last week after weeks of ‘rhino horn re-verification’ exercises by the Forest Department across the state.

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As many as six giant gas furnaces, each with three tiers are in place to burn these horns which have been preserved for years.

The purpose of the ceremony?

The public ceremony, which is scheduled at Bokakhat in Kaziranga National Park (KNP) with Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as the chief guest and several other politicians present, has been publicised as a “milestone towards rhino conservation” aimed at “busting myths about rhino horns”. “It’s a loud and clear message to the poachers and smugglers that such items have no value,” said M K Yadava, Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam.

“Rhino horns from Barpeta, Morigan, Barpeta, Mangaldoi, Tezpur Nagaon, BTR, Golaghat, and Kohora have been deposited in the Bokakhat treasury. Tomorrow morning at 6 am we shall take out the horns and from 6.30 am you will them being segregated in stocks to be burnt and those to be preserved. The horns shall be scanned and we have arranged for a webcast so that the world can be a part of it,” said M K Yadava, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and HoF, Assam Forest Department.

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However, in the illegal market such horns can fetch a high price. As per a Forest Department release “ground rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine to cure a range of ailments, from cancer to hangovers, and also as an aphrodisiac.” While, in Vietnam, possessing a rhino horn is considered a status symbol. “Due to demand in these countries, poaching pressure on rhinos is ever persistent against which one cannot let the guard down” it added.

The proposed burning of the rhino horns, which is in compliance with Section 39(3)(c) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, got assent of the Gauhati High Court, for which a public hearing was held last month but officials said there were no objections made by the public.

“The decision of rhino horn burning genesis in 2009 when the then government decided to send the stockpiled rhino horn to different museums of the world and the rest to be presented as mementos to visiting foreign dignitaries. At that time there were around 1600 stockpiled rhino horn in state treasuries. We opposed the move as these horns should not be used as animal trophies and is against the international protocols. The horns are the animals defense mechanism and once the animal is no longer there then there is no point in preserving the horns,” said Mubina Akhtar member of the recent verification committee in Guwahati and Golaghat.

Bibhab Talukdar, chair of the Asian Rhino Specialist Group in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Asian Rhino Specialist Group, and CEO and secretary general of the NGO Aaranyak, said India was a signatory to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna). “It is illegal to sell the horns in the country anyway. So instead of the horns decaying in treasuries, the decision to burn it will send a clear-cut message —that this is not medicine,” he said.

Where were these horns all these years?

These horns were recovered from poachers or collected from dead rhinos in the state’s national parks, and kept under the custody of the forest department or treasuries across the state over decades. To note, after a rhino dies, either out of natural causes or due to poaching, its horn, essentially a mass of compacted hair, is kept in the custody of the Forest Department in the state treasuries.

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There is also a standing Supreme Court instruction to burn recovered wild animal body parts like elephant tusks and rhino horns. While Assam had disposed of horns recovered before 1979, those collected since have been reportedly preserved because of the locals’ emotional attachment to them.

Through August and September, the Forest Department carried out ‘horn re-verification’ exercises spanning treasuries across seven wildlife zones (Morigaon, Manas, Mangaldai, Guwahati, Bokakhat, Nagaon and Tezpur) and examined more than 2,500 horns. It was a multi-step process in which an expert committee – comprising DFOs, wildlife experts, forensic specialists and technicians- examined, tagged, weighed, measured, and extracted DNA for genetic sampling of each and every horn, besides other things. The aim was to recount and reverify the horns- while the majority was put aside to be destroyed, 5 per cent, which had unique characteristics, were earmarked for preservation.

The verification was completed on September 12. After the reconciliation of 2,623 horns, 2,479 were marked for destruction and 94 for preservation. Among the finds were the longest horn (51.5 cm, weight 2.5 kg) from the Guwahati treasury and the heaviest horn (3.05 kg, 36 cm) from Bokakhat treasury. Also, 15 African rhino horns were reconciled and 21 were found fake.

Sculpting an animal out of Rhino horn ashes:

A statement issued by Assam Environment Minister Parimal Suklabaidya on Tuesday stated, “This is the largest public destruction of the stockpile of horns of the Greater One-Horned rhino and is aimed to propagate and reinforce the fact that rhino’s horns do not have any medicinal value.”

“We have ensured that even the residual ash of the horns after burning is properly disposed of. As you are aware that in some prevalent medicinal practice in China the ash is believed to be used and thus the smuggling. The ash will be cast in concrete and we have decided to sculpt a life size rhino of the ash concrete cast. It will take time but the casting shall commence from tomorrow. The rhino shall be treasured in the museum that is planned to come up here.” Yadava said.

How serious a threat is poaching?

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In India, one-horned rhinos were declared endangered in 1975, but were downgraded to ‘vulnerable’ in the 2008 Red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to the government figures since 2017 poachers have killed 22 one-horned rhinos and 644 poachers have been arrested so far. The government has installed 10 fast-track sessions courts for speedy trials of wildlife-related crimes.

Several cases of rhino poaching were reported in the years leading up to 2013 and 2014. These two years witnessed the highest number of incidents in a decade, at 27 in each year. This has since decreased to 17 in 2015, 18 in 2016, 6 each in 2017 and 2018, and 3 in 2019.

“In 2020-21, it has reduced a bit, with two-three rhinos being poached — still, it is a well-organised crime and we must not let our guard down,” said Talukdar.

The one-horned rhino, which was earlier “endangered” as per the IUCN Red List, is now listed as “Vulnerable.”

The 2018 census yielded an estimated 2,650 rhinos in Assam, and if one goes by the annual rate of increase in the animal population, there should be close to 3,000 individuals today.

In 2019, the Assam government constituted a dedicated “Special Rhino Protection Force” to keep a check on rhino poaching and related activities at KNP. A March 2018 rhino census pegged the rhino population at 2,413 in KNP, 101 in Orang National Park, and 102 in Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, and a more recent count said there were 43 in the Manas National Park.

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