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Riding the Rhino: Conservation, Conflicts, and Militarisation of Kaziranga National Park in Assam

  • tata institute of social sciences guwahati


Since 2004, media and public opinion in Assam (India) have focused on increasing instances of poaching of rhinoceros for their horns and presence of Bengali-speaking Muslim peasants, especially in and around the iconic Kaziranga National Park. From hastily made digital films, to anti-poaching motifs at Durga Puja pandals, the plight of the rhinoceros has occupied an important position in an acrimonious political discourse on Assamese culture. The innocence and dignity attributed to the animal stands in marked contrast to the lack of discussion on the large numbers of young men who have been killed in anti-poaching campaigns by the state. This article looks at the interstices of class, culture and commerce in an attempt to understand the popular deification of the rhinoceros and implications of the developmental discourse that seeks to put people and rhino in their “rightful” place.
Riding the Rhino: Conservation,
Conflicts, and Militarisation of
Kaziranga National Park in Assam
Sanjay Barbora
School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati,
Assam, India;
Abstract: Since 2004, media and public opinion in Assam (India) have focused on
increasing instances of poaching of rhinoceros for their horns and presence of Bengali-
speaking Muslim peasants, especially in and around the iconic Kaziranga National Park.
From hastily made digital films, to anti-poaching motifs at Durga Puja pandals, the plight
of the rhinoceros has occupied an important position in an acrimonious political
discourse on Assamese culture. The innocence and dignity attributed to the animal stands
in marked contrast to the lack of discussion on the large numbers of young men who have
been killed in anti-poaching campaigns by the state. This article looks at the interstices of
class, culture and commerce in an attempt to understand the popular deification of the
rhinoceros and implications of the developmental discourse that seeks to put people
and rhino in their rightfulplace.
Keywords: development, militarisation, Assam, rhino poaching
Casting the Problem
The one-horned Indian rhinoceros has been enjoying a renaissance in the Indian
state of Assam since the last decade. Its image has adorned the buses of the Assam
State Transport Corporation (ASTC) since 1970. More recently, it has appeared in
the form of Tikhor, the playful mascot of the 12th South Asian Games that were held
in Guwahati and Shillong from 5 to 16 February 2016. Travellers who drive into
petrol stations are also likely to see the imprint of a red rhino emblem of Assam
Oil pasted on the pumps, and on bags of tea. However, all is not well with the
celebratory story of the animal. Since 2010, local print and electronic media have
reported several instances of rhino poaching, especially around the iconic
Kaziranga National Park (KNP), where the animals are hunted down for their horns.
Poaching is a high-stakes, lucrative affair that involves a motely cast of characters
such as politicians, government officials, smugglers, insurgents, petty criminals
and ordinary villagers. In this nebulous world, places like KNP and its picturesque
neighbourhood, are allegedly linked to other locations in India, Myanmar and
eventually to China. As a response, at least 24 young men were killed in Assam
(in different parks, but mainly within KNP) in 2015 alone. The forest department,
as well as the local media, say that these killings were the result of encounters
between forest guards and poachers.
This charged media imagery of the embattled and much loved rhino being killed
and the figure of the poacher has resulted in the emergence of yet another set of
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responses from the urban, middle class people of the state. In 2014, the Beltola area
of Guwahati city had an interesting motif for its Durga Puja display, an important
Hindu festival celebrated around September/October every year that had on display
the goddess smiting an evil poacher for killing a rhinoceros. The rhinos plight even
moved a local independent filmmakerRajkumarto make his own low-budget
film on rhino poaching, where he was both saviour and terminator. In his film, he
(the protagonist) teamed up with a tough forest officer and went in search of
Between the Durga Puja festivities and the slapstick film on YouTube,
it would appear that the rhinoceros has become a dense symbol for different parties
in a society emerging from more than three decades of counter-insurgency against
separatist rebel groups. Concern for the animal, much of it advertised via electronic
and print media, has welded together a particular idea of conservation, tourism and
regional sentiments that disregard the impoverishment of the agriculturalists living
along the fringes of the park.
These issues have an immediate political bearing as well. The current Prime
Minister of India singled out the predicament of the animal during the run up to
the parliamentary elections in 2014. He accused the Indian National Congress-led
government in Assam of colluding with undocumented immigrants from
Bangladesh and conspiring to rid Assam of rhinos, so that there could be more
space for settlers to come and cultivate in the marshes of KNP (Business Standard
2014). It is fairly imaginative to draw connections between migration and murder
in Assam, but bringing in the plight of the rhino into the incendiary mix is a new
phenomenon. Middle class persons who drive past KNP are prone to commenting
about the presence of cultivators with visible markersskullcaps, beards and
chequered wraparoundswho live along the fringes of the park. However, the
Prime Ministers electoral pronouncement on the issue was perhaps the first time
that there was an official connection drawn between disparate political concerns
in the public domain.
For people who were about to vote for new representatives
in the states legislative assembly, references to settlers and outsiders evoked
memories of violence that had become a regular feature of political mobilisation
in the state since the 1980s.
Assams contemporary politics has been defined by violence since the 1980s. The
conflicts coincide with contemporary concerns for conservation that had emerged
following a period when insurgents took refuge in Manas National Park, even
though conserving areas for wildlife go back to the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, when it was introduced (by the colonial administration) amid protests
from local peasants. In the last decade, instances of armed encounters between
insurgents and security personnel had reduced considerably and this in turn had
resulted in the expansion of tourism, particularly around the main national parks
in the state. Since then, I argue that the convergence of interest in the rhino marks
both continuity and a shift in political discourse in Assam. In 1991, the government
of India began counter-insurgency operations that were codenamed Operation
Rhino and had resulted in large-scale human rights violations. It was perhaps the
first time that the animal was invoked in military operations against insurgents, as
well as the civilian population. The terrain of counter-insurgency has continued
from an earlier generation between 1990 and 2009, where governments impunity
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for staged encounters between the military/police and armed insurgents has
allowed for similar incidents between forest guards and alleged poachers, while
invoking the animal again. There has also been a shift in the manner in which the
media and the urban middle classes have weighed in on the governments
anti-poaching drive, thereby acceding to evictions of farmers from certain villages
near KNP. In explicating the themes of this essay, I draw from a growing interest
in political ecology that sutures connections between conservation, violence and
conflict over contested resources that include wildlife parks and sanctuaries,
especially where local, state-led conservation efforts rely on eviction of
marginalised farmers while promoting tourism as a form of capital accumulation
(Brockington and Wilkie 2015; Craven 2016; Duffy 2016; Lunstrum 2014; Massé
and Lunstrum 2016; Peluso and Watts 2001).
To do so, I draw an outline of the growing interest in locating criminal activity
around KNP by looking at the lives and livelihoods of those who live around the
fringes of the park. Thereafter, I locate the historical development of interest in
conservation (in Assam), to a period when colonial institutions and discourses
created a particular hierarchy of belonging for animals and humans. Subsequently,
I show how this discourse has been carried over to the present day, especially in the
manner in which anti-poaching, pro-conservation individuals and institutions have
begun to find common ground with an alarmist anti-immigration political
discourse in the state.
Crime and Criminals in the Park
In May 2015, an activist who lived in a small town near the park addressed a
meeting of concerned citizens in Guwahati, where I teach and began to explain
the increasing cases of extra-judicial executions in and around his village. In the
pictures, armed police and paramilitary personnel stood around bodies of
emaciated young men, whose faces had been blown off. Their frail hands were
either folded neatly along their chests, or behind them (that almost suggested
that they were bound). In the past, such killings would have resulted in
large-scale protests from civil society organisations. The last three decades of
counter-insurgency in Assam had thrown up similar bodiessome claimed,
others notbut they became part of a documented resistance to extra-judicial
executions and excesses committed by the state (Talukdar et al. 2009). Barely a
few years since the infamous secret killings (19962001), these horrific pictures
did not elicit any public anger, save the visible anguish of the hunched young
man who showed them to the assembled group of people. I joined a team of
journalists and human rights activists that he put together to visit the park. Over
the next year, I returnedsometimes on my own and sometimes with other
researchers and journalistsfor shorter periods of time to understand how KNP
had become a site for violent contestations.
