Rahul Karmakar, The Hindu | June 3, 2020
The grenade is not a rhino hunter’s preferred weapon. But one such explosive seized along with Kalashnikov assault rifles from a group that killed a one-horned rhino in Kaziranga National Park (KNP) on May 5 made wildlife officials realise this — they were up against “more than just poachers”.
What hit them harder was that the rhino, the first to be killed in 13 months, may have ended up saving a team of police and forest protection force personnel who tracked the killers for three months.
“Assam has had a history of poaching, but there are no records of grenades having been seized from them. The Chinese grenade found with three people arrested yesterday (Tuesday) pointed to a long-term planning by the kind of poachers we have dealt with earlier,” said Debojit Deuri, Superintendent of Police of Karbi Anglong district.
Karbi Anglong adjoins the southern edge of the 898 sq. km. KNP, which has about 2,400 rhinos. The jungles on the hills of Karbi Anglong are a refuge for animals of the park when it is flooded during the monsoon months.
Links to Extremism
Of the three arrested, Biki Thapa and Simon Lakra of central Assam’s Nagaon district had cases of poaching against them. The other one, David Siama from Manipur’s Churachandpur, is believed to be involved with an extremist group.
Apart from a hand grenade, an AK-81, two AK-56 rifles, a double-barrel gun and 400 rounds of assorted ammunition were seized from them.
Following the leads provided by the intelligence agencies, the police tracked Mangboi Paite, another member of the group. “A massive manhunt was launched after he was killed in an encounter at Dhansiri [near Karbi Anglong headquarters Diphu] on May 28,” Mr. Deuri said.
According to Diphu-based Inspector-General of Police Satyaraj Hazarika, who coordinated the operation with KNP Director P. Sivakumar, the kind of ammunition the hunters carried blurred the line between poachers and extremists.
Karbi Anglong, adjoining Nagaland, has several extremist groups — some engaged in talks with the government, some dormant. But each group has been producing factions that veer towards illegal trade in wildlife body parts, specifically rhino horns, although it was left to “outsourced” locals to do the hunting.
The groups include Karbi Land Protection Force, People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri, Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger, United People’s Liberation Force and United People’s Democratic Solidarity.
“The latest catch indicates that extremist groups with more firepower are getting directly involved in rhino poaching. This group had planned five operations and tried to dominate the areas bordering KNP. We lost a rhino but the rhino save the lives of many of us,” Mr. Sivakumar said.
The police and wildlife officials said the capture of Thapa and Lakra, who were among the most wanted, might not guarantee an end to poaching. “There are too many splinter groups coming up with strategies. You never know when, how or where another group will strike,” Mr. Deuri said.
Prior to the May 5 incident in Agratoli range of KNP, the last rhino-poaching was reported on April 1, 2019, from Biswanath division of the park across the Brahmaputra river. It was the 110th rhino killed since 2012.