GUWAHATI, Assam, India––The most controversial issue involving Indian rhinos, before April Fool’s Day, was whether their horns should be trimmed to discourage poachers.
Then Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi visited Dhemaji, Assam, to make a campaign speech alongside the Brahmaputra river.
“Aren’t rhinos the pride of Assam? These days there is a conspiracy to kill it,” alleged Modi, a fiery Hindu nationalist frequently accused of bashing Muslims. “I am making the allegation very seriously,” Modi continued. “People sitting in the government, to save Bangladeshis, they are doing this conspiracy to kill rhinos so that the area becomes empty and Bangladeshis can be settled there.
“Those who are conspiring to finish off rhinos, they should listen to this carefully. After May 16, they will be taken to task one by one,” Modi pledged, according to the Press Trust of India.
The Dhemaji speech played to anxiety that Bangladeshis displaced by the rising Bay of Bengal may seek refuge in eastern India. Just to the east, a Bangladeshi exodus into adjacent Myanmar has recently been met by ethnic violence from Buddhist Burmese.
Modi is on May 16, 2014 expected to form the next Indian government from among a BJP-led coalition deemed likely to displace the currently ruling Congress Party by a landslide. As Modi has little if any public record on animal issues during his 30 years in politics, animal advocates have wondered what his election might mean for the Animal Welfare Board of India and national programs including Project Tiger, Project Elephant, Animal Birth Control, and Mission Rabies, which is privately funded but operates with government cooperation.
Soon after the Dhemaji speech, Modi addressed animal agriculture in Ghaziabad, boasting of his role in promoting dairy production during a record four terms as chief minister in Gujarat state, but decrying meat exports.
“We brought in the white revolution, but the Congress Party wants a pink revolution,” Modi alleged.
The Hindu pointed out that meat production in Gujarat more than doubled during Modi’s tenure––but nationally, Indian meat production quadrupled during the same years.
Modi likely to return Maneka Gandhi to cabinet
“The Animal Welfare Board of India was reconstituted on March 1, 2014,” AWBI vice chair Chinny Krishna told ANIMALS 24-7, “and is in place until February 2017. General R.M. Kharb continues as chair.”
Added to the board were veterinarian Sandeep Jain, of People for Animals/Ludhiana; Humane Society International farm animal welfare campaign manager Nuggehalli Jayasimha; and Sowmya Reddy, current events response manager for the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations.
Krishna and Jain both anticipated to ANIMALS 24-7 that Modi will restore People for Animals founder and longtime parliamentarian Maneka Gandhi to the cabinet positions she previously held as minister for the environment and forests and minister for animal welfare.
Serving two terms as minister for the environment and forests under Congress Party governments during the 1990s, Mrs. Gandhi switched allegiances to the BJP and subsequently served from 1998 to mid-2002 as India’s first cabinet minister for animal welfare, while also holding portfolios as minister for social justice and empowerment, statistics, and culture.
The ministries for environment and forests and animal welfare were merged after the Congress Party returned to power. Progress toward updating federal animal welfare legislation stalled for more than a decade.
“There can be no doubt that if Maneka is in charge, the long, long pending Animal Welfare Bill will go to Parliament. With it will come the rules governing pet shops, dog breeders, etc.,” Krishna said.
Pulling in horns
Modi is not expected to become involved in the rhino horn-trimming controversy. The Assam office of principal chief conservator of forests and wildlife on March 31, 2014 closed a public comment period on a proposal to trim rhinos’ horns that was introduced in January 2014 by a consortium called Indian Rhino Vision 2020. The consortium members include the Assam state forest department, World Wildlife Fund India, International Rhino Foundation, and several other nonprofit organizations. Promoting translocation of rhinos to the Laokhowa-Burachapori Wildlife Sanctuary in Nagaon district, to establish a new sub-population, the consortium recommended that only young rhinos with limited horn growth should be moved, and that the rhinos’ horns should be bobbed as an additional precaution.
