The missing link - Rhinos and their human neighbours

The latest tragedy to hit the nation is the spate of rhino killings inside the Chitwan National Park, with heart-rending scenes frequently flashed over the TV screens. And the people who are caught or suspected of poaching them happen to be their poor human neighbours such as the Chepangs, although they obviously do not have the wherewithal to transport their precious booty, the horns, to the Chinese and Taiwanese buyers, who, in turn, sell them for prices several times their weight in gold. The chief culprits of this organised felony have never been brought to book and reportedly have strong links with people in the corridors of power in both politics and bureaucracy. They not only remain scot-free but also procure the acquittal of the frontline criminals from their incarceration, which perpetuates rhinos’ slaughter anew.

While the minister concerned has assured the nation that the government will make the penalty for such criminals more stringent, he has said little about busting the powerful gangs that are behind those poverty-stricken frontline butchers. Unless corruption ceases to be a part of our political norm, such gangs will continue to work overtime to decimate our rhino population in the same way that our forests were plundered by them until the empowerment of forest users in 1988. Therefore, while stiff penalties for rhino poachers would be a welcome development, it will hardly be sufficient to stem the butchering. For this, other complementary measures should be contemplated.

In most community forests, rules are in place to impose cash fines on people who steal firewood, fodder and timber. However, in Kusum Khola community forest user group (FUG) in Palpa district, the arrangement is even more foolproof. While transgressors are levied a fine of a day’s wage, Rs. 60 in 1998, the person reporting about it is paid fifty per cent, i.e. Rs. 30 to encourage such reporting. But the Kusum Khola FUG has tightened the screw further. If someone, having sighted or learned about such unauthorised logging, fails to report about it to the FUG committee, he would be slapped with twice the regular fine, i.e. Rs. 120. Hence the guilty spectator stands to lose a net of Rs. 150 instead of earning Rs. 30. In one incident, a villager reported a theft to the FUG’s forest guard, who immediately set off to apprehend the transgressors only to find that one of them was his own wife, thus requiring him to cough up Rs. 60 in fine, of which, Rs. 30 went to the informer. Rules like these assured the total participation and commitment of the users and unhindered growth of their forests.

There are lessons to be learned from such experiences for the protection of rhinos in Chitwan, where the national park is surrounded by community forests managed by the local people among whom vested interests could be developed to protect the rhino population. At least in one case in Kumroj VDC, a small farmer cooperative has invested some of its resources to build a pucca machhan with facilities for overnight stay, where the tourists could spend the night and view the rhinos roaming around from close quarters. The closeness of the local people to the rhinos was such that they even seem to be able to identify the magnificent creatures individually. Since all inhabitants of a particular locality are members and active participants in the decision making process of the local FUGs, measures could be taken to include them as stakeholders of the benefits accrued from a protected and flourishing rhino population. Such arrangements would make the protection of rhinos a matter of common concern among the locals. Such moves would discourage the locals from being recruited as the poachers. Even when there lurks an occasional black sheep or two, evil designs can be nipped in the bud with common understanding.

In this connection, targeted grants to the FUGs and other kind of cooperative arrangements could establish a symbiotic relationship between the locals and the park authorities. As in Kusum Khola, the Chitwan FUGs too could be counted on to come up with innovative methods to ward off the poachers with or outside the concerned groups with the help of positive and negative incentives. For instance, ouster from the forest user group would deny the poacher access to forest resources that will make h/her household impossible to sustain. Such an arrangement of mutual cooperation would provide an invaluable opportunity to sensitise the population living around the park to working together to protect the rhino. Unless the people seek accommodation with the rhinos, the latter would always be at a particular disadvantage. Besides, the cooperation and support the locals extend could even result in a much more economic method for the protection of these endgangered animals as most of the costs can be absorbed by the communities themselves as part of their own efforts at forest conservation.

Shrestha is a development anthropologist