Horen Doley was a 22-year-old student of Numaligarh College (not very far from
KNP). A young man given to woodcarving, he had gone missing from his uncles
village where he had chosen to spend his summer vacation in June 2014. His
unclea farmerlived in a village close to KNP. The river Brahmaputra flowed
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barely a kilometre from the farmers house and one could see the embankments
from the open front of his raised house. The core area of the park lay to the east,
while the paddy fields and the Dhansiri River lay about four kilometres of the west.
About four or five kilometres to the south of the homestead was the town of
Golaghat and the hills of Karbi Anglong district. A narrow, pitched road veered
off the arterial highwayNational Highway 37to lead visitors away from the
bustling traffic and enterprise of Bokakhat town and into the farmers village. Barely
four kilometres towards the village, the tarred road constricted itself into an even
narrower mud track, where four wheelers would have to stop.
On the night he went missing, Horens aunt had cooked dinner for him. He had
annoyed her by slipping away, to smoke and party with some of his friends from
the village. Initially, the family members were not worried because most young
men often stayed out late with friends, especially since army operations against
insurgents had decreased in the area since the early 2000s. He had kept calling
his aunt and uncle from his mobile phone and informed them that he and his
friends would be out late. He was a good, handsome boy, our Horen and he loved
the animals in the park, his uncle said to us as he displayed the carvings of rhinos
and birds that the young man had done earlier to earn some extra money. In fact,
the ranger of KNP, impressed with the youths talents, had made vague promises
of a job to Horen. The ranger had had no qualms receiving gifts of curd and carved
animals from the young man, who thought that these efforts would help him get a
job working for the forest department. Horen never came back home that night.
Instead, a couple of days later his uncle and a few other villagers were told that
the body of a poacher had been sent to the morgue in Golaghat town (more than
50 kilometres away). Fearing the worst, the uncle had accompanied Horens father
to Golaghat, where they reclaimed Horens decaying, and maggot-filled body. His
death was reminiscent of the manner in which security forces would claim to have
killed insurgents throughout the 1990s. The circumstances of such deaths during
counter-insurgency operations were dubious and elicited protests from human
rights groups, as well as the courts of law (MASS 2000). Even in the 1990s, it was
almost impossible to prove that those killed were insurgents, as it was to show
evidence that Horen was involved with rhino poachers.
Such murders were not uncommon in KNP. Local villagers, police personnel,
lawyers and forest officials spoke about the enormity of the problem in a disturbing
media report that appeared on 31 January in the Hindustan Times (2016a).
According to the report, as many as 24 persons (allegedly poachers) were killed
in and around the core area of KNP in 2014 alone. Most families, including Horens,
who spoke to the journalists, were sure that the forest department had had
something to do with the killings. They questioned the timing and reliability of
the First Information Reports (FIR) that the forest department filed with the
police after an alleged encounter between them and poachers. The report took
special care to mention the discomfort local police personnel expressed when
handing over dead bodies of alleged poachers to the families, many of whom
were subsistence farmers who eked out a living from their paddy fields,
averaging about three hectares per person, on the fringes of the park. One is left
with a foreboding sense of poverty and loss that permeates the different
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characters in the story: the alleged poachers and their families, the ill-equipped
guards of the forest department as well as the police, seemed trapped in a vicious
cycle of need and greed.
Right to Information (RTI) appeals by activists in the KNP area show that between
2010 and 2015, there were as many as 636 persons who were arrested under the
Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) of 1972.
Of these, 227 cases were pending under
Nagaon jail, 233 cases under Tezpur jail and the remaining 176 were pending in
Golaghat jail. These statistics are important not because they reveal a sharp rise or
fall, but because they represent an increasing awareness among the forest officials
that cases need to be recorded and registered against those accused of poaching
and trading in wildlife. In most cases, the law would take its own time and leave
both partiesthe accused and the accusersin limbo. In such instances, those
accused of such crimes were likely to be at a much more disadvantageous position
than those who had accused them. Not only were they likely to enter into the
litigious world of courts, judges and the police, but they would also have to
contend with an increasingly hostile media and public opinion emanating from
newsrooms and living rooms in urban Assam. For many young men like Horen,
even a minor brush with the law rendered them more vulnerable to threats and
in extreme cases, executions. Moreover, with little or no access to lawyers and legal
experts, such men seemed destined to a precarious life in the labyrinth of law. Even
then, if one were to take media reports and interventionists seriously, then it does
seem as though petty crimeexemplified in the number of cases filed under the
WPAhas gained some traction in the areas around KNP.
In an effort to keep the peace and to reiterate the importance of the
Eco-Development Committees (EDC) that were set up by the forest department,
the village elders had in the past rounded up the unemployed youth of the area
especially those who were marginally involved in hunting”—to surrender their
homemade arms to the forest department.
I have used quotes to describe the
extreme care and caution exercised by the people who spoke to me about this
event. Were they poachers?, I asked somewhat disingenuously, using the
Assamese word Surang Sikarifor poachers. The villagers were immediately
defensive and perhaps rightly so. No, they would just hunt for game sometimes
(Nai, enei maje-xomoi-e sikar korisil), they kept insisting several times, to ensure that
I was able to see the difference between a just hunt for food and an unjust
enterprise for rhino horns. In 2010, the young men from Horens village were asked
to surrender in order to have the cases (that were pending) against them dropped
by the courts. The elders of the EDC had supposedly spoken with the forest
department to ensure a winwin situation for all concerned. The young men would
not have to pursue a long and expensive litigation, while the forest department
would have the kind of partnership with local youth that was envisaged in the Joint
Forest Management (JFM) and EDC mandates. However, the elders of the village
were disappointed by the lack of initiative shown by the forest department, who
neither tried to employ the young men in their ranks, nor really drop the cases
against them. While some cases might have been dropped, many of the young
men were picked up for questioning every time an animal was killed. As a result,
most of the young men who had taken part in the 2010 surrender ceremony
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had left the area in search of work.
It was as though the surrender itself was a
precursor for the eventual unmooring of their lives: with no future in agriculture,
without the prospects of jobs and with criminal cases pending against them,
these young men went far away from Assam to take up lowly paid jobs in other
parts of India.
The relationship between the different authorities and institutions that are meant
to protect the rhinoceros (and other wildlife), and the cross-section of individuals
and collectives who live along the fringes, are of immense importance to
understanding the statistical data on criminal cases filed under the WPA. From the
moment it entered the surroundings of KNP, the highway reflected the class, gender
and ethnic fractures in Assam. Assamese-speaking men owned the various
restaurants and resorts that served ethnic food and alcohol, and were built along
the highway or within the fringes of the park. The presence of womenin both
restaurants and resortswas fleeting, as they came in to clean living and dining
spaces after holidaymakers and travellers had left. Of course, one saw a difference
in attitudes among owners of resorts and restaurants. Some of the older proprietors
had painstakingly ensured that local villagers found it possible to use the space that
their resorts had to offer. For instance, some resorts had built small houses where
villagers could come to weave, make baskets and other craft in their free time. This
allowed villagers and the guests to engage with one another and exchange
information. More importantly, some of the older private resorts served as places
where guests could buy local handicraft that the villagers had made. Other, newer
resorts were less welcoming of local communities. Their tall walls sequestered the
rich guests from the poverty visible just outside.
Horens uncles household in a village on the fringes of the park was empty
because his aunt and the children had gone fishing. The uncle apologised for their
absence, as there was no one to make tea for the three visitors. He showed the
visitors the exact spot around his barn where wild elephants had knocked over a
heavy wooded beam just a day before. Elephants are a menace, he said almost
as though the pachyderm were an errant family member. They are loud and
clumsy when they want to be destructive, he added pointing towards the patches
of paddy that were trampled upon. The family returned after an hour, caked in mud
and happy with their days work in the various streams and ponds in the area. As
they laid the fishes out in the sun to dry, the woman of the house brought out
bowls of rice beer and rice cakes for the visitors. She too expressed resignation in
the face of problems brought about by elephants. Her demeanour changed
drastically when she realised that the conversation was about Horen. She wondered
if the boy would still be alive had she insisted that he stay home for dinner. Look at
the replicas of the rhinos he made, she said, as she brought out several bamboo
carvings that he had made and reiterated what her husband had said earlier about
the boys love for animals. The conversation stopped for a while as the couple
retreated to a private, melancholic realm and it was only when one of the journalists
accompanying the group asked about more examples of humananimal conflict
that they reluctantly resumed talking about rhinos and elephants. We coexist,
even if they sometimes harm us. We have to forgive (both animals and humans),
she said as she returned into the house for more rice beer.
