On Monday July 18, a seven-year-old boy was shot in the legs in Kaziranga National Park in northeastern India, by park guards. Under the park’s long-established anti-poaching policy, guards are trained to shoot intruders on sight, and given total legal immunity for doing so. At least sixty-two people have been executed there in just nine years.
There is a lot about the incident that is unclear, least of all the rather confused account the guards themselves gave. What is clear is that the consequences for Akash and his family have been devastating. He is reportedly in a critical condition in hospital, and facing the loss of at least one of his limbs. The rest of his life will be shaped by this shooting, and his family may struggle to cope.
The boy is an Adivasi – as India’s tribal people are known. His prospects look bleak. His village faces eviction from their land as the park authorities look to expand the park. They face arrest and beatings, torture and death for entering their homelands while tourists are encouraged. Much of wider Indian society is turning a blind eye. In fact it’s worse than that. Not only do many ignore violence against tribal people (even innocent children) but many would say that the reason the park authorities have given for opening fire on him justifies their crime. For you see, Kaziranga park guards frequently shoot intruders in the name of wildlife conservation.
Kaziranga is home to many endangered species, most notably tigers and the one-horned rhinos that have made it famous. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Assam state, as its lush lowland forests provide a habitat for several iconic species. Prince William and Kate recently went there as part of an official visit, and were photographed petting baby rhinos and having earnest conversations with park rangers. Coverage of this visit did not mention the frequent killings that underpin the park’s management.
Poaching is undoubtedly a problem in the area. Rhinos are regularly killed for their horns, which fetch huge prices in neighboring China and southeast Asia for their supposed medicinal properties. But the response from the park guards has been excessive to the point of insanity. They are armed with rifles and are not only permitted, but positively encouraged to shoot any human intruders on sight. A 2014 report from the park’s director made this clear: Kaziranga guards must “kill the unwanted,” shooting first and wondering whether the figure walking through the long grass in front of them is a poacher or not, second. As a result, they have just shot a seven-year-old boy and probably maimed him for life.
There is another name human rights lawyers apply to “shooting on sight” – extrajudicial execution. If this were to be authorized for any other reason, be it political, religious, ethnic or otherwise, there would be outrage. But in the eyes of far too many, the need to combat poaching comes first. Violence is used against animals and park guards, so the argument goes, therefore extreme violence is the only viable counter-measure. Excessive brutality will deter poachers and bring justice for helpless creatures. If a few tribal seven-year-olds get caught in the crossfire, that is a price worth paying.
No mainstream conservationist would ever publicly make that argument, but in refusing to speak out against policies like this, or campaign against incidents like that which recently took place in Kaziranga, the big conservation organizations are doing us all a disservice, partnering with industry and tourism and destroying the environment’s best allies. WWF, the largest of them all, even promotes commercial tours in the park, and has certainly never publicly criticized the brutal policies that are in place there. Its members’ donations are used to fund training and equipment for the very guards who are now shooting seven-year-olds, but this has not yet been acknowledged as a problem by WWF’s leadership.
None of the arguments made in defense of shoot to kill conservation really hold up. In many ways, this kind of violence is harming conservation. It alienates local communities from the cause, when they have been dependent on and managed their environments for generations. Worse, having armed men patrol the area inevitably leads to corruption. In a poor and politically unstable part of India, guards getting involved in the illegal wildlife trade themselves – turning their weapons on the animals they are supposed to be protecting, for a quick buck – is all but inevitable. Recently, four Kaziranga officials were arrested for just this. Soon after, another more senior official was found with a huge cache of poached rhino horns in his office.
On the ground, the issue is not nearly as black and white as conservationists often present it. They like to portray poachers as highly organized, well-equipped, and well-armed. In reality, this is often not the case. The people who kill the animals and take their body parts are at the bottom of the poaching food chain – usually poor and desperate, and rarely profiting from the trade nearly as much as the people at the top. Moreover, arresting and trying them rather than executing them on the spot would give conservation authorities the chance to question the poachers and learn more about how they are organized.
Save the Rhino themselves recently said as much in a statement: “The highly organized nature of poaching syndicates means that the poacher ‘on the ground’ is doing the dirty work, but somewhere much higher up the chain is a criminal gang calling the shots.” They also advocated arresting and questioning poaching suspects rather than shooting them, both for the sake of the rule of law, and to get information from them. Shooting people on sight achieves nothing.
But it’s easier to kill a few poaching suspects and claim that you’re saving the tiger or rhino than it is to target the real poachers – criminals conspiring with corrupt officials. Structural social and economic issues have complex causes that have to be addressed sensibly. You have to identify and tackle the real problems – in the case of poaching, corrupt trade networks and demand for certain animal products in east Asian markets. Solutions to these sorts of problems are harder to find, but they would be infinitely more effective. Targeting tribal people diverts action away from tackling the true poachers – criminals conspiring with corrupt officials. Targeting tribal people harms conservation.
Evidence proves that tribal peoples are better at looking after their environment than anyone else. They are the best conservationists and guardians of the natural world. They should be at the forefront of the environmental movement. In the one tiger reserve in southern India where tribal people have won the right to stay, tiger numbers have increased at above the national average. Tribes do not need to be evicted or brutalized to protect wildlife. It’s a con. And it’s harming conservation.
None of this wider debate matters for Akash. He is still in hospital, Kaziranga’s park authorities are still in place, guards will continue to shoot to kill. Conservationists carry on holding up Kaziranga as a model to be emulated elsewhere and lavishing it with donations and eco-tours. Akash’s suffering is incidental as far as they are concerned, dismissed as regrettable collateral damage in the crusade to protect wildlife. Given the precedent set by previous incidents, including one where park guards shot a local man and then buried the body to hide all evidence, and another when a man was shot for trying to retrieve a cow that had wandered over the park boundary, it seems unlikely that he or his family will get justice.
It’s time for a new approach, for tribes, for nature, and for all humanity. We cannot ignore human rights and the rule of law for the sake of taking revenge on poachers, however sickening their crime might be. Instead of partnering with industry and tourism and destroying the environment’s best allies, or advocating martial law in national parks, conservationists should be working with tribal people, listening to them, addressing their concerns and using their considerable knowledge of their environment. They are the best conservationists and guardians of the natural world and deserve to be respected, not shot.
At Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, we’re fighting these abuses, for tribes, for nature, for all humanity. We hope that others will join our call for a new approach.