In the treasures of Assam, an investigation into dozens of stored rhino tusks
“Found in Laokhowa Shrine in Nagaon. Height 51.5cm. Weight 2.5kg. Dated 1961… older than many of us in this room, ”the manager said with a smile.
For years now, the greyish brown rhino horn, the length of a forearm, has led a quiet existence in the vault of a public treasury in Assam – until it was presented to a committee. officials from the forestry department in Guwahati two weeks back.
The uniqueness of the horn – along the curve of which the words “world record” were written in small white letters – did not escape the foresters, who erupted into spontaneous applause at its sight. The item was then passed around the room – gloved hands skillfully brushed the dust off it, weighed it on a scale, measured it with rulers, and even extracted small samples from its rough, rough surface – before that it is not marked, bar-coded, wrapped and put back in another trunk. “Be careful out there, even a speck of horn dust is precious,” one official told another.
For weeks now, a “rhino horn re-verification” program by the Assam Forestry Department has been underway, with a committee of experts examining several hundred rhino horns stored in various district treasuries across the country. Assam. The objective is to identify and classify these horns (collected from dead rhinos, whether for natural reasons or from poaching) and then destroy them on World Rhino Day (September 21), subject to ‘a public hearing and government approval. Unique ones – like Nagaon’s record horn dated 1961 – will be reserved and preserved in a scientifically controlled environment.
“This is a message to poachers and smugglers … loud and clear … that such items are of no value,” said MK Yadava, chief wildlife protection officer, Assam, who chairs the exercise. However, in the illegal market, these horns can fetch a high price. So it is with its destruction – a process which conforms to a section of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.
In 2016, following allegations that unscrupulous elements in the forestry department illegally marketed the horns in the treasuries and replaced them with counterfeits, the Assam government organized a similar re-verification program. However, the exercise revealed that most of the horns were genuine, with the exception of five, which had been recorded as fake anyway when they were deposited in the treasury.
This time, however, the exercise takes it a step further and has a conservation-oriented focus. According to Yadava, this is what makes him special.
“We’ve never done an exercise like this before. Each horn is weighed to the nearest milligram, marked with a unique identification number, chiseled to extract DNA, ”Yadava said, adding that the resulting genetic database can play a crucial role in scientific study and research. future conversation of the species.
On August 7, Yadava notified the expert committee overseeing the exercise that would cover the treasures of seven Assam wildlife areas (Morigaon, Manas, Mangaldai, Guwahati, Bokakhat, Nagaon and Tezpur) and would review more than 2 500 horns.
One Monday in August, The Indian Express visited one of these exercises, underway in the Kamrup District Deputy Commissioner’s office in Guwahati. In the conference room, the committee – made up of DFOs, wildlife experts, specialists and forensic technicians – sat down at their posts and sifted through 123 horns stored in seven trunks gnawed by the inclement weather with rigorous precision.
“Every rhino horn has a story,” said Hemkanta Talukdar, chief forest curator, central circle of Assam and zone president for the Guwahati zone. “And what we do here, we document.”
Talukdar explained how for every rhino death (whether naturally or by poachers), “horn recovery” is an important follow-up step usually carried out by police. “After each death, a police file is opened and details recorded,” he said. In Kaziranga National Park, the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site for the animal, every rhino death since 1976 has been recorded, with details like the cause, horn size and more. documented.
At the DC office in Guwahati, horns of various shapes and sizes occupied the trunks, ranging from large (51 cm) to small (6 cm), heavy (2.5 kg) to light (20 grams), conical to stocky. , collected from conservation habitat locations around Guwahati, such as Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary and Manas National Park.
The process involves multiple laborious steps: first, the horn is laid on the cleaning table, after which it is examined by a forensic team to verify its authenticity. A unique identification number is assigned to each horn, then it is weighed, measured and given to another team for DNA sampling.
Sampling is the part that takes time: two officials pierced the horn, took a five-gram sample, put it in a test tube, and then put it in a plastic bag. “Every time we drill it, we have to change the sample in front of the machine, to avoid contamination,” an official said. Apart from this, a one gram sample from two horns every ten years was also collected for “structural and chemical composition analysis”.
At the end, a closing weight is recorded, and each horn is individually wrapped in cling film, labeled and returned to boxes, labeled for storage or disposal.
The whole operation was broadcast live on large screens outside the hall for the public and transparency. Award-winning vet at Padma Shri, Kushal Konwar Sarma, who is on the committee, said the process was “simple” but “it has to be done right”. “And with caution,” added another committee member. “Few of the horns are very soft… when handling them you may get some rhino horn residue on the gloves… so we keep changing gloves as well, so as not to mix two samples,” he said. .
The exercise is scheduled to end on September 16, after 1,623 horns were surveyed in the last area, Bokakhat (under which Kaziranga falls) over a ten-day period. There, the committee should find in the stock, the heaviest horn in the world – weighing 3.051 kg and 36 cm in height – dated 1982 and sourced from Bagori Range Park.
“Each horn is a wealth of information … a 50-year-old rhino horn will have information you won’t find anywhere else,” Sarma said, adding that DNA studies can potentially shed light on “the past as well. as the future of the species ”as well as“ migration patterns, health and perhaps even help in the analysis of rhino crime ”.
When the day is over, the team will travel to another location and go through the exact process – cleaning, drilling, weighing and packing – one horn at a time. “It might be slow, but for us it’s a unique opportunity… because it’s not every day that you see, study and experience the world’s largest rhino horns,” Sarma said.