India's 'shoot on sight' conservation terrorises indigenous communities

| 20th April 2016
Dozens of people have been shot on sight in Kaziranga in recent years. The park guards are immune from prosecution. Photo: © Survival International.

Dozens of people have been shot on sight in Kaziranga in recent years. The park guards are immune from prosecution. Photo: Survival International.

The endangered Bengal Tiger and One-horned Rhino desperately need protection, writes Lewis Evans. But in India's Kaziranga National Park, 'fortress conservation' includes a brutal 'shoot on sight' policy that is terrorising local communities, many of them tribal. Indigenous peoples are the natural allies of conservation and need to be engaged in constructive solutions - not shot!
The aim of the 'shoot on sight' policy is clearly to maximize casualties and execute as many suspected poachers as possible - without the need to find evidence of their involvement in poaching, arrest them, or put them on trial.

Kaziranga National Park in northeastern India recently hosted Prince William and Kate, and is famous across India for its tigers, its one-horned rhinos - and its ruthless 'shoot to kill' rule for suspected poachers.

Under this policy, anyone park guards suspect of poaching can be immediately shot: no trial, no jury, no judge or laws or charges.

Park guards are armed with assault weapons and are not only given legal impunity when they kill suspects, but are incentivized to do so with cash bonuses, according to Save the Rhino which opposes the policy.

To increase the guards' reach, local people are apparently rewarded with money if they report people they suspect of poaching. This encourages snooping and local vendettas, and risks tearing communities apart.

There is no way of telling whether the people who end up being shot actually were poachers. Further, impunity allows the guards to shoot people on the merest suspicion they are planning to poach even if they haven't actually done anything.

Nearby tribal peoples are losing their land to the reserve, and are increasingly intimidated by armed park guards. Many of them have been shot at, despite no evidence at all that they were involved in poaching, and in spite of having innocent reasons for wanting to enter the reserve, such as to retrieve cattle that had wandered just over the boundary limit.

Most of the poachers who have been found are from miles outside the area, according to the park director in a 2014 report, many from different states in India.

'Open war'

There can be no doubt that the principal aim of Kaziranga's 'shoot to kill' policy is to execute as many poachers as possible, without any involvement from outside legal authorities. Guards have a special dispensation which effectively puts them above the law, and are motivated to kill.

An acrostic featured in the park director's report "SMART COMMUNICATION" features the lines "N: Never allow any unauthorized entry (kill the unwanted)" and "M: Must obey or get killed" - maxims which would seem extreme even in a military context, let alone one of wildlife conservation.

The report adds: "So far this year nine poachers have been killed, many arrested, and at least five poachers received fatal bullet injuries (and might have died elsewhere ...) However, this is also not enough." The aim is clearly to maximize casualties and execute as many suspected poachers as possible - without the need to find evidence of their involvement in poaching, arrest them, or put them on trial.

And all of this is taking place in a politically sensitive border region of India with a history of armed conflict and many tribal communities, who bear no responsibility for the endangerment of local wildlife by imperial British hunters and loss of habitat - but who are now being punished as part of an effort to limit the damage.

In the past decade, at least 62 people have been summarily executed under this policy. The man who oversaw it for nine years, Bishan Singh Bonal, who is now head of the Indian National Tiger Conservation Authority, described his time in charge as "open war" and has spoken about the heavy toll it took on his staff.

Nevertheless, he believes the policy to be justified, and it may well be coming soon to other parks and reserves in India. Inevitably, it will once again be innocent tribes who suffer as a result of this officially sanctioned brutality.

A serious human rights issue

The policy is not nearly as controversial as it should be. Extrajudicial execution, no matter how terrible the crime it is administered as punishment for, inevitably leads to knee-jerk violence and chaos in the areas where it takes place. It bypasses all judicial checks and balances and gives low-ranking authorities the power of life and death over fellow citizens.

Worse, it has serious implications for tribal peoples and the increasingly hard-line conservation authorities who are given power over their ancestral lands.

As far as many Indian conservationists are concerned, tribespeople are a nuisance, primitive people, likely to be involved in poaching and in direct conflict with wildlife. There is absolutely no reason to believe any of this. After all, tribespeople have lived peacefully alongside creatures like the tiger for generations and live far more sustainable lives than almost anyone in the industrialized world.

It was not tribes who decimated the population of the Bengal Tiger by hunting on a massive scale for sport. It is not tribes who are now powering the destruction of flora and fauna through extractive industries and urbanization.

Yet it is tribes who apparently must suffer the consequences of conservation policy: eviction, assault, and even death, as part of an effort to limit the damage.

The best guardians of the natural world

Of course poaching is a terrible crime. Endangered species and their habitats should be protected, and the criminal gangs who profit from the trade in their viciously procured body parts should be investigated, punished, and deterred. But to say that the solution to this problem is to have gangs of armed men patrolling the reserves and employing violence above the law is to go too far.

Conservationists should be working with local communities, not criminalizing them, stealing their land and claiming to know how to administer it better. They should certainly not be encouraging the liberal use of summary execution against often innocent people.

One Indian journalist has quipped that in the heat of the moment, park guards could not possibly know the difference between say, an environmental reporter doing their job, and a poacher stalking his prey. The policy is not only absurd, it is also deeply immoral.

This is an extremely emotive issue, but it has to be treated with a proper concern for human rights, especially for the rights of some of the most vulnerable peoples on Earth - tribes. We cannot allow our passion for conserving the environment, or the rage we feel on seeing a picture of a butchered rhino's horn or dead tiger cub blind us to this.

At Survival, we hope that influential conservation patrons like Prince William will start to acknowledge the humanitarian side of conservation, and encourage Indian authorities to respect the rights of tribes.



Lewis Evans is a campaigner at Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples' rights.

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here