Assam looks for South African rhino DNA tool

Assam forest department will have a peek into a South African rhino conservation management tool, which will help in successful prosecution of poachers.
The DNA tool christened as RhODIS (Rhino DNA indexing system) helps in providing irrefutable evidence in courts of law and linking crime scenes to suspected criminals leading to successful prosecution.
A three-day workshop organised by the WWF India in collaboration with Assam forest department on Saving Unicorns: International Co-operation for Rhino Conservation is starting here tomorrow and the tool will be demonstrated in the field at Kaziranga.
The tool was first used in a rhino poaching case in 2010 in which a Vietnamese citizen was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for having rhinoceros horns from poached rhinos in his baggage when he was apprehended at OR Thambo International Airport in South Africa.
Apart from resource persons from South Africa, who will be demonstrating the tool, it will be attended by participants from Nepal, Uttar Pradesh forest and West Bengal forest department as well in addition to forest and police officials from Assam.
Officials said the DNA system has established DNA database for rhino profiles allowing rhino range states privileged access to share the data and information.
Till date, it has over 5,000 rhino samples on its DNA database and has contributed towards over 400 rhino investigative cases in the east and southern African region and has set the pace for new global forensic initiatives and standards that enhance conservation efforts in the fight against global wildlife crimes.
The tool has the potential to link with other databases allowing for greater global information sharing where necessary.
“There has not been much work done in Assam on wildlife forensics and stress is now being given on improving crime investigations,” chief wildlife warden R.P. Agarwalla toldThe Telegraph.
The department has been on the back foot as it has not been able to put a stop to poaching despite its best efforts and civil society organisations have been raising voices in the form of protests. Altogether 16 rhinos have been killed in Kaziranga alone this year.
He said rhino convictions were very low in Assam, which could be improved if efforts were made in the right way. “Plans are on to set up a wildlife forensics laboratory on the lines of Gujarat forensic laboratory in Assam too,” he said. An intelligence cell to collect more information about poachers is already operational.
The problem in Assam is that many offenders in rhino cases are out on bail and indulging in poaching again.
“Without conviction, we cannot show our supremacy over poachers. Arrest is just the first step, but if arrested persons are not convicted they become hardcore poachers and will create some more poachers,” Bibhab Talukdar, chair, Asian Rhino Specialist Group, said.
He said to find out the key sponsors or abettors involved in rhino poaching, Kaziranga authorities should immediately collect information from Golaghat, Kaliabor and Biswanath Chariali with regard to persons taking bail for the arrested poachers and start investigation from there.


Is Manas national park slipping into "danger"?

WHC sounds Manas danger alarm

 Manas National Park “seems” to be slipping back into “danger”, three years after it got back the coveted heritage tag.
The warning bells have been sounded by World Heritage Committee, which in a recent report said the park could slip into the danger list if the security and encroachment situation worsened.
“A further deterioration of the security situation, associated with the reported surge in poaching, and concerns regarding encroachment could create the conditions to re-inscribe the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger,” the committee said in its draft decision report after going through the state of conservation report of Manas sent by the Centre.
The report will be discussed in the committee’s 38th session to be held at Doha, Qatar, from June 15 to 25. Officials from the Centre and other agencies will be present in the meeting to put forward their viewpoints.
The main issues afflicting the park are poaching and increasing encroachment. Seven of the rhinos translocated to Manas since 2011, when it had got rid of the danger tag, have fallen prey to poachers.
The committee noted with serious concern the reported poaching of nearly one-third of the rhino population of the park — a reminder of the fragility of its recovering outstanding universal value — and urged the Centre to ensure that forest guards are adequately equipped and trained to protect the property against poachers, that they maintain effective patrolling to secure the recovering population of rhinos and other wildlife and to ensure that the anticipated translocation of eastern swamp deer is carried out effectively.
The committee said Manas had about 100 rhinos at the time of its inscription on the World Heritage List. In 1992, the committee put the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger because of the damage caused to it by militants. By 1997, the number of rhinos was reduced to 39 and by 2001 rhinos had been extirpated from the property. The committee had noted in 2012 that the recovering outstanding universal value of the property was still fragile, given the increase in poaching.
The state government in its state of conservation report sent to the Centre in January this year had spoken of the steps taken by it to control poaching.
The committee has also received reports from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) of new encroachment in the Bhuyanpara range, recalling the situation at the time of the property’s inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1992. It had asked for a reply from the Centre but there has been none yet. Sources said the encroachment at Bhuyanpara has now increased manifold and more than 7 square km is said to be under encroachment.
There is also rampant encroachment in the park’s other range, Panbari, which has an area of 16.3 square km. About 912 people are occupying the area and they refuse to leave despite financial incentives. Besides, there is a potential source of conflict between the Assam forest department and the BTC on power over Manas and its wildlife. Under the memorandum of settlement on Bodoland Territorial Council 2003, forests have been transferred to the BTC but not the wildlife.
Given the multiple conservation issues affecting the property, the committee has requested the Centre to invite a joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN monitoring mission to assess the property’s state of conservation, particularly in relation to security, poaching and encroachment, and to assess whether it faces potential danger as defined in the operational guidelines.
It has requested the Centre to submit a detailed report, including an executive summary, to the World Heritage Centre by February 1 next year on the state of conservation of the property, the steps taken to improve the situation and updates of its financial situation for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 39th session next year.
“A lot of efforts have been made to revive Manas since 2005. But poaching of seven rhinos since 2011 is a worrying factor, with five killed last year alone. The primary aim of Manas authorities should be to check further poaching and strengthening of patrol and intelligence gathering along with proper training to frontline staff,” Bibhab Talukdar, secretary-general of Aaranyak and Asia coordinator of International Rhino Foundation, told The Telegraph.