The consortium has also helped to translocate a dozen rhinos from Kaziranga to Manas National Park. The effort reportedly increased the Manas rhino population to 20, but eight were later poached.
Poachers killed 11 Indian rhinos during the first two months of 2014, two of them inside Kaziranga National Park, after killing 41 rhinos in 2013, up from 21 in 2012.
The Gauhati High Court on March 4, 2014 brought the dehorning question to the fore by asking Kaziranga National Park director M.K. Yadava to submit a detailed report within two months suggesting ways to stop the poaching.
“We are are not talking of dehorning, but trimming of horns, similar to trimming of hair,” Assam forest minister Rockybul Hussain told Prabin Kalita of the Times News Network. “The trimmed horns will grow back to their original size in four to five months,” Hussain insisted, while acknowledging that “It will be an impossible task to trim the horns of over 2,000 rhinos in Kaziranga.”
“Dehorning is not the ultimate solution to check poaching; it is only a strategy to buy time used by African countries,” said International Union for the Conservation of Nature rhino specialist group chair Bibhab Kumar Talukdar.
Objected Nature’s Beckon director Soumyadeep Datta, “The horn of a rhino is a part of its biological growth. With the help of the horn, the animal selects a mate for breeding. So removing the horn will be detrimental to the rhino population.”
Datta cited research by University of Idaho associate professor Janet Rachlow showing that 90% of dehorned African white rhinos are poached anyhow within 18 months. In addition, the dehorning procedure itself can jeopardize the lives of rhinos. An Indian rhino died at Majuli, Assam, from a botched dehorning operation as recently as March 2013.
Agreed Wildlife Protection Society of India executive director Belinda Wright, “Apart from the risks involved to the animal, this is not an effective way to curb poaching, whereas intelligence-led enforcement is. Rhino poachers are specialized hunters,” Wright pointed out, “as are the traders of rhino horns, and it is not an insurmountable problem for dedicated, well-trained enforcement teams to track down the worst offenders that operate in the four rhino habitats of Assam––Kaziranga, Pobitora, Manas, and Orang. This is what is needed, rather than a temporary effort to trim rhino horns, which will only grow back again in a few months.”
Also skeptical of the dehorning scheme, Assam animal advocate Azam Siddiqui solicited the perspectives of African rhino experts including David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust founder Daphne Sheldrick of Kenya, who has rehabilitated orphaned rhinos and elephants since 1958.
“If evolution has not removed the horn from rhinos over millennia, it surely means that the horns are essential to their existence and survival,” Sheldrick wrote. “Dehorning a rhino is depriving it of its means of defense, and of a part of their anatomy upon which they devote an enormous amount of time, shaping, sharpening etc. It is their identity. A dehorned bull rhino will never be confident and fertile to breed. A rhino deprived of his horn is no longer a rhino.”
Added Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force president Johnny Rodrigues, “In Zimbabwe, we have dehorned rhinos and they are still killed by poachers. They shoot the dehorned rhinos and dig out the small stump of horn left after the dehorning. If they are poaching at night, they can’t tell if the rhino has been dehorned or not until they have shot it dead, so what is the point? Besides that, rhinos need their horns for feeding, protection, and for lifting their young.
“I believe the best thing to do is to inject pesticide into the horn,” Rodrigues offered. “This has been tried in South Africa. The pesticide doesn’t harm the rhino, but if a human consumes it, it can make them very ill or even kill them. Sign boards can be erected warning poachers that the horns are poisoned. I believe this will detract them.”
Zimbabwe in May 2007 attempted to dehorn all 780 rhinos known to be in the country. Rather than curtailing poaching, the effort appeared to serve mainly to enable corrupt officials to collect and sell rhino horn before poachers could.
The South African government in 2010 allowed private rhino ranchers to practice dehorning, ostensibly to thwart poachers. Only 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2007, but 668 were poached in 2012, 1,004 in 2013, and 172 were poached during the first three months of 2014.