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Sometimes the forest department compensated the farmers if they were able to
prove that animals (especially rhino, elephants and wild buffalo) had damaged
the standing crop, but it took several months for the money to find its way to the
Engaging with the forest department on matters relating to compensation
was becoming more contentious for local farmers, especially since the department
was quick to claim that human farms came in the way of animal (especially
elephant) corridors. Local activists would seethe at the irony of having poor farmers
pay the price for wildlife conservation, even as the authorities allowed places like
the neighbouring Numaligarh Oil Refinery to construct an extravagant golf course
along the elephant corridor. In conversations with the under-employed young
men, one was able to sense some discordant notes as they spoke about the resorts
along the fringes of KNP. They did not want to work there as waiters, nor did they
want to have anything to do with the tourists who came to the resorts, they said.
However, there were frequent social transactions between some of the older
villagers, especially women, and many of the lodges and resorts to warrant a
studied response to potential conflicts between the two. Hence, when confronted
with ruined paddy fields, even as they deflected accusations about poaching, the
villagers and activists around KNP were under no qualms expressing their ire
against the big refinery and resentment against some of the more exclusive resorts.
Some villagers said coexistence was possible with animals but more difficult with
corporations and big business. This process forms a flashpoint between
conservation efforts and those eking out a livelihood from parks, since they cause
economic displacement for many and outright displacement without
compensation for many (Brockington and Igoe 2006).
This did not stop people from aspiring to be part of some enterprise that could lift
them from their lot. Most young men expressed their disinterest in continuing with
agricultural work as a way of life. For many, the aspirational world beamed into
their homes through satellite television was always outside Assam. Horens cousin,
a 20-year-old man with a Korean pop-star-inspired haircut, for instance, had no
wish to remain in the village. He had recently applied to join the Indian army and
had been among the few to be recruited. He was spending the last few weeks with
his friends in the village.
On the day I visited his uncles home, scores of young men, some who
remembered Horen Pegu, waited along the road playing carom or cards. The
younger ones watched the games, as the older men stayed glued to their games.
Very few of them wanted to participate in the agricultural work that their parents
had been engaged in. Instead, they sought employment in the urban sprawl of
mainland India, where they had no qualms working as security guards, waiters,
chefs, bouncers, fish and meat packers and (for those who went to Southern
India) labourers in rubber plantations. In Assam, this is a phenomenon that has
led to several lively newspapers and television debates, with people weighing in
on different sides. Some, such as the political commentator, Hiren Gohain, who is
renowned for his commitment to social justice wondered why young Assamese
men were leaving their homes (and agriculture) to work for paltry wages of INR
7000, because this would then lead to either of two possibilities: (1) poorer,
migrant peasants taking up the lands on lease for cultivation; or (2) richer capitalists
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buying agricultural land and slowly converting (the land) to private estates and
resorts (Gohain 2015).
Younger scholars and researchers, such as Ankur Tamuli
Phukan, Gaurav Rajkhowa, Bidyut Sagar Boruah and Anshuman Gogoi, felt that
Gohains arguments reflect an old, left-nationalist idealthat placed unfair onus
on the migrating peasant to answer for the ills of the new rent-seeking, primitive
accumulation-oriented economy (Boruah et al. 2016).
Such situations enable the
emergence of associative relationships between humans, the places they inhabit
and the reality of migration that brings about demographic change. It also
resonates in the tensions arising out of the monkeyhuman conflicts in
Uttarakhand, which have become a dense metaphor about migration, development
and belonging in the Himalayan region of North India (Govindrajan 2015). The
situation in Assam reflects a wider global phenomenon where economic growth
has taken place without any new employment opportunities in the manufacturing
sector that rural landless are able to turn to (Li 2014).
Migration (at least for young men around KNP) was the manifestation of
processes that were both coercive and voluntary. Tourism and wildlife offered an
alternate source of livelihood for a few who are willing to remain within the state.
KNP, in particular, has become a veritable must-see site for high-profile visitors
and budget tourists alike. It has offered local people a chance to earn some money
from tourists, especially in the dry winter and spring months. Hence, it would be
crucial to understand the historical processes that contributed to creating a
wildlife-based view of the world, where animals and humans found themselves
placed along a spectrum of desirability for the government.
Parks, Gardens, and Making of the Modern Menagerie
The making of KNP saw two simultaneous processes of resource capture and
wealth creation possibilities over the last century. The rhino played a central part
in the conservation narrative, though until recently, it did not appear as a significant
presence in historical accounts. In researching for this paper, I had visited villages,
forest department outposts, resorts and offices of NGOs since May 2015, in order
to understand how and when did the rhino and KNP become such an iconic symbol
for conservation in Assam. A proprietor of one of KNPs oldest resorts for tourists
wondered if Lady Curzon had ever come to the area at all. A much admired person
among conservationists, wildlife enthusiasts and travellers the proprietor was a
quintessential raconteur who held forth on a wide array of matters ranging from
foraging as a sustainable food gathering resource for the poor, to the rice-growing
techniques of Muslim peasants of Bengal origins who lived along the fringes of the
park. He was not convinced that Lord Curzons American wife ever made it as far as
KNP. It was cooked up by a canny forester back in the 1980s and has become
integral to the parks myth of origin, he said. The Lady Curzon fable, however,
has become an integral part of the KNP story that begins with her visit to the area
to see rhinoceroses in the wild. Upon failing to see even one, she was said to have
pleaded with her husband to ensure that the area be declared a wildlife park where
hunting would not be allowed. Today, it is a World Heritage Site and was declared a
Tiger Reserve in 2006. Both tributes carry with them a series of obligations that
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involve conservation and sequestering of land for animals, on the part of the
administration. Adding to this already complex relationship was the embedding
of a labour-intensive tea plantation system that was set up in the middle of the
19th century that contributed to the naturalisation of racial hierarchies of labour,
race and crucially for this essay, space as well. The growing of tea, as historian
Jayeeta Sharma explains, was strategically deployed to neat gardens while the
wilderness was meant for conservation and selective appropriation (Sharma 2011).
Historically, other than the apocryphal story about Mary Curzon, there did not
seem to be much affectionor even derisionfor the rhino in Assam. Her spouse,
Lord Curzon, enjoyed shooting animals around the forests and game reserves in
the colony during his lifetime. In fact, tigers and wolves were central to the
evolution of colonial rules and discourse regarding hunting, avoidance and killing
in self-defence of flesh-eating animals in the Indian sub-continent (Rangarajan
2012:95141). However, there seemed to be little interest and honour in killing
rhinos in the wild. Folk tales and historical accounts about the bestiary of the
Brahmaputra valley make no mention of the animal. Many animals and birds
constitute the colourfully entangled world of animals and humans in Assam and
have charmed and frightened young and old people in equal measure. Unlike kites,
tigers and sundry spirits, the rhinoceros did enter the stockpile of folk stories that
brought together humans and animals. The association between the rhino that is
much loved today and human beings seemed to have been one of ambivalence
in Assam.
The 19th century expansion of capital to the Brahmaputra valley seriously altered
the relationship between the rhino and humans. Historian Arup Saikia writes about
the incremental manner in which Assams rice and jute growing areas were
extended in the early part of the 1900s, especially after Viceroy Curzon decided
to partition the colonial province of Bengal (Saikia 2014:2172). The migration of
a fairly large peasant population from different parts of deltaic Bengal created
considerable unrest among indigenous communities in the area. At stake were
substantive issues of radically different land use and land relations that the migrants
had introduced to the area. Added to this mix, were the powerful European tea
planters who had transformed the foothills and higher, less marshy areas of the
valley for tea cultivation. Tea and the introduction of the plantation system would
transform agriculture in Assam and lead to an expansion of labour and capital at
an unprecedented pace.
