Rhino conservation in Nepal: Now, focus on habitat expansion

A one-horned rhinoceros foraging in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Image: As originally published by The Himalayan Times

Basant Subba, The Himalayan Times | April 20, 2021

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The recently concluded Rhino Census 2021 (March22 – April 10) has counted 752 Greater onehorned rhinoceroses in Nepal.

Of the total animals, 694 were counted in and around Chitwan National Park, 38 in Bardia National Park, 17 in Shuklaphanta National Park and 3 in Parsa National Park. The last census conducted in 2015 had recorded 645 individuals in the country.

Jointly conducted by The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), Department of Forests (DoF), WWF and National Trust for Nature Conservation, the operation involved 57 domesticated elephants and a team of 350 park technicians and staff.

An increase of over 100 animals in six years is welcome news. It, however, also raises questions about the carrying capacity of the rhino habitats in Chitwan – and its effect on the current population.

With only around 100 rhinoceroses in the mid- 1960s and 310 in 1978, Nepal has come a long way in its rhino conservation efforts.

Apart from periodic rhino counts to assess its population, the country has also initiated translocation of this endangered species from Chitwan to other national parks of the country.

Poaching of rhinos and tigers had started long before the said area was designated as a national park in 1973. As far back as 1940, the Rana administration had formed a Gaida Gasti, or patrolling unit, which consisted of armed ex-servicemen.

The Gasti teams covered the entire area where rhino poachers were active. After units of the Nepali Army were stationed in the newly established national park, the patrolling teams were relieved.

Wildlife poaching has always been a problem in and around the protected areas. There was an increase in rhino poaching following a rise in the price of its horn in some East Asian countries.

Traditional hunting practices and subsistence economy of some of the ethnic groups living around the protected area exacerbated rhino poaching. Factors such as switching over of tiger poachers to the more lucrative rhino poaching and fluid political situation in the country also contributed to the wildlife crime.

Even though Chitwan National Park covers 932 square kilometers, it has only pockets of habitats for the rhino and other wildlife.

Experts say due to the natural invasion of the khair, sisso and sal trees, the grassland habitats are shrinking, and a high density of the rhino population is usually found in the bordering areas of the park.

Crop raiding by rhinos in the adjoining crop fields sometimes result in human casualties. On the other hand, foraging animals also face retaliatory action from the angry farmers. In order to address this conflict, a provision of compensation has been introduced in the case of loss of life or crop damage.

Records show that different methods are used by the poachers to kill rhinos.

Pitfalls appear to be the most widely used technique to trap the animal followed by poisoning and the use of firearms. Poison is placed in a pumpkin or in maize and left there for the targeted rhino to eat. It is said that it takes up to five hours for the animal to die after being poisoned.

The presence of Army posts inside the national parks serve as a psychological deterrent to the poachers.

But poaching often happens in the adjoining buffer zone or national forests.

Frontline park staff have lost their lives in encounters with armed poachers in the past. Game scouts are not sufficiently armed to face armed poachers on their own. On the other hand, soldiers posted in the Army Posts do not patrol outside the protected area.

Early conservation efforts were focussed on species preservation with strict law enforcement practices.

Today, the approach is more conciliatory with the emphasis on motivating and winning the support of the local people in wildlife conservation. The government has created buffer zones around the protected areas with the objective of meeting local people’s needs of forest products through community forestry and other community development activities by joining hands with conservation partners.

Apart from implementing such integrated conservation and development projects, the government has also made a provision of plowing back a major slice of the revenue generated in the buffer zone through eco-tourism for its developmental activities.

WWF Nepal has joined hands and worked with the Nepal government for over two decades in creating awareness and opportunities to improve the local livelihood and community forestry in the degraded patches of the forests, while also providing support for the anti-poaching drive.

Jointly launched by the government and WWF in 2001, the Tarai Arc Landscape (TAL) Programme aims to secure a larger area for mega wildlife species by building connectivity between forests and protected areas within the country as well as between the adjacent forests of the trans-border protected areas of Nepal and India with biological corridors to facilitate their dispersal.

Mega terrestrial wildlife such as the wild Asian elephant and rhinoceros have been sighted in the corridor forests. Moreover, tiger movement has also been recorded in the Khata corridor that connects Nepal’s Bardia National Park and the Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary of India.

Besides relentless patrolling and strengthening of anti-poaching works, with an effective informants’ network to collect information on illegal activities, community involvement and their stewardship in conservation are showing positive signs as the country has witnessed several zero-poaching (of rhino) years in the past. Despite a spate of rhino mortality in the recent past, the result of the count is optimistically reassuring that ongoing efforts are yielding results, and we need to move forward with a newer strategy to deal with novel challenges.