In a nation where a civil war and years of political deadlock have stunted prosperity and development, a burgeoning rhino population is one of Nepal’s rare success stories.
The Himalayan country’s endangered one-horned rhinoceros has increased its numbers significantly in recent years thanks to tightened security against poachers and community conservation programs.
Wildlife experts spent a month last year conducting an exhaustive survey and counted 534 rhinos in Nepal’s southern forests — 99 more than when the last such census was carried out in 2008.
“Despite all the hardship during the unrest in the country, we continued our support to the fullest extent to control poaching of rhinos and we are glad that our efforts have yielded positive results,” said Diwakar Chapagain of WWF Nepal’s wildlife trade control program.
The wildlife organization, which has been involved in anti-poaching and anti-trafficking programs as well as habitat research for more than 30 years, expects numbers to keep improving.
The picture was not always so positive. Thousands of greater one-horned rhinos, also known as the Indian rhinoceros, once roamed Nepal and northern India, but their numbers plunged over the past century because of poaching and human encroachment on their habitat.
The animals are killed for their horns, which are prized for their reputed medicinal qualities in China and southeast Asia.
A single horn can sell for tens of thousands of US dollars on the international black market and impoverished Nepal’s porous borders, weak law enforcement and proximity to China have made the country a hub for the illegal trade.
The decline in the rhino population was particularly dramatic during Nepal’s 1996 to 2006 civil war, when soldiers on anti-poaching details were redeployed to fight a Maoist guerrilla insurgency.
“Because the security forces had to engage in other national security issues, priority to park security and wildlife protection was weakened,” Chapagain said.
“Similarly, park guard posts were decreased to a few posts in a single location, which left a security vacuum in the habitats of the rhino and other wildlife. Poachers could go to parks without any fear of arrest,” he added.
When the conflict ended, the government made a priority of rebuilding its wildlife protection apparatus, said Maheshwar Dhakal, an ecologist with the Nepalese Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.
“But it took some time for the results to appear because the poachers had changed their strategies. They waited for the rains or nighttime so that the guards wouldn’t be there,” Dhakal said.
“They entered the conservation areas from the bushes and during festivals when the security was at a minimum,” he added.
A key turning point in the fight to save the rhino occurred in 2009, when the government decided to enlist community groups to protect the animals, Dhakal said.
“We started to exchange information and create awareness campaigns in the local areas. We enlisted a group of local volunteers who would go on patrol in the jungle,” he said. “It boosted the morale of the local people. We also developed a network of committees under our office to make our efforts more coordinated.”
This new approach yielded remarkable results last year, the first since records began in which no deaths of rhinos at the hands of poachers were recorded in Nepal.