Kaziranga thinks the "smart" way to shield rhinos

"Smart guards" for Kaziranga

Kaziranga National Park is thinking the “smart” way to take on poachers.

The proposal of having “smart guards and smart communication” has been developed by director of Kaziranga National Park in view of Gauhati High Court’s order to improve protection of rhinos in the World Heritage Site.
The proposal is now under discussion.

“Since Kaziranga National Park is home to the largest number of greater Indian one-horned rhinoceros, the species is constantly under threat from poachers. Owing to vigorous patrolling by the field staff as well as proactive role by the park authorities, poaching is contained to certain extent. However, it is high time that modernisation of the strike force, forest guards and other frontline staff is carried out by upscaling the anti-poaching infrastructure. The home of the rhinoceros can be protected from poachers and the species, along with other endangered wildlife, will continue to thrive and multiply,” the park director, M.K. Yadava, said in an approach paper on Issues and Possible Solutions to protection of one-horned rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park, which has now been thrown up for discussion.

He said the pressure on Kaziranga National Park is tremendous as the rhinoceros population is very high and the entire boundary porous. The northern side is surrounded by the Brahmaputra and its numerous islands. There is a very large population of traditional fishing communities all along the river, some of whom may be potential field men for the gangs of poachers. The southern side of the park is also full of human habitation, making patrolling very difficult, he said.
Yadava said under the smart guard system in the context of prevailing situation in Kaziranga National Park “S” stands for sustained stamina 24x7x365. “M” means motivated, “A” action-oriented, “R” ready to act. “T” stands for trained and tactically superior, “G” means ‘get down’ to the poachers, “U” undeterred by adverse conditions, “A” always armed (weapon, equipment and kits) “R” right thinking at the right time and “D” implies develop yourself. The smart guard will be well-equipped, well-trained and well-motivated.

“The pilot proposal here would create an elite force of about 50-75 smart guards to begin with. Though there is a large number of equipment (in the thought process), initially it is proposed to start with day-vision binoculars, hand-held GPS sets, range finders, night-vision goggles, hand-held thermal scanners, powerful searchlights including illumination systems, bullet-proof jackets and helmets. To this is added portable battery packs (as the equipment would need power supplies during long hours of ambush and patrolling)” Yadava says.

The director says the introduction of smart guard system would change patrol, ambush and surveillance strategies which would require training and motivation of front line staff. “Six months’ intensive training has been proposed to make the field staff adapt to the new technologies and systems for better performance.”

On the other hand, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) today moved the state forest department demanding that the state government lobby with international agencies to create pressure on those procuring rhino horns supplied by poaching rackets in order to prevent poaching.

The peasants’ body, which has been spearheading a movement against the government on different issues of public interests, today launched a protest against poaching of one-horned rhinos in the state’s forests including Kaziranga National Park.

Nearly 500 members of the KMSS, led by its president and peasant leader Akhil Gogoi, staged a demonstration here alleging that the state government had failed to prevent poaching as 168 rhinos have been killed during the past 12 years of Congress government in the state.

According to the latest census (March 2013), there are 2,329 rhinos in Assam, up from 2,290 the previous year.
The KMSS supporters shouted slogans against forest minister Rakibul Hussain, alleging that the department had failed to identify rackets involved in continuous poaching of rhinos.

They alleged that steps taken to improve security arrangements in the forests were not enough.


