No horn spared: Assam government promises indiscriminate action against illegal trade of rhino horns

However, it’s a given that the message is of less concern to poachers, who over the years have become skilled and tech-savvy in rhino hunting, and for them poaching is simply a lucrative business. The real force of this illegal trade comes from consumers in East Asia.


By A.H. Sarah

Precarious is the fate of the last remaining species of megafauna on Earth. They have been hunted for thousands of years and even today, they are being hunted, but illegally. And one such megafauna is the rhinoceros, or rhino, which often bears the brunt of poaching; thanks to its much sought-after body part – the horn.

This makes the three national parks – Kaziranga, Manas and Orang, and Pobitora Wild Life Sanctuary in Assam especially important. Over 2,000 of the 4,000 or so Indian rhinos, also called the greater one-horned rhino, are found here. In fact, over seventy per cent of the total rhino population of the world, in general, resides in the state. Once a natural fixture of the Indo-Gangetic Plains, their range has reduced to mostly Assam and they live under routine surveillance in order to stop their poaching and smuggling.

Over the years, the state's forest department has amassed a couple of thousand rhino horns, as more and more of the budget has been provisioned to save the ill-fated rhino. On September 22, 2020, dubbed the World Rhino Day, the government declared that poaching had reduced by nearly eight-six per cent in three years.

Exactly a year later, the Assam government has sent a stronger message to both the poachers and traders by publicly burning 2,479 of 2,623 rhino horns reconciled between 1979 and 2021 in the state, in an almost celebratory note at the Bokakhat Stadium in Golaghat district. The burning was witnessed by the Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Forest Minister Parimal Suklabaidya, among others. Another 94 horns have been kept aside for research and preservation, while 29 will find use in court cases and the remaining 21 were adjudged fake by a high-level committee that was especially formed by the Assam Cabinet as part of the rhino horn re-verification exercise.

Biswa's message is singular and straight – rhino horns are useless and devoid of any value, and no cultural or emotional attachment will be considered in destroying them permanently as well destroying any new reconciled horns from here on. The public burning, the first-of-its-kind in Assam as well as in India is meant to dispel myths about the purported benefits of rhino horns in traditional medicine.

However, it’s a given that the message is of less concern to poachers, who over the years have become skilled and tech-savvy in rhino hunting, and for them poaching is simply a lucrative business. The real force of this illegal trade comes from consumers in East Asia.

One prominent thorn in the protection of rhinos worldwide has been China, which legalised the use of rhino horns and tiger bones for medical purposes and research in 2018 to the outrage of countries such as India, which have seen their numbers dwindle owing to China's indigenous medical practices. Indeed, the issue of Assam's rhinos is not simply one of conservation against deforestation, but a diplomatic battle against giants and neighbours. Appendix I of The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora lists all extant species of the rhino as illegal to trade since 1977. Yet, the demand for rhino horns in East Asia seems unabated by these international laws and the national laws of countries with rhino populations. In the Asian black market, a single kilogram of rhino horn can cost about $65,000 or about ₹4,800,000. This attractive blood money, in part, has made it tempting for poachers to indiscriminately kill rhinos.

Against this background, the seriousness of the Biswa government's anti-poaching campaign is reflected in the chief minister unequivocally rejecting the suggestion to create revenue for the state by selling the confiscated rhino horns. Indeed, Biswa compared such the problematic suggestion to a state making revenue from illicit drugs — unethical and counterproductive.

In the Bokakhat Stadium, the rhino horns required six giant pyres to burn to ashes, which were also disposed of to avoid their illegal trade. The performance should send a message to traders and consumers, and even the sentimental, that the government will be indiscriminate in destroying the illegal trade of rhino horns. Yet, the symbolic burning also comes with its own share of controversy. Chairperson of media department, Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC), Bobeeta Sarma condemned the "śrāddha" (a ceremony in honour of the dead) held by the government for the burning, accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party leadership of communalising the wildlife conservation issue.

Such is the fate of the politics of conservation in Assam that both the killing and preserving of rhinos is tinged with strong cultural and religious sentiments and it is a small glimpse into the complicated task of how well the state government and Opposition, along with regional bodies, collaborate in preserving the rhino.

And only time will tell what the people of Assam and the Government of India can promise the dying race of rhinoceros.

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