The expansion of colonisation and conservation in 20th century Assam was a
significant event. Ever since, the transformation of nature had remained a messianic
project for colonial and post-colonial governments alike. Writing about the impact
of (both) colonialism and nationalism on the ecological landscape of South Asia,
Cederlöf and Sivaramakrishnan write (in particular reference to Jawaharlal Nehrus
vision of developing post-colonial India): “… portraying romantic visions of
landscapes while transforming it profoundlythe colonial and postcolonial states
converge in their relationship to nature(Cederlöf and Sivaramakrishnan
2006:31). Thus, the 19th century transformation of KNP can also be seen in light
of a more universal attempt at creating a modern world where spheres of human
activity (plantations, farms and mines) could exist in marked separation and
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difference from spaces where animals lived in the wild. It mattered little that places
like KNP were corralled in areas where neighbouring forests were being cleared for
tea plantations in the early 20th century (Saikia 2011:1213). Under such
conditions, Lady Curzons anxieties about the rhinoceros seem like a curious
concern. For a better part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, colonial authorities
were systematically reducing animal and subsistence peasant habitats, while
allowing for an expansion of extractive industries by large corporate entities. These
processes are still at play in contemporary times.
Today, KNP occupies a wide area that falls under three districtsNagaon,
Golaghat and Karbi Anglongof Assam. The park is under the control of the forest
department of Assam, though some of the contiguous areas that fall under the
autonomous hill district of Karbi Anglong are governed under special provisions
that are granted under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. In addition
to this, the upkeep of several highways and smaller roads is entrusted to an entirely
different department of the government. As such, much of the financial
responsibility for the upkeep of KNP falls squarely on the government, though there
is an increasing tendency for external agencies to get involved (as is discussed later
in this essay). Over the last few decades, especially after the 1990s, various private
organisations and individuals have secured tenures to settle along the fringes of the
park and create opportunities of earning a livelihood. The forest department had
even controversially leased out land for the quarrying of stones in 2006, leading
to protests by environmental groups and individuals (Gogoi 2015). The scales of
these enterprises differ greatly, as do the taxes that they pay (to the government)
in the upkeep of KNP. This creates a creative and harmonious picture of flora, fauna,
human beings and commerce in the park. Birds and animals find their way into
billboards and hoardings that advertise wildlife getaways for tourists in the park.
The separation of animals, humans and their habitat that began during the late
19th century in Assam would seem to have reversed its course, if one were to go
by the associative advertisements along the highway. Beasts and entrepreneurs
compete for attention as they invite tourists into a play-world of exciting
Here too, the rhinoceros is a late entrant into the menagerie. Recent scholarship
on the elephanthuman relationship around KNP has unearthed some interesting
linkages between the pachyderm and its habitat, as well as its difficult connections
with humans that should resonate with the story of the rhinoceros as well.
Geographer Maan Baruas (2013) work attributes an uncanny cosmopolitanism to
the elephant and shows how class and transnational interests come together to
create a favourable environment for elephant conservation efforts, which in turn
have always had unsympathetic responses by those who have to share space with
the animals. For every effort to build smart corridors for animals, there is always
the counter-intuitive question about animalsagency and intelligence that comes
from various sources, especially those whose livelihoods are vulnerable to animal
depredation. Thus, one might actually be drawn to create a heuristically motivated
chart of animals and their affective relationship with humans with whom they have
to share space with. Elephants, monkeys, deer, certain species of bird and snakes
would be considered everyday visitors, for whom humans would have almost
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quotidian parables and stories to explain variations in their behaviour and perceived
These examples serve to highlight the historical contestations around the idea of a
species boundary between humans and animals that are reflected in the
present-day context of the conservation and rhino protection narrative in Assam.
Picking up a similar thread in their book on the cultural history of the orang-utan,
Cribbs et al. (2014) delved deep into the philosophical traditions emerging from
the Enlightenment to show how doctrines of human inequality often recruited
animals to enable a racial ranking of (other animal) life. The increasing clamour to
address the poaching of rhinos coincides with the demands for evictions of
Bengali-speaking Muslim peasants from the flood plains that form the perimeter
of the parks core area. There is little doubt that the decline of the rhino population
in Assam (and in South Asia) is part of a biological reality. Ever since the 16th
century, the historical homeland for the rhino has been drastically reduced in a
manner that requires social scientists to re-engage with the interconnected world
of conservation, recreation and reproduction of occupational life-worlds in the
manner in which Maan Barua urges them to.
Tracing the contours of the colonial/modern idea of wilderness and civilisation in
Assam, to a contemporary emphasis on animal conservation, one can see the
imputation of place to both people and animals. In contemporary times as well,
the Assamese peasant was located in the paddy fields and the rhinoceros belonged
to the jungle. It is this logic of placing people and animals in a fixed space that
allowed for the extension of counter-insurgency to rural Assam over the last two
decades (Barbora 2012). Resorts and hotels around KNP attempt to revive a colonial
era ambiance by focusing on a singular tourist experience of nature. In reality, the
actual landscape around KNP is a deeply contested one, claimed in equal part by
state and other non-state actors such as insurgents and poachers. However, as
the nature of counter-insurgency changed around the year 2009following
initiation of peace talks between the government and different insurgent groups
the militarisation of the park remained integral to the governments attempts to
focus on securing KNP as a tourist site.
Having failed to declare the park a tiger
reserve, the government and conservation groups concentrated their efforts on
rhino, leading to interesting outcomes for conservationists and those arguing for
evictions of certain kinds of peasants from the fringes of the park.
A Peculiar Conservationist Conundrum
The rhinoceros looks like a slow lumbering animal, given to glacial movements
from one path of grassland to another over the course of a day. Visitors driving
through KNP often stop and indulge in a bit of rhino-spottingat a small part of
the park that is dissected by National Highway 37. Local farmers around the villages
where I conducted fieldwork wryly acknowledge the precariousness of their fields
and farms, especially when animals decide to cross the highway. Even a recently
constructed fence that emitted a mild electric current was not enough to dissuade
the animals from taking in some cultivated crop. The farmers I interviewed rarely
expressed rancour against the animals. When asked how they protect their crops
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from rhinos, they offered a range of activities, such as lighting fires, standing watch
at night and verbally abusing the rhino. In conversations with groups of farmers,
the rhino seemed like an errant neighbour, rather than a source of wealth that
needed to be hunted for its horn. Every discussion ended with well-articulated ideas
about the need for farmers and the animals of the park to coexist, as well as a formal
declaration disassociating the farmers from acts of poaching and illegal hunting.
Yet, for many other actors, especially those who were able to create public
opinionincluding the media and environmental NGOsthis situation was fraught
with problems for the rhino (and other animals). In their articulation of the problem
of animal poaching, they rely on the production of a narrative of the poacher-
as-terrorist that has become a convenient lens for furthering the militarisation of
the parks, as has been done in other parts of the world, notably in Africa (Duffy
et al. 2015). The tropes of development, protection of wildlife and conservation
become conveniently attached to violent responses by various arms of the state,
including those that have a degree of autonomy like the courts and the media.
On 30 September the Assam Tribune (2015)an English language daily published
in Guwahaticarried front-page news about poor rates of conviction for those
arrested for rhino poaching. Quoting contradictory claims by the minister
responsible for the forest department and an environmental NGO worker, the
report mentioned that rhino poachers were getting away because of loopholes in
legal procedures. This sort of bickering within the various circles of authority in
the administration rest on two pivotal issues: (1) the Wildlife Protection Act of
1972; and (2) responsibilities apportioned to various departments and groups for
the protection of wildlife. These loopholes are the reason why non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) have emerged to complement the states existing
departments that deal with forests, animals and also humans who have claims over
both (forests and animals). This creates a lively arena for contestations that seem to
work at cross-purposes.
On 8 February 2016 a division bench of the Gauhati High Court, chaired by
Justices Manjit Bhuyan and Hrishikesh Roy, issued notices to the chief secretary of
the state of Assam for failing to evict persons from the animal corridors of KNP.
Earlier, on 9 December 2015 the same judges had issued a court order giving the
government a month to evict encroachers from certain areas of the park. The
petition to act against the governments lackadaisical approach came from private
individuals living in Golaghat town and Guwahati city. On its part, there was little
that the government could do to address the courts order. In reality, the people
who inhabited the areas mentioned in the court order had valid documents to settle
there. The court was not the only institution that had taken up cudgels on behalf of
conservationists in Assam. The local mediaboth print and electronichad
continuously aired similar views on the problems faced by small and large species
of wildlife in Assam. Newspapers and television channels expressed great concern
in the month of May 2015, following police reports of an increase in poaching. They
focused on the perils of poaching in wildlife, not just mega animalslike tigers,
elephants and rhinos, but also smaller species, and appreciated the kind of work
that was being done by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), India and Wildlife Crime
Control Bureau in this regard.
