Satyender Singh, Director of Kaziranga National Park, Assam, vehemently denied the claims made in a recently-aired BBC documentary, Killing for Conservation. The film alleged the park’s forest guards follow a “shoot at sight” policy against poachers, which ends up targeting innocent villagers living on the outskirts of the park.
“There is no such [shoot at sight] order,” Singh told Newslaundry. “How can a democratic government give an order like this?”
The documentary prompted the National Tiger Conservation Society (NTCA) to file a show cause notice to the BBC, asking them to explain why their filming permission should not be revoked. Singh said that the park authorities are also preparing to send a notice to the BBC and faulted it for not screening the documentary before either the park authorities, the Ministry of Environment or the Ministry of External Affairs prior to airing.
Singh is featured in the documentary and has been interviewed by BBC’s South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt. During his interaction with Rowlatt, Singh provides figures of the deaths of poachers in the park over the last few years. In addition to five poachers killed in 2016, “In 2015, 23 poachers were killed when poaching was at its peak” and “in 2014, 22 poachers were killed”, he told Rowlatt. In all, 50 poachers have been killed in the last three years.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Singh said all these deaths were the result of encounters that occurred between forest guards and poachers. “If they [poachers] open fire, then there will be cross firing from our end also,” he said. The standard procedure is to arrest them. Reiterating there is no shoot-at-sight policy, Singh said that the law only provides immunity to forest guards involved in checking poaching. “There is immunity in case of use of firearms under the Code of Criminal Procedure Section 197,” he explained. Under this section, forest guards who use firearms are not arrested, but are subjected to an inquiry to decide whether he has “used excessive force or not”, Singh told Newslaundry. He claimed that BBC had confused this immunity for a shoot-at-sight policy.
In the documentary, Rowlatt interviews a forest guard named Advesh, whose statement contradicts Singh’s claim that guards try to apprehend poachers before opening fire. “Whenever we see poachers or any people during the night, we are ordered to shoot them,” Advesh told the BBC. Singh, however, claims that Advesh’s statement was “dramatised”. “He [Advesh] has given a statement that he was told to say that,” Singh alleged.
To bolster his assertion that guards are abusing their immunity, Rowlatt reads from a report by “a former director of the park”. His philosophy, Rowlatt contends, was that “any suspect must obey or be killed […] kill the unwanted he says”.
Among the casualties in the pursuit of this philosophy was a local named Mona Bora who alleged that he was tortured and electrocuted by forest guards who suspected he was smuggling bullets for poachers.
Singh admitted that Bora had indeed been picked up for questioning, but denied that he had been tortured. “When we question somebody, we slap them a couple of times, that’s all. But they’re saying he was electrocuted. That doesn’t happen,” Singh said. He added that Bora is still under the “watch” of park authorities as they’re not yet sure whether “he may or may not be involved [in poaching activities]”.
Wildlife conservationist and author Prerna Singh Bindra weighed in on the side of the forest guards, who she says perform an incredibly dangerous job in extremely tough conditions. “It’s very wrong to say that there are shoot at sight orders. It only happens because there’s no absolutely no option,” she told Newslaundry. “If there are rhinos surviving today, we owe it to the front line forest guards and rangers.”
While admitting that there have been “very unfortunate accidents” – such as seven-year-old Akash Orang being shot in the leg by forest guards, as depicted in the documentary – for which there should be “proper enquiry”, Bindra stressed that these are not “deliberate attempts to kill the innocent”. “You must understand the field situation – poor visibility, good cover from tall grasses. It is difficult to differentiate and ambushes occur where there are losses of lives on both sides,” she said. More importantly, she added that, “We shouldn’t vilify the forest guards or discredit their dedication. They’re not bloodthirsty and come from the same local communities. And they’re defending our national heritage against the worst odds.” Overall, the conservation strategy of the park has been effective, she felt.
While Singh says that the documentary is an attempt to “malign the image” of the park due to “vested interests”, the BBC has so far stuck to its guns. In an email response to the Indian Express, the BBC wrote that “our audiences expect us to bring them the full picture, while adhering to our editorial standards and this piece is no different”. “We did approach the relevant government authorities to make sure their position was fully reflected but they declined to take part,” the BBC said. In the documentary, Rowlatt claims that he attempted to speak to “India’s environment minister, the minister of environment for Assam, the head of the body that runs India’s national parks, chief forest officer for Assam”, but they refused to speak to the BBC.
When Newslaundry tried to contact Rowlatt, he did not respond to multiple phone calls and text messages. Moreover, a week after the documentary first aired on February 11, it still isn’t clear whose version of events is true – the government or the BBC’s?