EVENT | Rangers, Poachers, Villagers & Rhino-horn Traders: Beyond a Hero versus Villain narrative in the Kaziranga National Park, India. 23 September 2019

Anwesha Dutta gives a talk about her research on political ecology of resource extraction, conservation and livelihoods in Northeast India.

One horned rhinoceros in Kaziranga National Park - Assam, India

We’re pleased to announce that Dr Anwesha Dutta, currently a postdoctoral researcher at CMI, will be visiting BIOSEC on 23rd September 2019. She will give a talk about her research which focuses on political ecology of resource extraction, conservation and livelihoods in the reserved forests on the India-Bhutan borderlands in Assam, Northeast India.

Date: 23 September 2019
Time: 3pm
Location: Jessop West Seminar room 8


The Kaziranga National Park on the foothills of Himalayas in India has come to be recognized as a conservation success story – from a handful of one horned rhino a century ago to two thousand and four hundred or two-thirds of the entire world population in recent times. However, not all is well with the rhino and since 2010 local print and electronic media have reported several instances of rhino poaching in and around the park (Barbora 2017). In response to the increased poaching the guards in the park have been given the right to exercise “shoot at sight”, supplied with night vision goggles, been granted the usage of drones for surveillance. Most recently, in July 2019 a sophisticated security force comprising of 74 men and 8 women, known as the Special Rhino Protection Force, was set up. The other side of this incredible success in KNP is rather dark and imbued in rampant human rights violation against local populations living on the fringes of the park, including forced eviction and displacement. At least 24 young men were killed in Assam (in different parks, but mainly within KNP) in the year 2015. The forest department, as well as the local media state that these killings were the result of encounters between forest guards and poachers. At some stage the park rangers were allegedly killing an average of two people every month.

Therefore poaching is presented as a problem in need of a (mainly policy-oriented and technical) solution: the problem being ‘bad’ people (read poachers) kill helpless, ‘good’ and innocent animals, and the solution is to catch, imprison or even torture and kill, these ‘bad’ poachers (Büscher 2016; Lunstrum 2016), an important task for ‘good’ rangers. This has led to yet another unhelpful categorization of heroes and villains (Duffy 2018). In this blatantly problematic dominant discourse, the stories mainly revolve around the dead animals and (mostly white) conservation heroes, although at times (mostly black) rangers are also championed as conservation heroes. Although in most cases the (mostly black) poachers are labelled as illegitimate, criminals and rebels (see Marijnen and Verweijen).

We already know how out of place global media outcries against poaching at times can be (cf. Büscher 2016; Lunstrum 2016) and lead to further valorization of violent behavior of rangers. This in turns creates the space for what I consider an expansion of the existing political ecology literature on militarized forms of conservation by unpacking the anxieties and mobilities associated with the occupational category of what constitutes a forest ranger, a poacher and a rhino horn trader. The most important story surrounds the tension between rangers and poachers. Rangers often do not feel safe in their own communities when the people realize that they are doing this type of work. In fact, those labelled as ‘evil’ in mainstream conservation discourse, are ordinary people who struggle to survive, and use their agency to make their lives meaningful on an everyday basis. A 2016 survey by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Rangers Foundation Asia (RFA), both NGOs reveal that rangers across the world are underpaid and live in harsh, isolate and hostile environments. What the survey does not do is to understand how a ranger navigates these complex situations and contexts. Frequently, rangers have to prove their loyalty to the forest department by arresting their own people. So, the precarious occupational context in which rangers operate have to be accounted for to fathom how and why they behave the way they do. Therefore, the need emerges to go beyond a hero versus villain dichotomy and understand the complex occupational categories of who is a ranger, a poacher, a rhino horn trader and a villager and trace the fluidity and processes of mobility therein.

Drawing on my previous fieldwork in the reserved forests surrounding the Manas National Park in Assam, the planned fieldwork in KNP this winter plans an intimate ethnography of those at the heart of the conservation divide.