Leonardo DiCaprio lauds Assam state for putting a stop to rhino poaching in 2022

Assam state in north-east India has won international appreciation for its successful efforts to stop rhino poaching, with zero deaths recorded in 2022.

The Indian state of Assam made international headlines recently when Oscar-winning Hollywood actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio praised the state government for its efforts to curb poaching of the endangered one-horned rhinoceros in 2022.

No rhinos poached after over four decades

Di Caprio’s comments came days after the Assam government revealed that not a single rhino was poached in Assam in 2022, for the first time in 45 years. The state’s chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma recently said that no rhinos were poached last year at Kaziranga, Manas, and Orang national parks, nor at Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, which serves as one-horned rhinos’ habitat in the state.

The announcement reveals a tremendous accomplishment for a state where 191 rhinos were poached between 2000 and 2021. Around 27 deaths were reported between 2013 and 2014. Two rhinos were killed in 2020 and 2021. The rhinos have been continuously hunted for their horns since 1978. GP Singh, who chaired a special task force to put an end to poaching in Assam, posted data on Twitter revealing the initiative’s success. “Anti-rhino-poaching efforts have yielded spectacular results. There has been no rhino poaching in Assam in the year 2022. The last case of poaching was on December 28, 2021, at Hilakunda, Kohora in Golaghat district. We are striving to keep the graph flat,” Singh tweeted.

rhino poaching in assam
No rhinos were killed by poachers in the state of Assam in 2022 © Aaranyak

The Indian rhino, an endangered animal

The Indian rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) is listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 as an endangered animal. There is an international ban on the trade of rhino horns under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. The Indian rhinoceros is found in Brahmaputra Valley, in the northern portion of the neighbouring state of West Bengal, and in parts of southern Nepal.

The animal has a single black horn that can grow up to 60 cm, and a tough, grey-brown hide with skin folds, which gives the animal its characteristic armour-plated look. The Indian rhino is listed as vulnerable (better than endangered, worse than near threatened) in the IUCN Red List. Previously, it had been placed in the endangered category.

According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), there are around 3700 rhinos in the wild. Kaziranga National Park is home to the largest population, with 2,613 animals, based on the census carried out in March 2022. Around 250 rhinos are also present in the Orang, Pobitora and Manas National Parks.

Steps to curb rhino poaching

The killing of rhinos by poachers has been a major cause of concern for wildlife enthusiasts and state governments. The animal is poached for its horn, which is prized in some cultures. Moreover, rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine to cure a range of ailments, from cancer to hangovers, and also as an aphrodisiac. In Vietnam, a rhino horn is also considered a status symbol. The persistent demand for rhinos makes them vulnerable to poaching.

The Assam government has been very keen to stop rhino poaching and repair its image in the international community. Sources said the efforts to fully curb rhino poaching began when the state’s incumbent Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took office in May 2021. He immediately called a meeting of senior officials and gave them stern instructions to draw a roadmap to stop the killing of rhinos.

rhino poaching in Assam
The Assam government went to great lengths to curb rhino poaching © Aaranyak

In June 2021, a special task force was created (chaired by GP Singh, Assam’s Special DGP) comprising 22 senior police and forest department officials. Earlier, the forest and police departments worked independently to stop wildlife crimes but the task force brought them together and the efforts become concrete against poachers.

The state’s Chief Wildlife Warden MK Yadava, who was also part of the team, said that the task force helped to gather intelligence both from forest and police sources and tackle the poachers and stop the illegal activities in a better way, “The task force also created a database of past incidents of rhino poaching with details of when, how and where it took place. Data on all possible entry and exit points used by poachers for illegal activities in various parks in Assam and the details of the criminals were also collected.”

Success story

The state government also took a major step on World Rhino Day (September 22) in 2021 when it publicly burnt around 2,500 rhino horns in order to bust myths about their value, sending a clear message to poachers that their activities would not be tolerated. Drones were also used to keep an eye on poachers and stop them from killing rhinos at Kaziranga National Park, which covers an area of 480 square kilometres. The drones were equipped with cameras and proved helpful to monitor even the remotest areas in the reserve.

rhino poaching in assam
Drones were put to use to catch the poachers © Aaranyak

The WWF has called the recovery of the greater one-horned rhino one of the greatest conservation success stories in Asia. According to the State of the Rhinos Report 2022, the total population of one-horned rhinos, found only in India, Nepal and Bhutan, is 4,012. Environmentalists have also praised the efforts of the Assam government in curbing poaching.

“It is very necessary for the state government to continue its efforts and not get overly affected by 2022 being a zero poaching year. There is a need for stringent vigilance and action to maintain the record as poachers and smugglers likely still have plans to hunt rhinos,” said Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, founder of Aaranyak, an NGO working for wildlife conservation in Assam. “We also stationed six of our sniffer dog units in four rhino-bearing areas to assist the efforts of the state forest government for intensive vigilance to protect rhinos.”

The seriousness of the state government and various stakeholders was vital in stopping the bloodshed of rhinos in Assam last year and hopefully, this trend will continue.

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