Rangers in India found an effective yet questionable way of slamming down poaching — they kill the poachers

Rangers are equipped with guns, and they use them on sight — sometimes without warning.

Image credits: Kangkan.it2004

The Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India, is a remarkable story of conservation success. Despite the increasing black market demand for rhino ivory and despite total rhino numbers dropping significantly throughout the country, Kaziranga is doing great. The reason for that, as a BBC investigation has revealed, is the implementation of extreme measures.

Rangers have been militarized and shoot without hesitation. A BBC reporter recalls a conversation with a ranger:

“The instruction is whenever you see the poachers or hunters, we should start our guns and hunt them,” Avdesh explains without hesitation.

“You shoot them?” I [journalist] ask.

“Yah, yah. Fully ordered to shoot them. Whenever you see the poachers or any people during night-time we are ordered to shoot them.”

Killing poachers

Rhinos desperately need protection — that’s not even a discussion. Like many species of large herbivores, they’ve suffered from massive poaching, being hunted to extinction. The Western Black rhino is already extinct and things are looking bleak for all species of rhinos. To make things even worse, poachers (and the black market bringing the demand) have upped their game. Poachers nowadays use big guns, drones, and they’re ruthless.

Poachers hunt rhinos for their horn, which can get a lot of money on the black market. Image credits: Pixabay.

They come in for the kill, and quite often, threaten humans as well as animals. This is also what the Indian government is saying. They’ve made the rangers almost a military force – wearing khakis, trained, they are allowed to carry guns and even to use drones to spot poachers approaching. Now, nothing’s really unusual up to here. Rangers should be properly equipped to deal with threats, and they should be able to defend themselves. The questionable thing is how often they should be pulling the trigger. At one point, they were killing 2 people every month, which seems like a lot. Add in the fact that they’re almost never held responsible for the killings, and you see how the problem emerges.

So, is this what it comes down to? We have to kill people to protect endangered animals? We all agree poachers must be punished harshly, but is it right for a ranger to be judge, jury, and executioner? The director of the park, Dr Satyendra Singh, says that that question is devoid of meaning because rangers are very disciplined and never shoot on sight.

“First we warn them – who are you? But if they resort to firing we have to kill them. First we try to arrest them, so that we get the information, what are the linkages, who are others in the gang?”

If he’s right, which at the very least, the BBC seems to question, all you would need are some checks and balances to make sure rangers act responsibly and don’t cause unnecessary killings — in other words, that they shoot only when threatened. Which brings us to an even bigger problem…

Collateral damage

There isn’t much in the way of checks and balances.

Like many parts of India, the Kaziranga National Park is densely populated. People have been living in the area for centuries, and sometimes they just wanted inside the park. Sometimes, they’re in the proximity of animals; and sometimes, they get shot.

Basically, the park has a “no one gets in” policy.

“Kill the unwanted,” should be the guiding principle for the guards, the head of the park says. He adds that environmental crimes are worse than murder. “They erode,” he said, “the very root of existence of all civilizations on this earth silently.”

One of the most popular tourist activities at the Kaziranga National Park is the early morning mahout-guided elephant safari. Image credits: SeethaG.

He makes a strong case, especially considering that the park is the main touristic attractions in the area and one of the main income drivers. But while this does send a strong message to poachers, sometimes locals get caught in the crossfire — with disastrous consequences.

BBC tells the case of a local villager (Goanburah), reportedly caring for his cows, who was shot and killed after not realizing he ventured inside the park. They write:

“Goanburah had been looking after the family’s two cows. His father believes they strayed into the park and his son – who had severe learning difficulties – went in to try and find them. It is an easy mistake to make. There are no fences or signs marking the edge of the park, it just merges seamlessly into the surrounding countryside and fields. The park authorities say guards shot Goanburah inside the forest reserve when he did not respond to a warning.”

There’s no chance Goanburah was a poacher, especially as he was seriously disabled.

“He could barely do up his own trousers or his shoes,” his father says, “everyone knew him in the area because he was so disabled.”

A similar instance is told by a seven-year-old survivor. Akash Orang was shot in the leg. After a dozen surgeries, he can barely walk, and will likely never run again in his life.

“I was coming back from the shop. The forest guards were shouting, ‘Rhinoceros! Rhinoceros!'” He pauses. “Then they suddenly shot me.”


