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SOS Rhino : In the News : Saving Nepal's Rhinos, One Truckload at a Time

Saving Nepal's Rhinos, One Truckload at a Time
Issue 10 – August, 2005
By Deepak Gajurel

KATHMANDU, Nepal, August 2, 2005 (ENS) - A darting expert shoots a male rhino and the two ton animal falls unconscious in Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park. A dozen people hoist the sleeping rhino onto a sledge and then into a wooden cage fitted on a truck.

The process goes on until the desired number of rhinos is captured and the trucks head for Royal Bardia National Park and Royal Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in western Nepal.

The Asian one-horned rhino is a critically endangered species, and Nepal has second largest herd in the world. Rhino conservation is not an easy task, and translocation of the animals to populate another park is regarded as one of the best options to sustain the rhino population.

More than 100 experts, technicians and wildlife workers are engaged in the operation. A dozen domesticated elephants are used to comb the grasslands in Royal Chitwan National Park. From dawn to dusk the elephants and their human companions search for rhinos, combing the grasslands where grasses and weeds stand up to 10 meter (33 foot) high.

When rhinos are sighted, the workers drive them towards safe land for darting. Experts dart them, take necessary measurements of the unconscious rhinos, put them in a cage and then onto a truck, and transport them to a new destination for release into the wild.

Translocation of the rhinos to Bardia has helped reduce pressure on habitat in Royal Chitwan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This will decrease the possibility of potentially damaging human-rhino conflicts that arise when foraging rhinos stray into farmlands surrounding the park, say officials at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

Establishing new viable rhino populations in Royal Bardia National Park and Royal Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve is the main goal of the rhino translocation.

"It is important to conserve the endangered species from any natural and other disasters by developing viable populations in Royal Bardia National Park and Royal Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve," says Narayan Sharma Paudel, deputy director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC).

Repeated incidents of rhino-human conflict pressured officials and conservationists to brainstorm a sustainable solution. Translocation of rhinos was one of the answers.

The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation is supported by WWF Nepal program for the costly process of rhino translocation. "We have been providing technical as well as financial supports for rhino translocation,"says Dr. Chandra Prasad Gurung, WWF Nepal country representative.

Nepal is planning to translocate more rhinos from Chitwan to Bardia this year, DNPWC officials say, because past translocations have been successful.

"From the suitability point of view, rhinos taken to Royal Bardia National Park earlier have already given birth. This has proven that they can live there sustainably," says Dr. Mukesh Chalise, professor of biology at Tribhuwan University .

The translocation could have continental as well as global significance. In 1998, the Asian Rhino Action Plan emphasized preservation and increase in the number of animals and sanctuaries wherever possible.

Nepal's rhino conservation efforts have been applauded abroad. DNPWC officials say that the Asian Rhino Specialists Group's meeting held in Indian State of Assam in 1999 praised Nepal for rhino conservation efforts and encourage maintainance of viable rhino populations in their old habitats as well as the new ones.

A founding population of 13 rhinos was introduced from Royal Chitwan National Park to Royal Bardia National Park in 1986. Most of the translocated females conceived shortly after they were taken from Chitwan, indicating their acceptance of their new habitat.

In 1991, 25 rhinos were translocated to the Babai Valley in the northeastern part of Royal Bardia National Park. During the last translocation in April 2003, 10 rhinos, seven wearing radio collars, were released across the Babai Valley.

Since 1986, a total of 83 rhinos have been translocated to Royal Bardia National Park and four to Royal Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve from Royal Chitwan National Park, according to figures at the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

Nepal formally started wildlife conservation after the establishment of Royal Chitwan National Park in 1972, when only 70 to 80 one-horned rhinos roamed the forests and grasslands of Chitwan.

Success of the effort was evident and conservation officials were pleased. The rhino count of 2000 found 544 rhinos in Chitwan, and a bonus herd of 67 rhinos in the Royal Bardia National Park.

Experts said then that Nepal's rhino population was increasing at the rate of 3.88 percent a year.

But this encouraging trend was shattered during this year's rhino census. Experts found only 372 rhinos in Chitwan, down 172 animals in five years.

Some of the Chitwan rhinos died when their habitat was destroyed, and others met their deaths at the hands of poachers. Raw rhino horn and rhino horn powder are worth far more than their weight in gold for the Asian medicinal trade.   

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