Ranger, Poacher and Villagers: Deconstructing the Hero versus Villain Narrative in Kaziranga National Park, Assam.

Ranger, Poacher and Villagers: Deconstructing the Hero versus Villain Narrative in Kaziranga National Park, Assam.

27.01.2020, Monday
ATREE Auditorium


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, in certain areas. 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 often 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 the conservation heroes.

Using empirical material gathered through over a month of fieldwork in and around the Kaziranga National Park mainly consisting of informal discussions, participatory observations and life histories  with park guards, fringe communities and surrendered poachers, this presentation seeks to deconstruct and go beyond the heroes versus villain narrative. The idea is to understand what makes someone a poacher and how do park guards themselves perceive their positionally. Some of the questions that could be explored further: how do forest guards navigate the often rigid power structures they are embedded in while also ensuing a working relationship with the communities?  how does the notion of rhino nationalism further militarised conservation while pushing the anti-national poacher to the margins? how has this fervour of rhino nationalism further pushed people away from the park or has this in fact brought the communities closer to the administration by grooming them in anti-poaching?

About the speaker

Anwesha Dutta is a Post Doctoral Researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen, Norway. She has a PhD in Conflict and Development Studies from Ghent University, Belgium. Her PhD research focused on political ecology of resource extraction, conservation and livelihoods in the reserved forests on the India-Bhutan borderlands in Assam, Northeast India. She is currently working on an USAID funded project called Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) for which she will be undertaking fieldwork in Kenya later this year. She recently undertook a month of fieldwork in Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India where she researched on park-people relationship and its evolution over time and subsequently closely worked with frontline forest staff and their role in conservation.