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My work falls in the grey area of conservation, said Deepak Saha (name
changed), who works for a foundation dedicated to the protection of rhinos in
different parts of the world. We sat at a busy crossroads near the city of Tezpur,
not very far from the fringes of KNP, which was spread across the other side of
the Brahmaputra River. He described his work as something that fell halfway
between criminal investigation and paralegal aid to the forest department. He spent
the best part of the afternoon explaining the details of the illegal trade in rhino
horns in Assam and drew on anecdotal incidents from his previous experiences
working for WWF in other parts of India. As we conversed, he was careful to
draw a distinction between the kind of work he had done for WWF and the
semi-clandestine nature of his current responsibilities. Saha saw his efforts as an
amalgam of the routine work of spies, policemen and forest wardens to curb
the illegal trade and hunting of wildlife.
He admitted that this was a difficult job. The Wildlife Protection Act was
enacted in 1972 but it was difficult to enforce in places where traditional
communities were used to hunting for game. Moreover, the state had legalised
the auctioning of rhino horns until 1974 and entire communities had grown up
believing that hunting was part of their culture, Saha claimed. In the course of
our discussion, he kept referring to various events where he had apprehended
poachers and helped the forest and police departments seize all manner of
animal parts that were meant to go to different parts of the world. An unmarried
NGO professional, he was very forthcoming about the limits of his ability to
empathise with the lives and lot of those who were hunting the rhino for its horn.
Rather, he saw them as criminals who were greedy and wanted to make some
quick money at the expense of the helpless rhino. He kept referring to a well-
known tiger poacher, Sansar Chand, who was caught in Rajasthan (in western
India), who had a battery of lawyers and lived a lavish lifestyle. Saha admitted
that the poachers in Assam were not likely to be as flashy as Chand (who
incidentally died in 2014).
Instead, he invoked the murky world of insurgent
groups, particularly in Manipur, corrupt politicians and lawyers, without actually
specifying any details about who they were, or offering evidence that there was
indeed such a connection. They were all, according to him, gaming the law in
their quest for wealth and there was precious little that the government was
capable of doing on its own.
In this particular context, the WPA seemed a peripheral concern for everyone
involved in the story. The poachers, as Mr Saha reiterated several times over coffee,
seemed unconcerned about the Act and often found easy loopholes to avoid
prosecution; the forest department did not know how they could use the law to
prosecute those who came intending to kill rhinos; the police, army and other
armed agencies of the state saw it as a quaint piece of legislation that seemed to
distract them from the real business of policing and counter-insurgency. Even so,
the Act remained an anchor for INGO functionaries like Mr Saha. He had structured
his engagement with government agencies to appear as though he was a
consultant entrusted to conducting workshops with police personnel and forest
officials. At these workshops, he would train them on how to improve their
conviction rates of alleged poachers by including sections of the WPA in their case
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diaries. This allowed him access to the forest departments, the police and to some
sections of the local communities as well.
Saving the rhino was as viable a commercial enterprise as was poaching,
according to Mr Saha. He referred to the several resorts and lodges that had come
up over the last decade. All of them catered to a seasonal burst in tourists who saw
KNP as an embodiment of wildlife and biodiversity that Assam had to present to the
world. Even the tea companies were cashing in on the need for conservation by
encouraging high-end tourists to live in palatial plantersbungalows all over upper
Assam. There is a sense of irony in this: an industry that might have been
responsible for the drastic reduction of forest cover for the rhino was now being
called upon to find ways to conserve the habitat for the animal. It is not as if the
planters would send out their guards and workers to look for poachers, but they
were called upon to address the larger conservation attempts at creating alternative
livelihoods for the people dependent on the parks. Hence, some of the bigger
companies had created small showrooms that sold ethnic fabric and handicraft
along National Highway 37 that cut right through the heart of KNP.
It gave them a sense of being part of an endeavour to police the parks and the
people who live along its fringes. It is not clear if this gives bigger tea and oil
enterprises special privileges to influence the outcome of conservation activities
around KNP. The immediate gatekeepers responsible for conservation and
protection were the guards appointed by the forest department, often ill paid
and always under pressure from the media and the ministry, especially when news
of poaching of animals trickled out from the park. Forest guards are seen patrolling
the highway that passes through the park, as well as the paths inside. Dressed in
khaki and carrying old rifles, they live in Spartan dwellings inside the park, where
everyday work and leisure take on an entirely different meaning from those that
their neighbouring villagers are used to. Unlike the predominantly farming
communities of the village, they work through the night to ensure the safety of
animals, and also to ensure surveillance around the perimeter of the park.
Ever since 2013, there has been talk about forming a special task force in order to
combat the actions of poachers and hunters in KNP. Initially, when pressed by Right
To Information (RTI) activists, the government denied the presence of paramilitary
personnel in the park.
However, it announced the formation of a Rhino Task Force,
along the lines of the other counter-insurgency task forces used in the past,
immediately after the assembly elections (Dutta-Choudhury 2016). Most villagers
around KNP continued to insist that there were special battalions of police who
lived inside the park and were responsible for the deaths of several young men
and were not enthusiastic about the formation of the new force. This was at odds
with urban-centric opinion that celebrated the governments efforts to protect the
rhino and even expel farmers who lived along the fringes of KNP. Thus, like other
parks around the world (especially in South Africa), KNP had become the site of
serious contestations about the idea of conserving nature in colonised spaces,
leading to the outright militarisation of the park and celebration of the killings of
rhino poachers among a class of people who have little ties to the local economy,
but are very vocal in the public sphere (Lunstrum 2014; Massé and Lunstrum
2016; Sachedina 2010).
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Rhinos and Poachers: A Tragic Class Struggle?
Primitive accumulation is a violent, soul-crushing process that is at once, ruthless
and rapacious. In his searing description of Marxs analysis of the process, in relation
to the current debates around migration in Europe, Ghassan Hage (2016) writes of
the manner (and conditions) in which law can be suspended to allow for a
colonisation of land and resources. In doing so, Hage (2016:67) points to the
creation of racialized class border, which separates [the] two different experiences
in the world of national borders, where borders are no longer the lines drawn on
national maps. They are, in every sense, the kind of apartheid walls that are
reiterated in everyday political discourse as well as around public places that are
seen as valuable sources of wealth. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, opposition
to the colonisation of Assams wealth-producing capacities remained an emotive
motif in left-wing separatist political mobilisation. However, the years of counter-
insurgency (1990 until the present day) created conditions for appropriation of
public wealthmostly by individuals and groups close to those engaged in
counter-insurgencywhile making it difficult for disparate groups to extend
solidarity to one another. Sanjib Baruah (2007) had alluded to such a process in
his seminal critique of developmentalist frames that were undertaken as part of
the counter-insurgency efforts to win hearts and minds in the Assam. For a place
where ideas of citizenship and belonging are often subjected to the twin tests of
political violence and economic want, the uncritical acceptance of a developmental
discourse that lacks nuance can leave a region with more problems than the ones
that policy makers sought to remove.
This was most apparent in the manner in which the government evicted thousands
of people from the fringes of KNP on 19 September 2016, leading to the deaths of
two people.
Yet again, the rhetoric represented two polar views on who belonged
to the area. For the farmers and the few political groups that supported them, the
eviction represented the governments attempts to criminalise subsistence farmers
who were settled in the area by successive administrations. For the government, as
well as a vocal middle-class urban constituency, the eviction represented a
commitment to the courts order to cleanse the park of settlers and immigrants. In
their seminal volume on violent environmental conflicts, Nancy Peluso and Michael
Watts (2001) show how ethnicity, occupation and class converge during moments of
social and political upheaval and uncertainty. Emerging from three decades of
counter-insurgency and identity-based political mobilisation, the political and
economic situation in Assam is poised at such a moment right now.
