Explained: Why is the Assam government burning 2,500 rhino horns in a special ceremony?
Assam will mark World Rhino Day – September 22 – with a special ceremony by burning a stockpile of nearly 2,500 one-horned rhino horns. This was announced by the State Cabinet last week after weeks of “rhino horn check” exercises by the Forestry Department across the state.
What is the purpose of the ceremony?
The public ceremony – scheduled for Bokakhat in Kaziranga National Park (KNP) with Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as the main guest and several other politicians in attendance – was touted as a “milestone towards rhino conservation” aimed at to “break the myths about rhino horns”. “This is a strong and clear message to poachers and smugglers that such items are of no value,” said MK Yadava, chief wildlife protection officer, Assam.
However, in the illegal market, these horns can fetch a high price. A statement from the Forestry Department said that “ground rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a range of ailments, from cancer to hangover, and also as an aphrodisiac.” In Vietnam, owning a rhino horn is considered a status symbol. “Due to the demand in these countries, the pressure of poaching on rhinos is still persistent against which we cannot let our guard down,” he added.
Thus, the case of horn destruction – a process in accordance with section 39 (3) (c) of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. In accordance with a ruling from Gauhati’s High Court, a public hearing on the destruction was held last month, but officials said there had been no objections from the public.
Bibhab Talukdar, chairman of the Asian Rhinoceros Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 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 Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). “It is illegal to sell horns in the country anyway. So instead of the horns breaking down in treasures, the decision to burn them will send a clear message: this is not medicine, ”he said.
Where were those horns all these years?
The horns have been stored in treasures across the state for decades. After a rhino dies, whether from natural causes or from poaching, its horn – essentially a mass of compacted hairs – is kept in the care of the Forestry Department in state treasuries.
In August and September, the Forestry Department carried out “horn check” exercises covering the treasures of seven wildlife areas (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 panel – made up of DFO, wildlife experts, specialists and forensic technicians – examined, tagged, weighed, measured and extracted DNA for genetic sampling of each horn, among other things. The aim was to recount and recheck the horns – while the majority were set aside for destruction, 5%, which had unique characteristics, were earmarked for conservation.
The audit was completed on September 12. After 2,623 horns were reconciled, 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 Guwahati’s treasure and the heaviest horn (3.05 kg, 36 cm) from Bokakhat’s treasure. In addition, 15 African rhino horns were reconciled and 21 were found to be fake.
Has such an exercise ever happened?
Although the horns were never publicly destroyed in this way, a reverification exercise took place in 2016 following allegations by RTI activist Dilip Nath that some of the Department of Human Rights employees forests had illegally traded horns in treasuries and replaced them with counterfeit ones.
However, the exercise revealed that all but five horns were genuine.
How serious is the threat posed by poaching?
Several cases of rhino poaching were reported in the years leading up to 2013 and 2014. These two years were marked by the highest number of incidents in a decade, at 27 each year. Since then, that number has fallen to 17 in 2015, 18 in 2016, 6 each in 2017 and 2018 and 3 in 2019.
“In 2020-2021 it has declined a bit, with a couple of rhinos poached – it’s still well-organized crime and we must not let our guard down,” Talukdar said.
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The one-horned rhino, which was previously “endangered” according to the IUCN Red List, is now listed as “vulnerable”.
In 2019, the Assam government formed a “Special Rhinoceros Protection Force” to monitor rhino poaching and related activities at KNP. A March 2018 rhino census put the rhino population at 2,413 in KNP, 101 in Orang National Park and 102 in Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, and a more recent count indicated there are was 43 in Manas National Park.