World Rhino Day: Why Assam is burning nearly 2,500 one-horned rhino horns

The rhino horns were stored for decades in treasuries across Assam. (File)

World Rhino Day on Wednesday, September 22, is being marked in Assam with a special ceremony by burning nearly 2,500 one-horned rhinoceros horns. The Assam Cabinet announced the decision last week after the forest department’s ‘rhino horn reverification’ exercises lasting weeks.

The purpose
The public ceremony at Bokakhat in Kaziranga National Park with Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma as chief guest has been billed as a milestone in rhino conservation and aimed at busting myths regarding their horns. Assam Chief Wildlife Warden M.K. Yadava said it was a clear message to poachers and smugglers that these items had no value.

However, such horns fetch high prices in the illegal market. The forest department said in a release the traditional Chinese medicine used ground rhino horn for a range of ailments, such as cancer and hangovers, as well as an aphrodisiac. Possessing a rhino horn in Vietnam is considered to be a status symbol. Poaching pressure on rhinos continues to be persistent due to the demand in these countries, the department said, adding that the guard could not be lowered as a result.

Thus, the department decided to destroy the horns — a process complying with the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. According to a Gauhati High Court ruling, the government held a public hearing on the issue last month but there were no public objections, officials said.

Bibhab Talukdar, the CEO and Secretary General of Aaranyak, an NGO, said India had signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Selling the horns in India is illegal, he said.

Talukdar, who serves as chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Asian Rhino Specialist Group’s Asian Rhino Specialist Group, said instead of allowing the horns to decay in treasuries, the decision to burn these would send the message that these are not medicines.

The horns
The rhino horns were stored for decades in treasuries across Assam. The forest department keeps in state treasuries the rhino horn — a compacted mass of hair — after it dies, either of natural causes or by poaching.

Between August and September, the department conducted ‘horn reverification’ exercises across treasuries in seven wildlife zones and examined over 2,500 horns. The multi-step process included an expert committee of wildlife experts, technicians, DFOs, and forensic specialists who examined, weighed, measured, tagged, and extracted DNA from each horn for genetic sampling. The exercise aimed to re-count and re verify the horns. While the majority of these horns will be destroyed, 5 per cent with unique characteristics were set aside for preservation.

The department completed the verification process on September 12. Of the 2,623 horns examined, 2,479 are to be destroyed and 94 marked for preservation. Among the department’s finds were the heaviest horn, weighing 3.05 kg and measuring 36 cm from Bokakhat treasury and the longest horn measuring 51.5 cm and weighing 2.5 kg from the Guwahati treasury. Fifteen African rhino horns were also reconciled, while 21 were found to be fake.

Prior exercises
While the department has never publicly destroyed the horns, it did undertake a reverification exercise in 2016 following allegations by RTI activist Dilip Nath that some department officials were trading horns in treasuries, replacing them with fakes.

However, only five horns were found to be fake during that exercise.

Poaching threat
the years leading up to 2013 and 2014 witnessed several rhino poaching cases being reported. At 27 a year, these two witnessed the incidents in a decade. The numbers have since fallen to 17 in 2015, 18 the following year, six each in 2017 and 2018, and three in 2019.

Talukdar said the number fell a bit in 2020-21, with two or three rhinos being poached. He added that it was a well-organised crime and they shouldn’t let their guard down.

The one-horned rhino, earlier tagged as “endangered” on the IUCN Red List, is now defined as “Vulnerable.”

A dedicated Special Rhino Protection Force was set up by the Assam government in 2019 to check poaching at Kaziranga National Park. A rhino census in March 2018 found the population at the sanctuary to be 2,413, 102 in Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, and 101 in Orang National Park. According to a more recent census, there were 43 rhinos at Manas National Park.

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