Assam legislators carry AK-47s into Kaziranga, assault official

GUWAHATI, Mar 19 : The Kaziranga National Park, also a Unesco world heritage site, was closed to tourists on Wednesday as forest staff and jeep and elephant safari operators ceased work in protest against the alleged assault of a forest officer by two former Ulfa rebels-turned-legislators carrying AK-47s on Tuesday.

One of the legislators, Jiten Gogoi, who represents Bokakhat assembly seat, denied going to the park for fishing. Instead, he alleged that forest ranger Dharanidhar Boro quarrelled with him when he inquired about the whereabouts of rhino horns that have been either seized from poachers or recovered from dead rhinos. Jiten was accompanied by Thowra legislator Kushal Duori.

The MLA’s allegations against the park authorities came soon after chief minister Tarun Gogoi called for a report from forest minister Rockybul Hussain on the incident. The CM also assured that whoever tries to violate the law inside the park would be taken to task. Gogoi added that no one can enter the national park with firearms.

The two MLAs had allegedly brandished AK-47s while threatening the forest officials. Hussain said a park official, who is believed to have helped the MLAs, has been suspended and an inquiry has been instituted against him. ‘‘We have filed a case against them (the two MLAs) under the Wildlife Protection Act. Stern action will be taken against the culprits,’’ he added.

Jiten told TOI, ‘‘No one knows exactly what happens to the huge number of rhino horns recovered from dead animals or seized from poachers. I was inquiring about these horns from the forest officials and they filed the case against me.’’

About a year back, an environment activist group, Nature’s Beckon, had demanded a CBI inquiry into wildlife stocks after suspecting that several recovered rhino horns had gone missing. The group had filed two RTIs last year on wildlife stocks, to which the forest department had replied that there are 1,498 rhino horns, both seized and recovered from natural rhino deaths in its custody.

However, the group claims that 1,509 rhinos had died between 1980 and 1995 alone, adding that the figure revealed by the forest department was very small, and did not match with the number of rhino deaths.