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Reinventing Nature: Rhinoceros conservation in Kaziranga National Park, 1948-1974

Summary of a talk by Biswajit Sarmah

Kaziranga National Park in Assam is home to nearly two-thirds of the world’s 4,000 surviving greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis). The return of the rhino – from near-extinction in the early twentieth century – serves as one of the most remarkable conservation successes of the century. This success is often attributed to strict protection afforded by the forest department of Assam. However, the park’s history tells us a more nuanced story of an inclusive approach behind the revival of the rhino.

In this talk, Biswajit Sarmah focussed on Kaziranga’s transition from a little-known wildlife sanctuary to a famous national park in the first 25 years since India’s independence. These years not only saw the return of the rhinos but also a decisive change in the approach to rhino protection from an accommodative attitude towards rural livelihood to exclusive and armed rhino protection.

Traditionally, the rhino did not feature in Assamese literature or folklore. However, the rhino received immense global attention after the Second World War. For the Assamese people – long concerned over whether they were known sufficiently outside Assam – the rhino emerged as a powerful symbol of recognition. The Government of Assam exported at least 23 rhinos to various foreign and Indian zoos from 1947 to 1961. These rhinos were Assam’s new global envoys. The Assamese political leaders made concerted efforts to conserve the rhino, popularise it as a symbol of Assamese culture, and attract foreign tourists to Kaziranga.

Kaziranga inherited several grazing and fishing rights from the colonial period. Experts like Salim Ali recommended a complete ban on grazing and resource use within Kaziranga. However, senior forest officials like P.D. Stracey decided to allow the graziers and fishers along the edges of the sanctuary. These concessions were made expressly to win the loyalty of the community to protect the rhino. Moderate protection and a community-inclusive approach paid off as the rhino population revived substantially. But change was afoot.

In the 1950s, while a remarkable conservation success was unfolding in Kaziranga, its neighbourhood suffered extraordinary agrarian and ecological distress from the flood and erosions. Landless peasants cleared the last remaining buffers and corridors in search of land. Flood and erosion drove people to landlessness, poverty and hunger, and their dependency on the sanctuary increased. From around 1960, bands of peasants (in nexus with local petty traders) entered the sanctuary to kill the rhino for its horn. From 1965 to 1970, at least 55 rhinos fell to illegal hunters in Kaziranga.

The illegal rhino killings incensed the Assamese middle-class, who considered the rhino a powerful symbol of their identity. The issue of rhino killing joined the long list of anxieties of the Assamese people: illegal immigration from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the territorial division of Assam to create new states like Nagaland and Mizoram, amongst others. In this context, the rhino, especially its illegal killing for horns, became a powerful symbol of dissent in Assam. The forest officials viewed the graziers and fishers as collusive in rhino killing. The political brass was convinced that the rhino cannot be protected in the presence of the graziers and fishers. The political brass that hitherto tried to balance conservation and agrarian rights gradually shifted it priorities towards creating wilderness in Kaziranga by banning grazing, fishing and forest produce collection.

Even amidst such turmoil, a census in 1966 showed 366–400 rhinos in Kaziranga. This evidence of success came around when there were speculations about the tiger vanishing from India, and even experts were not sure if the lion in the Gir forests had finally returned. Kaziranga’s stellar personality, persistent threat to the rhino and its growing cultural value paved for a new kind of protectionist regime in Kaziranga. In this new regime, there was no place for the graziers, fishers, and forest produce collectors, at least normatively. While converting the Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary into a national park, the Government of Assam removed the graziers and banned fishing.

So between 1948 and 1974, Kaziranga not only transformed into a famous national park but also saw crucial changes in its relationship with the neighbourhood. The accommodation of the rural rights was central to the success of conserving the rhino. But by 1970, ‘total protection’ – which was only recent – began to be seen as the driver of the success. While the rhino made a comeback, Kaziranga lost significant buffers and corridors to ago-ecological devastations. Most importantly, the rhino did not receive any ecological research. The rhino largely remained a cultural icon, which meant that its cultural politics instead of ecological science determined its conservation in the decades to come.

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