Officials in one of India’s north-eastern states have asked federal investigators to help track down militants suspected of using automatic weapons to kill rare one-horned rhinos.
Tarun Gogoi, Chief Minister of Assam, told reporters he was asking the Central Bureau of Investigation for its help after learning that AK-47 rifles had been used to kill at least half-a-dozen rhinos in the past month in Kaziranga National Park.
The state of Assam has repeatedly been plagued by poachers hunting the rhino for their horn, which is used in east Asian and South-east Asian traditional medicines. Last year, at least 21 of the animals were killed in the state; this year the total already stands at eight.
The national park of Kaziranga, first established in 1905 and located around 150 miles east of the state capital Guwahati, is home to an estimated 2,500 out of the world’s 3,000 one-horned rhinos. There are other, smaller populations in several other Indian states and around 100 or so in the southern part of Nepal. Local officials have attempted various methods to try to control poaching. But the prevalence of militant groups – some still considered active and those which are not – after decades of unrest has meant Assam is an area where there are many weapons and many men able to use them.
The porous nature of the borders with Burma and Bangladesh does not make matters any easier for those tasked with protecting the wildlife. Officials say they suspect militants are behind the attacks because of the spent ammunition from automatic weapons associated with such groups that has been recovered.
This is not the first time that militants have been blamed for the killing of the animals, despite the state government offering a reward of 500,000 rupees (£11,000) for information about poachers. Last December, members of one group, the Karbi Peoples’ Liberation Tigers, shot dead a rhino and tried to take away its horn. It is assumed the militants sell the horns in order to buy weapons.
Reports suggest that there has been additional pressure on Assam as a result of improved security in other countries known as a source of illegal rhino horn, such as South Africa.
“The trouble is that while there is money to be made, people will risk their lives,” said Ashok Kumar, of the Wildlife Trust of India.
He said that Yemen had once also been a market for rhino horn but that activists had been able to persuade people to use buffalo horn instead.