In 2011, the state government had announced that there were approximately
200,000 registered unemployed youth in Assam, and in the absence of any large-
scale manufacturing industries, many of the unemployed would have had to
scramble for skills to create livelihood opportunities. These conditions lay the
foundations of an environment that is rife with political tension and economic
uncertainties. Hence, the manner in which the government deals with such frictions
can be telling. In July 2016, the states finance minister, Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma,
tabled a fairly ambitious budget that had, above all else, a promise of the
disbursement of 1.60 crore rupees to 25,425 villages across Assam under the Chief
Minister Samagra Gramya Unnayan Yojana scheme. The governments vision was to
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encourage fishery, dairy, organic high-value crops, land management and
conservation, cottage industry, road and broadband connectivity, market linkages
and sports in order to double farm incomes by 2021/22. This was supported by
an apposite economic argument that saw a marginal increase of 0.88% of farm
income between 2003 and 2013.
The governments investment is not enough
wealth that is needed to push growth in the rural sector, but as Tania Murray Lis
(2014) work shows, it is a tacit acknowledgement that subsistence farmers have
to find other skills.
The rhinoceros, its protectors and poacher, are therefore locked in a luckless
battle. The anti-immigration rhetoric that seeks to lay the onus of rhino poaching
on subsistence farmersmany of whom are either Muslims or belong to indigenous
communities like the Mishinghas come to coalesce with an aggressive middle-
class idea of the rhino being synonymous with Assamese identity and pride. This
has not managed to deter departmental officers, NGOs, entrepreneurs, some
impoverished forest guards and poor young farmers from profiteering at the cost
of the upkeep of the park and its surroundings.
Hence, for subsistence farmers
around KNP, the lack of protests against the evictions were emblematic of a
growing disconnect between the urban and the rural, especially in the
consequences of militarisation of conservation in KNP. This helps reinforce the idea
that the conservation discourse in Assam is a continuation of the governments
authoritarian approach to development, one that is able to bypass constitutional
law and appeal to a small class of beneficiaries.
The rhinos ambiguous relationship with marginalised farmers on the fringes of
militarised national parks is poised for a transformation under a hyper-nationalist,
developmentalist regime. This uncritical celebration of the rhino has resulted in
converting KNP into a palimpsest of militarisation in the wider region,
problematising an already difficult relationship between subsistence farming
communities and animals, and encourages the expansion of anti-Muslim, anti-tribal
and anti-farmer sentiments among the middle classes. In ignoring the violence that
is being perpetrated, ostensibly for the protection of the animal, there arises a
parallel risk of the hardening of borders between both animal and human, as well
as between different classes of humans in Assam. The rhinohuman relationship
in Assammediated as it is by an increase in violenceis characteristic of the
militaristic rhetoric that underlines political responses to economic questions about
impoverishment and inequality in India.
Earlier versions of this article were presented at the University of New South Wales, Sydney on
23 June 2015 and at the Australia-India Institute, Melbourne on 10 June 2016. I would like to
thank Beppe Karlsson, Dolly Kikon, Duncan McDuie-Ra, Parismita Singh, Sanjib Baruah, the
anonymous referees and the editorial team at Antipode for their generous comments and
1 (last accessed 14 October 2015).
Politicians elsewhere, notably in Africa as well as the United States, have drawn
connections between anti-poaching actions and the need for security. US Secretary of State
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Hilary Clinton (20092013) and US President Barack Obama (20092017) have made
public statements to draw links between wildlife trafficking, poaching and global security
(Duffy et. al. 2015).
The RTI appeal was filed by the legal advocacy group Human Rights Law Network (HRLN)
in September 2014.
Eco-Development Committees are bodies, set up by the forest department in
consultation with local villagers. The functionaries of the EDC are tasked with dispensing
some funds for setting up self-help groups, piggeries and weaving centres for farmers who
live near the park.
Ever since the 1990s, surrendershave had a special meaning for political
commentators, human rights activists and media professionals in Assam. In the course of
its counter-insurgency war against insurgents, the stateincluding the police, paramilitary
and the armyhad constituted a very controversial system of surrenders for rebels. In return
for surrendering arms, former rebels would be given lucrative business deals and contracts,
as well as immunity/impunity from criminal prosecution (Barbora 2014:110127).
Compensation for livestock lost to tigers and leopards was considerably easier to come
by. Government bodies like the National Tiger Conservation Authority (Project Tiger), as well
as INGOs like World Wildlife Fund (WWF), work closely with the forest department as well as
park authorities when cases of attacks on livestock are reported in the vicinity of the parks.
Some professional conservationists argue that these compensatory programmes are prone
to being manipulated by crafty people, who knowingly keep scores of old, near-dying cattle
just so the tigers may pick them up(said Mr Saha). Cursory investigations into the material
conditions of those who claim compensation, as well as those who provide the money seem
to suggest that claimants remain poor. WWF or Project Tiger, on the other hand, have not
been pauperised by these compensatory efforts.
Gohains views are précised here, since he responded to the article critiquing his original
position. In explaining his views, Gohain underlined the puzzle that continues to nag
students of economics: why do people leave home for poorly paid jobs, when the same jobs
could possibly be created in the place of origin?
The authorsviews, again, are précised here. They raised important questions about the
agrarian transformation in Assam, pointing out that the archetype of the peasant no longer
existed, giving way instead to a migratory labourer with very few specialised skills.
In Lands End, Li (2014) brings to light a situation that seems to connect much of the
developing world but speaks specifically to the situation in places where land (for subsistence
farmers) was thought to be in abundance. Taking on modernisation theorists, she shows how
in places like Central Sulawesi (Indonesia), subsistence farmers are unable to secure
alternatives to agriculture, even as they realise that their capacity to earn a livelihood through
farming has become untenable. Nor are they able to transform into workers in
manufacturing (or mining) sectors because they do not exist in scales that are able to replace
subsistence farming. The situation in Assam is much the same, with a generation of people
who are migrating to other parts of India for work.
This included an unpopular move to designate the park as a tiger reserve in 2009. Fearing
evictions from the area, local villagers, resort owners, safari operators and others who earn a
livelihood from KNP came out to protest and stall the move. A local NGO engaged in
conservation bore the brunt of the peoples ire as they were prevented from carrying out their
work there.
As reported in The Sentinel, 9 February 2016. In India, the chief secretary has an elevated
position with the bureaucracy that carries considerable power and clout. For the High Court
to take up the issue with its fraternal institution in governing the state was a significant step.
Editorial in the Assam Tribune, 8 May 2015.
Rosaleen Duffy and colleagues (2015), in their discussion on the shifting drivers of
poaching, have pointed out that poaching cannot be understood simply as a response to
material deprivation. It could also be prestige and custom, as some of the people I spoke
to confirm in the course of our conversations.
Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) memo number KNP/FG-439/RTI-Act/Pf/
General. I am grateful to activists of the Human Rights Law Network for making this
information available, as well as for filing the RTI application.
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... These negative outcomes of para-military anti-poaching enforcement, have led to some criticisms of the approach and its negative impacts on local communities (Mass e, 2019; Witter & Satterfield, 2019). It has been suggested that the social injustice of the approach can violate human rights in the name of conservation (Barbora, 2017;Haas & Ferreira, 2018). Others have suggested that rangers are para-military personnel as opposed to advocates and enablers of biodiversity conservation (Annecke & Masubelele, 2016;Mass e et al., 2017). ...
... Therefore, rangers, like the police, must be trained and equipped accordingly to protect themselves against this threat (McCann, 2017). The question appears to be on the right balance between the use of force versus softer power (for more insight into this debate, see Annecke & Masubelele, 2016;Barbora, 2017;Duffy et al., 2019;Lunstrum, 2015;Marijnen, 2017;Shaw & Rademeyer, 2016). To address these issues, it has been argued that future conservation approaches should be based on understanding the social context in which someone risks their life to hunt and the cost of conservation local communities face in their everyday lives (Latinne et al., 2020;Mass e, 2019;Witter & Satterfield, 2019). ...
Anti-poaching is an important component of the tourism management system for destinations that rely on wildlife as their key attraction. The present paper, broadly grounded in political ecology, explores how social justice tenets are used to frame and implement anti-poaching initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, the study examines the Akashinga model, a Zimbabwean woman-only anti-poaching initiative founded by the Australian conservation activist, Damien Mander. Political ecology lends itself well to the analysis of social justice initiatives as it unpacks how political, economic and social factors interact with environmental issues and changes. Akashinga is particularly compelling as a socially innovative conservation model intended to replace hunting tourism in Sub-Saharan wilderness areas. Data were collected from a rich selection of online sources, including social media and relevant websites. Our analysis reveals Akashinga’s framing and modus operandi as premised three dimensions: community involvement, the empowerment of women, and the superiority of women in achieving anti-poaching success and broader conservation outcomes. It is argued that, while Akashinga makes a positive contribution to the local community and wildlife conservation efforts, there are important caveats to consider, in the context of postcolonial power relations.
