Killing Poachers

Wild greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) standing by a forest track in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India. Park wardens on bicycles in the background. Photo by Jeremy Richards;
Wild greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) standing by a forest track in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India. Park wardens on bicycles in the background. Photo by JeremyRichards

Many are familiar with the worldwide effort to stop the illegal hunting of endangered wildlife.  Some nations have created wildlife refuges where hunting is limited, while other nations, such as Costa Rica, have banned hunting altogether.  Creating a refuge is challenging enough, but enforcing hunting limitations is far more difficult.  Even in the well protected reserves in Africa, poachers still manage to kill threatened elephant and rhinoceros. The animals are typically killed for their ivory horns and tusks. Recently, several accusations have been leveled that game wardens in India may be going too far by killing poachers.

Encountering poachers is dangerous, as they are often organized and armed. Several game wardens who have crossed paths with poachers have been killed in the line of duty.  Nonetheless, accusations have arisen that wardens use excessive force against poachers, sometimes with the tacit approval of conservation minded individuals.  Wildlife guards in India’s famous Kaziranga National Park, in Assam, have recently been accused of using excessive force sanctioned by the Indian Government.  One such accusation was leveled by British Broadcasting Corporation reporter Justin Rowlatt.  In his  film titled Killing for Conservation , Rowlatt reported that guards were given immunity from prosecution for killing or injuring poachers:

“the park rangers were killing an average of two people every month – more than 20 people a year. Indeed, in 2015 more people were shot dead by park guards than rhinos were killed by poachers. Innocent villagers, mostly tribal people, have been caught up in the conflict.”

Officials with India’s National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) dispute that wardens are given authority to kill-on-sight.  The NTCA go further stating that Rowlatt’s film is biased and misleading, and was not submitted for review prior to airing. Moreover, The NTCA has banned BBC from filming in any other tiger reserves for five years.

Several aspects lend credence to the film’s claim that there is a shoot-to-kill policy.  Firstly, the film shows interviews with several guards who state that they have been told to kill any poachers caught in the conservation park.  The film also shows interviews with several individuals from nearby villages who tell stories of family members killed in the park, not because they were not poaching, but because they accidentally strayed into the park.  In one instance, a father describes how his young son was shot in the leg by guards who mistook him for a poacher.  The park management reportedly compensated the family for their mistake.  Even the interviews with park managers appear to support that there is, if not a policy, at least unspoken approval and support for killing poachers on-sight.

There were, however, also several facts that seem to lend credence to the NTCA’s claim that the goal of the film was to sensationalize.  That Rowaltt did not offer  authorities the opportunity to comment on interview statements, prior to broadcasting the film, could be interpreted as biased reporting.  There is nothing that would seemingly have prevented the BBC from airing the film in spite of any objections.  So why did Rowlatt not submit it for review.  In another instance, Rowlatt appears to speak negatively of the World Wildlife Fund, the organization he indicates is providing funds, equipment, and training for the park guards. He asks whether donor would be alright knowing that their donations are going to train these wardens.  The statement seems odd when placed against the gravity of the shoot-to kill accusation.

Left uncertain in the whole affair is whether the number of poachers killed in the last few years is truly a result of a policy that lowers the threshold for using deadly force, or, as also reported, there is an increase in the number of poachers willing to take a risk for the valuable ivory.  It would appear unlikely that individuals willing to poach are unarmed, as it would be difficult to kill an elephant, even a small one, without a weapon.  Thus, any confrontation between poachers and guards is likely to be a high risk situation.  The presence of so many villagers on the outskirts of the park, where there are no fences to mark its perimeter, makes the probability of accidental shootings almost inevitable.


About Mark Shepherd

I work in the environmental movement helping to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land that sustains us and the natural and biological resources we depend on.

Leave a Reply