" Fast and fresh" Assam teas now worldwide

Fast and fresh Assam teas now worldwide

Assam teas will be delivered “fast and fresh” worldwide with Siliguri-based online brand Teabox all set to launch its operations from Guwahati.
Founded in 2012, Teabox delivers tea direct from its place of origin to customers and ships the world’s freshest teas chosen by tea experts all over the world within 24-48 hours of production. It is delivered within three to five working days to its customers worldwide.
“The market for Assam teas is bigger than Darjeeling in terms of volume. A majority of consumers prefer strong teas and Assam, especially second flush, does an excellent job in terms of matching the customers’ preference. Hence going forward, we would be procuring large quantities of teas from Assam and Guwahati would be the largest of our centres by way of business,” Teabox founder and CEO Kaushal Dugar told The Telegraph.
Characteristics like rich malty flavour, fuller body, bright colour, briskness and sweet aroma have made Assam tea a hot favourite among tea enthusiasts all over the world. The company is planning to start the Guwahati centre in the last quarter of this year. At present, it operates from Siliguri.
“We are looking to procure from around 30-40 best plantations in Assam. We sell only orthodox tea,” Dugar said.
As of now, 30 per cent of teas being sold are from Assam. This will increase and there will be more variety when it launches its Guwahati centre. With a range of over 150 varieties of fresh tea from over 75 different plantations in Darjeeling, Nepal, Assam, Kangra and the Nilgiris, the company claims to provide the largest selection of single estate and premium fresh teas of the country online.
“Tea has a huge market globally but most of the consumption/buying happens offline. We are really trying to shift the pattern of buying from offline to online, which is very challenging, as tea is a product that people look/feel/smell and then buy. But wine and coffee have done that successfully, so we believe tea should not be that different,” he said.
The company has already delivered over five million cups of tea to connoisseurs in over 65 countries. Seventy per cent of its customers are repeat ones. On why people should buy from Teabox, Dugar said it is because of the extremely high quality of teas, backed by superior customer experience and service.
“We buy the best teas and make them better through our extensive in-house quality control systems. Our shipping team ensures that they reach most destinations in three to five working days,” he said.
“We believe that a majority of the offline market in tea can be converted into online. The size of the online market is $5 billion to $6 billion whereas that of offline market is $40 billion. There is space for other firms to join in the online tea market sphere,” Dugar said.
On the other hand, tea shipped from Inland Container Depot from Amingaon on the outskirts of Guwahati takes about 30 days to reach the UK and about 20 days to get to Dubai.


In 10 years, no Assam forest minister has set foot on Manas national park, a World Heritage Site....

 A conservation road less travelled
ROOPAK GOSWAMI T he road to Manas National Park — one of the country's richest wildlife areas in Assam — does not seem to be on the itinerary for Assam's politicians.
No forest minister of the state has gone to Manas — a World Heritage Site in almost a decade — to get a first- hand account of the problems it faces.
There is a lurking danger that if the situation does not improve, it may well lose its hard fought heritage site tag, which it got back in 2011.
The national park that is noted for its spectacular scenery, with a variety of habitat that support a diverse fauna, falls under Kokrajhar parliamentary constituency, which goes to polls on April 24.
Well- known wildlife conservationist Bittu Sahgal says, " Manas is a tragedy foretold.
One of the world's most exquisite forests, it lies neglected and victim to both politics and social unrest. The forest minister of Assam should visit the park and speak to locals about protecting it." " The Bodo people themselves should recognise this heritage site as vital to their identity. It is a tragedy that they have allowed outside influences to destabilise the ecology of this forest, which actually belongs to their own children and should have been protected forever," Sahgal told The Telegraph . After the elections were announced, a rally was addressed by party president and BTC chief Hagrama Mohilary on April 18, along with party MP ( Rajya Sabha) Biswajit Daimary, to campaign for its candidate, Chandan Brahma, at Rupahi, 4km south of Manas, but there was no mention of Manas.
Six candidates — Chandan Brahma ( BPF), Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary ( Trinamul), Urkhao Gwra Brahma ( Independent), Sansuma Khunggur Bwiswmuthiary ( Independent), Sabda Ram Rabha ( Independent), Hira Sarania ( Independent) are fighting for the Kokrajhar parliamentary seat ( ST).
" There has been no mention of Manas till now by political leaders in the rally today," Ajay Kherkatary, the president of the Manas Bhuyanpara Conservation and Ecotourism Society, told The Telegraph . " We have been telling the political leaders of the need to provide importance to Manas through action. For us, Manas is important and we have to save it," he said.
Rhino conservationist Bibhab Talukdar, who is the chair of the Asian Rhino Specialist Group, says that Manas has been ignored by politicians. " I feel that Manas, being a World Heritage Site and also a tiger reserve, has been ignored by all politicians. Manas has been witnessing many challenges like Kaziranga, but for conservation and protection purposes, Kaziranga always gets more priority and publicity and support. After the formation of the Bodoland Territorial Council, Manas seems to be hanging between the two power centres — the state and the council. Both lack the strong willingness to assist each other to promote Manas," he told The Telegraph . The national park takes its name from the Manas river, a trans- boundary river in the Himalayan foothills between southern Bhutan and India.
It is named after Manasa, the serpent god in Hindu mythology.
Forest officials concede the fact that Kaziranga has always got more from the state than Manas despite the latter being more rich in wildlife diversity.
The park has six national and international designations — World Heritage Site, national park, tiger reserve, biosphere reserve, elephant reserve and important bird area — which probably no other protected park in the country has. A total of 55 mammals, 36 reptiles and three amphibians have been recorded in Manas which harbours by far the greatest number of Schedule I mammals of any protected area in the country.
Eighteen rhinos were translocated to Manas, of which poachers killed seven after it got back its heritage tag in 2011. " This is indeed a great setback towards restrengthening Manas to gain its lost glory back. BTC should take it as a challenge to manage Manas as best as possible and compete positively with Kaziranga," Talukdar said.
Though the BTC runs the park on a day- to- day basis, it is governed by the Wildlife ( Protection) Act, 1972 ( as amended in 2006). " Permission for doing research in Manas has to be taken from the chief wildlife warden," a wildlife researcher said.
" Manas should be on the political agenda of Assam if we are to save it," Rathin Barman, another wildlife conservationist who has been involved in the rhino rehabilitation in Manas, said.
According to a IUCN report on Terrestrial Biodiversity and the World Heritage Site List, the importance of Manas is much more than Kaziranga by the criteria of " irreplaceability". Manas is 417th in rank in terms of irreplaceability whereas Kaziranga is 2,236.
This apart, there is a potential source of conflict between Assam forest department and the BTC on the power.
Under the Memorandum of Settlement on Bodoland Territorial Council 2003, forests has been transferred to BTC but not wildlife.
The problems Manas faces are enormous — from militants, rising encroachment, poaching, delay in getting funds, vacant posts which have dealt a blow to it.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority says the incidents of rhino poaching in Manas have definitely been a cause for concern and evidence collected from the scene of the crime confirms the use of sophisticated weapons, bullets for which have been recovered.
Both sides have been accusing each other for not doing enough for conservation of Manas with the result that the park is losing out.
 Kokrajhar votes on April 24


