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Poachers Bring India Rhinos to Near Extinction

ASSOCIATED PRESS

From its horn to its nails, the rhinoceros is a venerated beast in India, where people swear by the animal’s power to heal. It is also stalked by poachers, who are killing the rhino to near extinction.

In the last two decades, poachers have killed 40,000 rhinos--85% of the world’s population.

India designated the rhino a protected animal in the mid-1970s, when only 750 remained, and the population has increased to 2,000.

But now poaching is reaching new heights. Rebel groups have joined the hunt as a way to finance their independence movements. If the killing isn’t stopped, wildlife officials say, the rhino will disappear from the wild by the end of the century, preserved only in zoos.

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Along with elephant tusks, exotic birds and rare reptiles, rhino horns are part of a huge underground market centered in Asia.

The average rhino horn weighs about 4 1/2 pounds and sells for up to $122,000 on the international market.

“After drugs, wildlife is the second-biggest illegal trade in the world,” said Sharad Gaur, a zoologist with the India chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature. “It’s like fighting terrorism.”

Rhinos are plant-eating animals and are considered for the most part to be gentle. They normally do not attack human beings, but wildlife experts say rhinos hate being watched and often will charge at prying sightseers.

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Tribes in northeastern India consider rhino meat sacred. The animal’s horn is valued for its fever-reducing properties, and for other unproved properties claimed by folk medicine.

Rhino bones are burned to drive away insects, and the animals’ nails are prized ornaments.

In zoos throughout India, keepers collect rhino urine to sell as a purported cure for many diseases and as an aphrodisiac.

India’s rhinos live in northeastern India, most in the state of Assam in the Kaziranga National Park, a flat grassland broken by swamps.

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Guards and paramilitary troops who patrol the park have been ordered by the government to shoot poachers to death without warning, and the contest between conservationist and profiteer is growing more intense and inventive.

“It is a most revolting sight to see such a huge animal with its horn chopped off and blood all over,” said S. Deb Roy, a top official in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. As a former director of the park, he has seen dozens of rhinos killed for their horns.

The government of Assam reports an average of 15 cases of poaching every year, but wildlife officials say many more cases go unreported. In 1989, 58 rhinos were killed in the state, according to a report this year by the World Wide Fund.

The poachers’ most common weapon is the pit trap: a hole 6 feet deep, slightly more than the height of the average 2-ton rhino.

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In the last two years, hunters also have begun electrocuting their prey, Roy said. They take high voltage wires and hang them from sticks placed into tracks left by rhinos. Rhinos have poor vision and walk into the wires.

Now the beleaguered animal faces yet another threat.

“A new breed of poachers has arrived on the scene,” said Gaur. “They poach in order to fund their separatist campaigns.”

Wildlife officials say the worst offender is the Bodo tribe, which has been fighting for independence from India for the past five years. The Bodos, who make up about 30% of Assam’s 22 million people, are of Mongolian origin.

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They live in the swampy grasslands north of the Brahmaputra River, and rhinos from the Kaziranga reserve sometimes wander onto their territory.

The Bodo insurrection has frightened many forest guards away from Kaziranga National Park, Gaur said. Others are too scared to report poaching by the armed Bodo rebels, he said.

The rhino’s natural habitat continues to shrink, and wildlife experts say the remaining population could easily be wiped out by an outbreak of disease.


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