Calling its reporting “grossly erroneous,” the Environment Ministry has severely criticised the BBC and recommended the blacklisting of its South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt for a documentary that highlights the government’s “ruthless anti-poaching strategy” for the Kaziranga tiger reserve. The BBC film, Killing For Conservation, explores what it calls the “dark secrets” of Kaziranga and examines if its war on poaching has gone too far. It claims that forest guards have been given powers “to shoot and kill.”
The result, says Rowlatt’s film, is that more people were killed by forest guards than rhinos by poachers: 23 people lost their lives compared to just 17 rhinos last year. In a BBC article introducing the film, Rowlatt also claimed that only two intruders were prosecuted while 50 were shot dead since 2014.
The reference is to two convictions, one in 2014 and one in 2016, for two cases of poaching in Kaziranga registered in 2013. According to Kaziranga tiger reserve director Satyendra Singh, Kaziranga guards killed 23 and 22 suspected poachers in 2015 and 2014 respectively when poaching claimed over 40 rhinos in the reserve. Five intruders each were killed in 2013 and 2016. “There is no shoot-on-sight policy, only legal immunity for poor forest guards who do a very difficult job,” Singh told The Indian Express. “They (BBC) have misrepresented facts and selectively over-dramatised interviews and old footage. For example, I spoke for half an hour and they selectively used about a minute. They had a different agenda fuelled by certain foreign NGOs and local elements opposed to conservation. We are exploring all options including legal steps.”
In a notice issued yesterday, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) faulted Rowlatt and the BBC for airing the programme last Saturday without submitting it to the Ministries of Environment and External Affairs for the mandatory preview necessary to what it calls “remove any deviations, so as to achieve a balanced and accurate exposition of the theme.”
Under Section 38 of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, the NTCA asked Rowlatt and BBC’s South Asia bureau to show cause within seven days as to why their filming permissions should not be revoked. It warned the broadcaster of cancelling all future permits if the programme was not removed from various online portals immediately. The Indian High Commission in the UK has also been asked to take action.
In its notice, the NTCA claimed that the BBC submitted a very different storyline while seeking permission for filming: “Story on challenges and expertise of India’s conservation drive. We would like to report on and feature what we consider the most exciting aspect of conservation in India — the elite rangers of Kaziranga as they go on night patrol and show our viewers the efforts being taken to protect wildlife in India.”
Instead, the notice said, “the producer has used spasmodic events as an umbrella to judge a gamut of conservation efforts that go into safeguarding our wildlife heritage, with scant understanding of the laws in place. The immunity provided to forest officials under Section 197 of the CrPC has been construed as a ‘Shoot to Kill’ policy.”
BBC’s Rowlatt said he was not authorised to speak. When contacted, a BBC spokesman said in an email: “This film makes clear the successes achieved by India’s conservation policies in preserving the country’s most iconic wildlife. However, the film also expressly set out to explore the challenges of India’s conservation drive and during production it became clear that one of those challenges was the impact on communities living next to the park. Our audiences expect us to bring them the full picture, while adhering to our editorial standards and this piece is no different. The issues raised in the film are part of an important international debate on the appropriate way to combat poaching. We did approach the relevant government authorities to make sure their position was fully reflected but they declined to take part.”
Killing For Conservation counters the Kaziranga authority’s justification for high casualties that forest guards engaged with heavily armed poachers. “Just one park guard has been killed by poachers in the past 20 years compared with 106 people shot dead by guards over the same period,” it said.
The film features several cases of innocent villagers being shot in Kaziranga. In December 2013, a young Goanburah Kealing from a bordering village went looking for two family cows that had strayed into the park. The park authorities say that guards shot the boy, who had severe learning difficulties, inside the reserve when he did not respond to a warning.
Rowlatt’s film also tells how seven-year-old Akash Orang was shot while making his way home along the main track through his village, which flanked the park, in July 2015. The gunshot tore away most of the calf muscle on his right leg. Akash spent five months in hospital and had multiple surgeries but he may never walk properly again.