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NEW DELHI, India — As dawn was breaking the week before the global tiger summit began in St. Petersburg last month, a team of forest guards in Kaziranga, Assam, in northeastern India, sent their own unmistakable message to the bigwigs debating how to save the majestic cat.
After tracking four poachers through thick fog for much of the night on Nov. 15, the park rangers closed in. Suddenly, a group of guards came face to face with the poachers. The tiger- and rhino-killers opened fire. The guards fired back, killing two of the poachers on the spot. The others fled into the tall grass, escaping with a harrowing story for their partners in the illegal wildlife trade: In Kaziranga, park rangers don't run away. They shoot back.
"It is a common thing," said Surajit Dutta, director of Kaziranga National Park. "This year, seven poachers have been killed, and there have been lots of encounters."
Even before the experts in St. Petersburg sounded the alarm this month — warning that the tiger could be extinct in as little as 12 years time if countries failed to take concerted action — the front-line troops in Kaziranga had thrown down the gauntlet in India, which is home to nearly half of the world's remaining tigers.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, Kaziranga has for years been India's most aggressive tiger reserve when it comes to fighting poachers — arming its forest guards and pushing them to match poachers bullet for bullet. And this July, Assam granted its park rangers the license to kill.
"Kaziranga is the only protected area with shoot-on-sight orders for poachers," said Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. "There are shootouts frequently."
The results have been salutary, say park officials. Originally instituted to protect the Indian one-horned rhino — which is also highly endangered — the aggressive tactics that Kaziranga uses to fight poaching have helped give the Indian national park the highest density of tigers of any area in the world, with about 33 tigers per 100 square kilometers according to the latest population survey.
"It's not a safe place to be a poacher — or a guard," Wright said. "Every year, some guards get killed. But that's the price you have to pay for protection in this modern day and age because the rhino's horn and the tiger's body is so valuable."
Issued in July, the new notification under the criminal code of procedure essentially gives the forest guards the same immunity to prosecution for firing their weapon on the job that's enjoyed by the police. Instead of criminal charges, an internal investigation led by the local magistrate determines whether or not the shooting was justified.
But in a country with strict (though ineffective) gun control laws, where the vast majority of police officers rely on a bamboo stick, rather than a firearm, to keep the peace, the state of Assam's empowerment of its forest guards is unprecedented.
At least partly in thanks to these tough measures, Kaziranga boasts about 2,000 one-horned rhinos and as many as 100 of the world's 3,500 remaining tigers. But critics say the battle has just begun — and at least one wildlife advocacy group suggests that there's a grim footnote to the "highest tiger density in the world" tag.
Nature's Beckon, a locally based nongovernmental organization, for instance, argues that the real reason that the population of tigers within the Kaziranga reserve is so dense is that the habitat outside its boundaries has been ruthlessly destroyed.
That may well be the story across the country, where wildlife parks mark isolated dots on a map where villages are mushrooming into towns and cities. But with fast-growing India remaining the last best hope for maintaining a viable tiger population, the first skirmish in the fight is surely to stop the hemorrhaging at its national parks.
So far this year, Wildlife Protection Society of India says that India's reserves have lost 51 tigers, 26 of them to poachers, and in 2009 the country lost 85 of the big cats, including 32 killed by poachers. And some parks, like Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh and Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, have been forced to admit that all of the big cats under their protection have disappeared.
A big part of the reason could be the plight of the poorly paid, ill-equipped forest guards. In most of the national parks, they lack radios to communicate with one another — let alone the guns they need to protect themselves against poachers. And in those few instances where a guard does carry a firearm on the job, he dare not use it.
"If you are a forest guard in Panna National Park or any of India's other parks, and you have a license to carry a gun, and they allow you to carry it inside the park for protection, if you fire that gun and kill a poacher, you will be arrested for murder," Wright said.
But not in Kaziranga. Not anymore.