I felt encouraged by my conversation with naturalists at Chitwan National Park. I was briefed on the great conservation work being done not only in the park but on a national level in Nepal. Nepal celebrated four zero rhino poaching years: 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. A zero poaching year is when there is no evidence of the killing of animal for trade for a continuous 365 days or more.
Rhinos are classified as ‘endangered’ under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 2029, along with tigers, leopards and others. Nepal has the second-largest population of wild greater one-horned rhino in South Asia. Today there are about 650 rhinos spread over different national parks: about 600 in Chitwan National Park, and the other 50 scattered across the Parsa Wildlife Reserve, and Bardia and Shuklaphanta National Parks.
As per the unofficial data for 2016, there was also no poaching activity in this year, either. One unnatural death was reported in August 2016, but poaching was ruled out as there was no bullet mark on the animal, and the horn was found to be intact.
Achieving zero poaching for four years is a remarkable achievement, and has allowed Nepal to launch other projects to conserve its rhinos, like translocation of animals from one park to another.
Unfortunately, this zero poaching chain was broken in April 2017, when poachers killed an adult rhino in the Hariyali Banhatta Buffer Zone Community Forest in Jagatpur, Chitwan. But again after this, no official report of poaching has been made. But, there has been a steep rise in the number of rhino deaths in recent times, which pose new challenges to the conservation of rare wildlife.
The officials in the Chitwan National Park Conservation Office say it’s not abnormal for the mortality rate to rise, and it can be linked to a number of causes. A total of 51 rhino deaths were reported in two fiscal years: 25 in 2016-2017, and 26 in 2017-2018. The majority of these deaths were recorded as natural and due to old age, fights over females, following territorial battles due to loss of habitat, illness, getting trapped in quicksand, during birth, drowning, electric shocks and injuries, and other undetermined unnatural reasons. The officials further informed me that the floods in 2017 and 2018 also swept away and killed rhinoceros. The numbers rose further in 2018-2019, and the last reported death in the park was on March 24, 2019, bringing the total to 41 deaths in the previous nine months.
Some injured rhinos die because of lack of medical facilities in the park. To counter this, Nepal is devising a first-of-its-kind wildlife hospital in Chitwan, to ensure proper treatment for injured wild animals.
The good news is that the rhino crash (herd of rhinos) has recently grown by over 21 percent. Other animals in Nepal’s parks have also been thriving. The estimated tiger population of Nepal is reported to have doubled, according to the most recent census conducted. In 2019, there is a plan to compile a census on rhinos too.
The conservation scenario was not always so promising, but after the Government of Nepal’s extensive measures to protect wildlife, the results are heartwarming. The successful recovery of wildlife, particularly the rhino population in Nepal, is testament to a strong commitment to biodiversity conservation.
Life wasn’t always stress-free for these animals. Kings and foreign hunters used to come to Nepal’s jungles to kill anything magnificent and beautiful. Pictures of these hunters proudly posing with rows of dead Bengal tigers and rhinos can prompt a strong emotional reaction these days. Such hunting reduced Chitwan’s rhino numbers dramatically. By the 1950s, there were around 800 left. The Chitwan National Park was established in 1973 to control the declining rhino population. It grew to 544 individuals in 2000, and 612 across the country, but numbers suffered during the war of 1996-2006.
Nepal’s subsequent conservation efforts incorporated several strategies, including strict law enforcement, 24-hour army patrols in sensitive areas, the installation of CCTV cameras, the strengthening of existing security posts, and the establishment of new security posts in strategic locations. Awareness campaigns and conservation efforts through community-based anti-poaching units have also helped.
Today, the park is patrolled around the clock by a battalion of army on bicycles, motorcycles, four-wheelers, boats and elephants. I encountered many of these teams in the park, and was suitably impressed.
Article and photos by Pradeep Chamaria