ITC first joint venture for NE in packaged food.

ITC eyes NE biscuit market with joint venture

 Packaged food from a top brand of the ITC will now be made in Assam with the conglomerate joining hands with a local food major — Sunanda Ram Deka (SRD) Group — to set up a joint venture.
The SRD Group is known for its Repose brand of bakery. The joint venture called North East Nutrients Private Ltd has already been registered and the National Stock Exchange informed. This is ITC’s first joint venture in the Northeast and the registered office of the company will be at Calcutta.
The project cost is Rs 146 crore which will be financed by a consortium of banks. The plant would be set up on a 10-acre plot at Ramhari in Mangaldoi of Darrang district, with a production capacity of 100 tonnes daily. “The products manufactured would be biscuits and other items under the Sunfeast brand of the ITC,” a source said.
Confirming the development, a senior ITC official said the joint venture would manufacture packaged food to cater to the region. A source said the ITC would have 76 percent equity in the new venture with the rest owned by the SRD Group. The products would be out in a year’s time and a memorandum of understanding has been signed. Discussions between the ITC and the Assam group were ongoing for quite some time before the project fructified.
The biscuit market in the Northeast is growing at 15 to 20 per cent and the Indian Biscuits Manufacturers’ Association says the consumption in the east and the Northeast is around 28 per cent.
The Mangaldoi-based SRD Group have been in the food business for decades and manage a Horlicks factory and a Britannia cake factory in collaboration with Britannia Industries Ltd and an ORS factory in collaboration with Jagdale Industries, along with its own units.
“This is a significant development in the entrepreneurship sector of Assam and will encourage others to start similar venture. The ventureis starting in Mangaldoi and not at Guwahati which shows everything need not happen in the capital city,” R.S. Joshi, chairman of the Federation of Industry and Commerce of North Eastern Region (Finer) said.
An official in the industries department said since it was a mega project (more than Rs 100 crore), Dispur will provide whatever help is required under the 2014 Industrial and Investment Policy of Assam if the company makes a request. The policy states a project with large fixed capital investment of a minimum of Rs 100 crore or generating regular employment for at least 1,000 people is given mega project status.
A high-powered committee to be notified by the government will consider additional incentives to be provided to such projects on a case-to-case basis. The committee shall consider the mega project status in a single integrated unit.
In July 2003, ITC made a foray into the biscuits market by launching the Sunfeast range of biscuits and it is also a key player in the pasta and instant noodles segments.