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The other side of the Kaziranga story

Live Mint
New Delhi
10 Mar 2017

In another five years, the BBC will celebrate its broadcasting century.

The BBC has, in many ways, defined public broadcasting of documentaries and news and brought credibility to the search for truth.

But Killing For Conservation seemed to subvert all that it has stood for: informed debate, analysis with scholarship, balanced views.

This 23-minute documentary, written and presented by Justin Rowlatt, was broadcast on BBC News last month. It says the forest guards in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, home to two-thirds of the world’s One-horned Rhino population, have orders to kill poachers.

Rowlatt announces this in the first minute of the film and proceeds to prove it in the next 22. Good documentary film-making requires us to investigate the truth from multiple perspectives before arriving at a subjective version of it. Unlike raw news, documentaries are meant to be subjective, a personal position on the issue by way of honest inquiry. But Rowlatt doesn’t provide any other views. Viewers don’t have enough context to make a choice to reject his argument. Rowlatt wins in the end. Or does he?

Kaziranga has been a difficult space for conservation. The park, open on three sides, with the Brahmaputra river making up the fourth side, has always left the rhino vulnerable. There’s a high price on the rhino horn, rumoured to be a cure for cancer, in Chinese and Vietnamese traditional medicine.

Poaching numbers in the last 30 years in Kaziranga underline the constant threat to the rhinos. In the neighbouring Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuary, the entire population of 41 rhinos were butchered in 1983. Every monsoon, the swollen Brahmaputra drowns hundreds of animals. Some of the rhinos that cross into human habitations to escape the waters walk into killing traps.

Politically, the Karbi Anglong area bordering Kaziranga is a charged space where armed insurgent groups are active. The easy availability of AK-47s has made this the preferred weapon to poach the rhino.

The film, however, doesn’t explain this context. Rowlatt uses a broad brush to paint the entire history of rhino conservation in Kaziranga as “kill to conserve”. He talks of just two poaching convictions in three years and 50 killings of poachers. The numbers are spot on, but he does not mention the low rate of conviction in India because of lack of sharp intelligence gathering and weak legal systems.

He insinuates that killing poachers is the only form of protection Kaziranga offers. He doesn’t talk about the 1,247 personnel, the 178 anti-poaching camps, including floating camps on the Brahmaputra, or the surveillance cameras.

Kaziranga is as much a story of the rhino as it is of the guts and gumption of forest guards working in hostile terrain. Yes, guns never have resolved conservation conflicts. But Rowlatt failed to trigger a sensitive debate on guns and rhinos and show a way forward.

Krishnendu Bose is an internationally awarded wildlife conservation film-maker. His latest film, on tigers, premiered on Discovery channel this year.