At this point, this isn’t even about protecting the endangered species. When someone is shot (especially a disabled person and a seven-year-old), there should be an investigation and of course, some accountability. But there isn’t. The park says it’s not responsible for any investigations, and is generally unaware of who the alleged poachers are. Most of the time, the killed people are unidentified — which if you think about it, doesn’t make much sense. Your main interest is to protect the rhinos and identify the poacher network, so wouldn’t you want to know who the poachers are? Especially if people are living at the periphery of the park, you’d want to know who’s doing what.

Some other things also don’t add up with the way the Kaziranga administration is managing things. They want to expand the park and extend the protected area — which again, is a good thing. But due to their “no one gets in” policy, this means they will relocate several villages on the periphery, villagers who claim to be protecting the wildlife and providing environmental services.

Their response to the journalistic investigation was also highly questionable: they simply banned the BBC from the park for 5 years, for failing to submit the documentary to MoEFCC and Ministry of External Affairs for obligatory previewing “in order to remove any deviations, so as to achieve a balanced and accurate exposition of the theme”.

Since the crackdown commenced in 2013, rhino poaching has gone down drastically. You can’t argue with the results, at least so far. But is this a cost worth paying? I’d love to hear your opinions.

7 thoughts on “Rangers in India found an effective yet questionable way of slamming down poaching — they kill the poachers

  1. Brian

    They need to video all encounters. It's a tough problem. If they don't do something that works, we will destroy all of our natural world and most animals. Did they pay the people for their homes when they forced them to relocate? We in the developed world take property from citizens all the time, but usually we pay them. Less lethal weapons could be used against unarmed folks, but there really is no excuse for anyone but the rangers to be armed inside the park. With the night googles and drones it should be possible to detect weapons.

  2. Dave Williams

    It's the logical extension of eco-warriors, who don't so much love animals as they hate people. I mean, it's just not FAIR that we humans are the ultimate apex predators!

  3. D. Martin

    No, a few human lives – even hundreds of them – are not more "valuable" than an entire species.

  4. gmarmot

    As a retired law enforcement officer with BLM and the National Park Service in the U.S., I also knew 2 officers from African parks that were considering the same method of protection as nothing else worked. When a person can make several years salary in one day, many will do it, and these animals extinction is not acceptable to me. Perhaps my beliefs stem from the current human population: now 7+ billion, and 11+ billion within 83 years. Sorry, but humans lose when animals face certain extinction.

  5. Reuven Yosef

    As a conservation biologist I simply do not see how we can get around the problem any other way. The human race, as previously mentioned, has exceeded all sustainable limits and is simply on a suicidal path of self-destruction and taking as much of the environment as it can before its own demise. There are extensive models on how wildlife populations are driven into extension. And yet we refuse to consider that they also apply to us. So indeed I see no other solution than to adapt the strategy that if you are at the wrong time, in the wrong place, you can expect to get shot.

  6. Bruce

    I suppose if the rhinos were using wmd's on the humans I'd understand your argument, save the poachers.

  7. gmarmot

    I'm not quite sure what you actually mean, but assume that you are saying that I hate people as opposed to animals. If so, you are wrong. I do believe (actually I know) that humans are far too prevalent on this planet, and virtually all of our ecological problems stem from an over-abundance of people, and this is going to decimate us in the relatively near future (50 to 120 years or so).
    The fact that we are an apex predator is not the issue. The issue is that we are a technological predator who has no conscience with the ability to wipe out so many species that we destroy our own niche. In fact, we are well on the way to doing that now.
    I fully understand that you feel that an apex predator has the "right" to destroy whatever he seeks to, but also know that in doing so, we are wrecking our own habitat. We are the first predator to use technology, and that is not wrong; what is wrong is that humans don't understand, nor care to understand ecology. An example is sending food aid to needy third world populations without demanding immediate birth control. The needy folks can then survive while they do what has been natural; they continue to have many kids. The difference now is that most of these offspring live to reproduce themselves. So instead of merely helping X number of them, within 20 years we end up needing to help 2X number. At some point 1st world people will be unable to help, and therefore we end up killing far more than would have died if we left them alone.
    Sorry to disappoint you, but when technology allows us to act stupidly, that is wrong, and we ARE and WILL end up paying the ultimate price within a very few years, as normal ecology no longer applies.

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