New Delhi: Assam has got permission to arm its forest guards with weapons like AK-47s to fight heavily-armed poachers, the state`s Environment and Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain said Thursday.
The minister`s comments came as another rhino fell prey to greed at the sprawling Kaziranga National Park, about 200 km from Guwahati, Assam`s key city.
"We have been allowed by the centre to (arm forest guards) with sophisticated weapons like AK-47," Hussain said in an interview while visiting the national capital.
The minister said the use of AK-47 in the latest killing of an one-horned rhino at Kaziranga was "very worrying".
He said Assam had sought the central government`s green signal to use "powerful weapons" as "poachers have started using AK-47".
"Intelligence and police department have said that extremists are involved in this (poaching)," said Hussain.
The Kaziranga National Park is the world`s last major refuge of one-horned rhinos, whose folds resemble a medieval knight`s armour.
According to one estimate, India is now home to about 2,300 rhinos, all of them in Assam.
The majestic animal faces constant threat from poachers due to the illegal demand for rhino horn in Oriental medicines as an aphrodisiac and fever cure.
According to one estimate, a processed kilogram of rhino horn can fetch as much as $30,000.
The latest rhino killing has taken the toll of rhinos hunted this year to 21 at the Kaziranga park, which is spread over 430 sq km.
The rhino killed Tuesday night had its horn chopped off.
A senior forest official said there was a heavy exchange of fire between the poachers and the forest guards, who are now armed with mainly .303 rifles of World War I vintage.
"The rhino carcass was recovered with its horn sawed away and empty cartridges of AK 47 and .303 rifles were scattered near it," the official said.
Two rhinos, including one rhino calf, were killed in the park last month. Their horns too were taken away.
The one-horned Indian rhino is the largest of all the Asian rhinos and is an excellent swimmer.
It has an excellent sense of hearing and smell, but its eyesight is relatively poor. This makes it an easy prey to cunning poachers.
A fully grown male rhino weighs around 2,000-2,500 kg while a female weighs around 1,600 kg.
According to WWF, international trade in rhino horn has been banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1977. But demand for it remains high and fuels rhino poaching in Africa and Asia.
It said the main market was now in Vietnam where there is a newly emerged belief that rhino horn cures cancer.
Rhino horn is also used in other traditional Asian medicine to treat a variety of ailments including fever and blood disorders. It is also used by wealthy Asians as a cure for hangovers.