... The current phase of militarization builds on a long history of forceful approaches to conservation to maintain artificial separation of people and wildlife; often referred to as 'fortress conservation', it has resulted in violent eviction, exclusion and dispossession (Neumann, 2004;Avant, 2004;Peluso and Vandergeest, 2011;Dowie, 2009). More militarized responses in conservation have also tended to be justified via appeals to the urgent need to prevent the loss of important species for the whole world (Duffy, 2014;Marijnen and Verweijen, 2016;Büscher and Ramutsindela, 2016;Annecke and Masubelele, 2016;Barbora, 2017). While many of the high profile examples of militarization are focused on protecting charismatic species in Sub-Saharan Africa, more forceful responses are a feature of a much wider range of conservation initiatives. ...
This article takes a political ecology approach to understanding the integration of conservation with security in tackling the illegal wildlife trade. It builds on political ecology debates on militarization by connecting it to the dynamics of global environmental politics, specifically the discursive and material support from donors, governments, and conservation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The combined effects of a highly competitive funding environment and security concerns of governments has produced a context in which NGOs strategically invoke the idea of the illegal wildlife trade as a security threat. For donors and governments, tackling the illegal wildlife trade is a means through which they can address security threats. However, this has material outcomes for marginalized peoples living with wildlife, including militarization, human rights abuses, enhanced surveillance, and law enforcement.
... There has been ongoing research on the impact of warfare on the environment-or war in nature, often referring to Arthur Westing's seminal work on warfare in South East Asia (Westing 1976;Tucker et al. 2004;Certini et al. 2013;Lawrence et al. 2015;Massé et al. 2018). Furthermore, there has been a thorough engagement with military involvement in conservation during conflicts (Ellis 1994;Verweijen et al. 2018;Lenggenhager 2018), the role of the military in securing conservation areas and goals (Wels 2015;Barbora 2017), the military's role in conservation as a specific part of how politics and state power shape relations between society and nature and vice versa (Neumann 2005;Robbins 2012), and the closeness of military conservation and anti-terror measurements (Duffy 2016). ...
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In this paper, we argue that the relationship between nature conservation and warfare was and continues to be actualized through socio-technical relationships and shared infrastructures. We historicize "green militarization"-defined as the use of military techniques, technologies and partnerships in the pursuit of conservation (Lunstrum 2014)-showing that the partnership between military and nature conservation in Southern Africa has a long and violent history. Our paper accounts for the entanglements of war and nature through a shared technological infrastructure used in northeastern Namibia during the Namibian War of Liberation (1966-1989). In particular, we focus on the Mirage IIIR2Z, an aerial reconnaissance and ground-attack supersonic jet which provided both the South African Defence Force and the civil administration's nature conservationists with aerial photography and remote sensing data. The spatial information produced jointly by the military and the civil nature conservation department was used to produce strategic maps, but also to fight invasive plants and protect wildlife. Our reading of green militarization against this background sheds light on the long-lasting connections between warfare, conservation and ecology along Southern African border regions and contributes to a novel understanding of the contemporary "war on poachers" through a study of the techno-scientific networks that made it possible. Since there is nothing inevitable about the way technologies emerge or change over time (Bijker and Law 1992), this paper develops an empirically grounded and sustained analysis of technological change in the domain of green militarization through three interlinked concepts: "multiple" (Law 2002), "shifting down" (Latour 1994; 1999), and "firming up" (Bijker and Law 1992).
... Any conservation effort must include indigenous children and give them hope for the future. Community conservation groups assist monitor and police KNP, improving environmental knowledge and local revenue (Barbora, 2017). Agriculture, handicrafts, and ecotourism all rose in popularity. ...
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Three of the five rhino species that have survived are from Asia: the greater one-horned rhino or Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), which has an estimated 3,500 individuals, the Javan rhinos (Rhinoceros sondaicus), which has fewer than 70 individuals, and the Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis), which has fewer than 80 individuals. The Javan and Sumatran are now classified as critically endangered (CR) species on the IUCN Red List. These rhinos, which are now located in Indonesia, continue to suffer a variety of threats. S
... Militarized conservation is the explicit approach used to address rhino poaching in Kruger National Park, the context of our empirical research (Annecke and Masubele, 2016;Buscher and Ramutsindela, 2016;Hübschle and Jooste, 2017;Luntrum, 2014;Ramutsindela, 2016). We find similar trends of militarised or otherwise heavyhanded and violent approaches to conservation developing and growing across a wide variety of contexts in response to poaching and other illicit uses of biodiversity (Asiyanbi, 2016;Barbora, 2017;Duffy et al., 2019;Dunlap and Fairhead, 2014;Dutta, 2020;Mabele, 2016;Marijnen and Verweijen, 2016;Simlai, 2015;Weldemichel, 2020). ...
The ways in which poaching economies and militarized responses to shut them down intersect with local gender norms and dynamics remain underexamined. We address this by developing a feminist political ecology of wildlife crime by drawing on feminist political ecology and complementing it with insights from feminist criminology. This framework centres local systems of gender norms and their intersection with socio-economic dynamics across scale to offer a fuller understanding of the drivers of participation in poaching economies and their increasingly deadly impacts, a reflection of the expansion of militarized conservation practice. Drawing on fieldwork in the Mozambican borderlands adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park on the illicit rhino horn economy, we show how two stark gendered dynamics emerge. First, long-standing norms of masculinity, in particular caring for family, in one of the poorest regions of Southern Africa motivate men to enter the trade despite the risks. Second, women whose husbands have been killed while hunting rhino embody the indirect human consequences of a violent poaching economy. The loss of their husbands, a broader context of poverty, and gendered norms concerning widows articulate in ways that leave these women and their children to experience more acute and long term vulnerability. We discuss what lessons a feminist political ecology of wildlife crime offers for understanding and addressing poaching conflicts, wildlife crime and illicit resource geographies more broadly.
... A 2017 press release from the CITES' MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) Program revealed that while the steady increase in the levels of ivory poaching in Kenya had stopped, they remained far above elephant's natural growth rate, leading to continue population declines (CITES 2006). Barbora 2017). It is the widespread use and acceptance of these violent policies in conservation that we specifically examine. ...
Poaching has been, and continues to be, of significant concern to the conservation of biodiversity. While media descriptions of poaching often include vivid details about the animal victims and the heroics of those fighting to conserve biodiversity, ambiguity still surrounds ‘the poacher’. Clarifying the identity of a poacher is necessary to expose a societal tendency to enforce stereotypes on others that perpetuate violence and inequality. Without knowing the identity of a poacher, it becomes easy to impose unsubstantiated beliefs upon them that legitimize unjust and violent policies like shoot-to-kill and life-time jail sentences. This research seeks to understand how the media has constructed the identity and context of the poacher to answer critical questions of how and why violent protected area policies have become perceived as necessary conservation strategies. Through a media content analysis of newspaper reports and field interviews with conservation actors, this paper explores the human rights implications around how the media and society place poachers within a ‘space of exception’ that legitimizes the state and private sector’s claims biopower and strengthens a post-democratic conservation approach.
Through a socio-legal and historical exploration of ecological controversies, this dissertation attempts to demonstrate the following thesis: that Western legal systems have historically tended to exclude the ecological practices and traditions of indigenous and other marginalized communities; and that the emergence and progressive structuration of discourses and legal regulations aiming at the protection of the environment have not resulted in a structural questioning of these dynamics. Yet, despite these patterns of discrimination within the law, our inquiry shall reveal that there exist a variety of avenues that could allow more inclusive legal arrangements, recognizing the ecological pluralism inherent to every human society. Can marginalized minorities, and most notably indigenous communities, be prevented from hunting endangered species, living in protected areas or using psychoactive substances, when these prohibitions violate their core ecological values? Under what conditions can legal institutions find a way beyond ethnocentrism and articulate ecological pluralism despite persisting colonial legacies? These are among the questions that this dissertation endeavors to address.
