NEW DELHI, India — The Assam state government has requested permission from India’s home ministry to arm forest and wildlife protection guards with AK-series rifles after poachers killed a seventh rhino in Kaziranga National Park over the weekend, the Indian Express reported.
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Following a lull in rhino poaching at the end of 2012, nine rhinos have been killed across Assam so far this year, according to the Indian Express.
In addition to the shootings in Kaziranga, an 860-square-kilometer national park, poachers shot rhinos in Orang National Park and Manas National Park.
"Yes, incidents of poaching have gone up in the past few weeks," said Assam Forest and Environment Minister Rockybull Hussain.
"What is alarming is that while earlier it was criminals and smugglers who were involved in poaching of rhinos, recent incidents have revealed the involvement of armed militant groups."
Rhino horn is now literally worth more than gold in some parts of the world, where it is considered to be a cure for ailments ranging from cancer to hangovers.
Hundreds of rhinos are killed every year in Africa to feed Chinese demand, and according to Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, it was only a matter of time before India's endangered rhino population was attacked.
"Rhino horns are now more valuable than gold, and there's a definite, proven connection between the rhinos and insurgents," said Wright.
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Despite that connection, however, arming forest guards with AK-47s may not be the answer, reports GlobalPost's senior correspondent in India, Jason Overdorf.
Already last year, the Assam government equipped an elite Assam Forest Protection Force with repeating rifles to try to match the insurgents' firepower and deployed more than 200 additional guards in Kaziranga.
But local environmental and wildlife NGOs say that there has been little or no impact on the ground.
"It's important to match the firepower when ex-militants turn poachers. So, yes, the forest staff need AKs," said Indian environmental writer Jay Mazoomdaar. But better guns alone won't cut it.
"The staff should also have a clear legal mandate to feel confident while taking on such dangerous and organized poaching gangs. ... Given the alarming situation at Kaziranga, such strong steps are necessary at the moment."
The latest rhino to be killed was shot near the Kaoimari forest camp in the Bagori range of the park at night, which made it difficult for forest guards to find the rhino or poachers, the Calcutta Telegraph reported.
The rhino and two abandoned .303 rifles were located on Sunday morning. “The poachers fled in a hurry but managed to take the horn away,” a forest official told the Calcutta Telegraph.
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Jason Overdorf contributed to this report from New Delhi.