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This Handbook provides an essential guide to the study of resources and their role in socioenvironmental change. With original contributions from more than 60 authors with expertise in a wide range of resource types and world regions, it offers a toolkit of conceptual and methodological approaches for documenting, analyzing, and reimagining resources and the worlds with which they are entangled. The volume has an introduction and four thematic sections. The introductory chapter outlines key trajectories for thinking critically with and about resources. Chapters in Section I, “(Un)Knowing Resources,” offer distinct epistemological entry points and approaches for studying resources. Chapters in Section II, “(Un)Knowing Resource Systems,” examine the components and logics of the capitalist systems through which resources are made, circulated, consumed, and disposed of, while chapters in Section III, “Doing Critical Resource Geography: Methods, Advocacy, and Teaching,” focus on the practices of critical resource scholarship, exploring the opportunities and challenges of carrying out engaged forms of research and pedagogy. Chapters in Section IV, “Resource-Making/World-Making,” use case studies to illustrate how things are made into resources and how these processes of resource-making transform socio-environmental life. This vibrant and diverse critical resource scholarship provides an indispensable reference point for researchers, students, and practitioners interested in understanding how resources matter to the world and to the systems, conflicts, and debates that make and remake it.
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Conflicts between the interests of biodiversity conservation and other human activities pose a major threat to natural ecosystems and human well-being, yet few methods exist to quantify their intensity and model their dynamics. We develop a categorization of conflict intensity based on the curve of conflict, a model originally used to track the escalation and deescalation of armed conflicts. Our categorization assigns six intensity levels reflecting the discourse and actions of stakeholders involved in a given conflict, from coexistence or collaboration to physical violence. Using a range of case studies, we demonstrate the value of our approach in quantifying conflict trends, estimating transition probabilities between conflict stages, and modeling conflict intensity as a function of relevant covariates. By taking an evidence-based approach to quantifying stake-holder behavior, the proposed framework allows for a better understanding of the drivers of conservation conflict development across a diverse range of socioeco-logical scenarios.
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Wild Man from Borneo offers the first comprehensive history of the human-orangutan encounter. Arguably the most humanlike of all the great apes, particularly in intelligence and behavior, the orangutan has been cherished, used, and abused ever since it was first brought to the attention of Europeans in the seventeenth century. The red ape has engaged the interest of scientists, philosophers, artists, and the public at large in a bewildering array of guises that have by no means been exclusively zoological or ecological. One reason for such a long-term engagement with a being found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra is that, like its fellow great apes, the orangutan stands on that most uncomfortable dividing line between human and animal, existing, for us, on what has been called “the dangerous edge of the garden of nature.” Beginning with the scientific discovery of the red ape more than three hundred years ago, this work goes on to examine the ways in which its human attributes have been both recognized and denied in science, philosophy, travel literature, popular science, literature, theatre, museums, and film. The authors offer a provocative analysis of the origin of the name “orangutan,” trace how the ape has been recruited to arguments on topics as diverse as slavery and rape, and outline the history of attempts to save the animal from extinction. Today, while human populations increase exponentially, that of the orangutan is in dangerous decline. The remaining “wild men of Borneo” are under increasing threat from mining interests, logging, human population expansion, and the widespread destruction of forests. The authors hope that this history will, by adding to our knowledge of this fascinating being, assist in some small way in their preservation.
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In this paper I argue that there has been a critical shift towards war by conservation in which conservation, security and counter insurgency (COIN) are becoming more closely integrated. In this new phase concerns about global security constitute important underlying drivers, while biodiversity conservation is of secondary importance. This is a significant break from earlier phases of fortress conservation and war for biodiversity. In order to develop a better understanding of these shifts, this paper analyzes the existing conceptual approaches, notably environmental security which seeks to understand how resources cause or shape conflict, and political ecology approaches that focus on the struggles over access to and control over resources. However, this paper indicates the limitations of these existing debates for understanding recent shifts, which require a fresh approach. I chart the rise of the narrative I call poachers-as-terrorists, which relies on the invocation of the idea that ivory is the white gold of Jihad, a phrase which is closely associated with an Elephant Action League (EAL) report in 2012 which claimed Al Shabaab used ivory to fund its operations. This narrative is being extended and deepened by a powerful alliance of states, conservation NGOs, Private Military Companies and international organizations, such that it is shaping policies, especially in areas of US geo-strategic interest in Sub-Saharan Africa. As a result conservation is becoming a core element of a global security project, with significant implications for conceptual debates and for conservation practice on the ground.
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Protected areas are controversial because they are so important for conservation and because they distribute fortune and misfortune unevenly. The nature of that distribution, as well as the terrain of protected areas themselves, have been vigorously contested. In particular, the relationship between protected areas and poverty is a long-running debate in academic and policy circles.We review the origins of this debate and chart its key moments. We then outline the continuing flashpoints and ways in which further evaluation studies could improve the evidence base for policy-making and conservation practice.
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Conservation is at a critical juncture because of the increase in poaching which threatens key species. Poaching is a major public concern, as indicated by the rises in rhino and elephant poaching, the United for Wildlife Initiative and the London Declaration, signed by 46 countries in February 2014. This is accompanied by an increasing calls for a more forceful response, especially to tackle the involvement of organized crime in wildlife trafficking. However, there is a risk that this will be counter-productive. Further, such calls are based on a series of assumptions which are worthy of greater scrutiny. First, calls for militarization are based on the idea that poverty drives poaching. Yet, poaching and trafficking are changing because of the shifting dynamics of poverty in supply countries, coupled with changing patterns of wealth in consumer markets. Second, the ways increases in poaching are being linked to global security threats, notably from Al Shabaab are poorly evidenced and yet circulate in powerful policy circles. There is a risk that militarization will place more heavily armed rangers in the centre of some of the most complex regional conflicts in the world (such as the Horn of Africa and Central Africa/Sahel region).
In an atmosphere marked by a growing confrontation, the Assam Forest Department and a dominant section of the Assamese nationalists and conservationists argue that the Kaziranga National Park is facing imminent danger from its neighbouring habitats. The poor farmers, fishermen, and petty traders in the neighbourhood refuse to give up their land and be rehabilitated. This article journeys briefly into some of the issues to help understand the complex contest over both conservation practices and ownership of a prized space.
The sentiment of being “surrounded by barbarians” was once specific to settler-colonial societies. But as the European refugee crisis made headlines in 2015, it became evident that this sentiment is gaining widespread currency in the Western world. Three developments lie behind its extension: first, the resurgence in the militarized Western appropriation of world resources and its colonial imaginary; second, the crisis in the order of the national borders that has regulated the exploitation of land, resources, and labor in the neocolonial era; and third, the ecological crisis, which equally manifests itself as a crisis in the order of the borders of domestication that defined the modern exploitation of nature. Analyzing the intersection of these social processes offers us important insights into some of the dominant dynamics of Western culture today. [settler colonialism, primitive accumulation, refugee crisis, national borders, ecological crisis, Agamben]
Starting from the contention that exercising a "right to tour" is predicated on the work of producing tourability, I examine how tourability itself is a contested process involving relations of land and labour. Examining the current "resource boom" of ecotourism in the Colombian Amazon, I use an analysis of work and capital accumulation to unravel a seemingly small act of refusal by the community of Nazaret that has barred tourists' entry to their land. I argue that this act of refusal opens up space for critically examining the relationships of land and labour, especially through the production of "life", in the accumulation of tourable places in contemporary global capitalism. Engaging literature on both tourism studies and land politics in the Amazon region, I contribute to the scholarship on tourism and work while examining how Indigenous landscapes are being made productive towards the ends of capitalism.
The translocation of captured monkeys from lowlands to rural hill areas in the Central Himalayan state of Uttarakhand has become an incendiary social and political issue over the last five years. This essay asks what the recent outpouring of intense emotions and arguments around the issue of monkey translocation reveals about notions of belonging in this region. It contends that the reason there is such anxious public discourse around what is called the “monkey menace” is that it has dovetailed with a regional politics of identity and cultural meaning. What is at stake is the question of who belongs and what it means to belong in terms of moral and material access to resources. This essay further suggests that monkeys — the nonhuman actors in this story — play an important part in shaping the nature of these conversations about cultural meaning and belonging. Recognizing their vibrant semiotic-material presence in this landscape, this essay argues that the outsider monkey discourse has such resonance in this region precisely because the situated bodies of monkeys themselves play an important part in determining the nature of ongoing struggles over belonging and identity.