Friday, September 27, 2013

Nepal's feat in conservation: The Greater one-horned rhinoceros

This article was published on 22 September 2013 on  Republica (popular national daily)

At the heart of Chitwan National Park, in a waterhole, only three meters away, stood the Greater one-horned rhinoceros in all its glory, goggling me intently as I watched her with nervous excitement. There she was with her calf; naturally armored with her ashy grey hide folds and 15 inches long black horn.  On another occasion, a similar sight was seen in Setidevi Community Forest in Chitwan where another rhino and baby calf were grazing adjacent to agricultural land, living in harmony with the villagers. Similarly, in Namuna Buffer Zone Community Forest, an exquisite angry rhino charged at us when we went too close to her habitat, protecting her newly born. On this enthusing trip to Chitwan on May 2013, I saw twenty-two rhinos.

Photo credit: Pallavi Dhakal/WWF Nepal, Hariyo Ban Program

Today, on September 22, celebrated as the World Rhino Day, it is important to recognize the successful conservation efforts of Nepal to bring back the magnificent Greater one-horned rhinoceros from the brink of extinction.

There were times when these mighty creatures were said to be used by the Mughal emperors in fights against elephants for entertainment. Such practices and rampant hunting for sport, killing as agricultural pests and poaching of rhinos for their horns had significantly reduced their numbers. In 1960s the number was noted to be around 100 individuals in Nepal, confined only in Chitwan Valley.

In recent times, the number has significantly increased. In Nepal and India the total population is estimated to be 2,913 individuals, with 534 rhinos in Nepal alone (Rhino Census, 2011). No wonder the Greater one-horned rhinoceros are reclassified on IUCN red list from endangered to vulnerable.

What did we do right? What lessons can we learn from rhino conservation efforts to protect endangered animals? I raised these questions to noted conservation experts of Nepal and here is what they had to say:Naresh Subedi, Senior Conservationist in National Trust for Nature Conservation says, "Conservation is like a football game where having just the strikers is not enough, we require strong defenders as well. Robust security is prerequisite to defend poachers but equally important is having scientific inputs to protect forest, wildlife and their habitat." He gives the example of Chitwan National Park that was expanded from 544 sq km to 932 sq km in 1977 based on scientific findings to protect bigger species like rhinos.

Shant Raj Jnawali, Biodiversity Coordinator for Hariyo Ban Program, WWF Nepal explains, "Gaida gasti (rhino petrol) by the army back then was very helpful to protect rhinos. Further, recommendation on establishing an alternative rhino sub-population by the scientists in the 80s was also a positive step. There were risks of having only one rhino population constricted in Chitwan. Natural calamities, endemic disease, intense poaching, habitat degradation, climate induced disasters, and in-breeding would run the risk of wiping out the entire population. Consequently, in 1986 from the recovering rhino population in Chitwan the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation decided to establish sub-populations by translocating rhinos."

Accordingly, 13 rhinoceroses (8 males, 5 females) were translocated from Chitwan to the Karnali River floodplains of Bardia National Park. Between 1991 and 2003 additional 70 rhinoceroses (30 males, 40 females) were translocated to the Babai valley in Bardia. In 2000 four rhinos (1 male, 3 female) were released in Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve. A total of 8 translocations took place between 1986 and 2003, during which a total of 87 rhinoceros were translocated (Thapa et. al., 2013). However, unfortunately during the decade long armed conflict, rhinoceros conservation in Nepal was compromised by poaching, resulting in local extinction of the Babai population and reduction of populations in other areas.

"To curb poaching, it was important to shift the strategic approach of conservation – to not just work with the law enforcement agencies but to also include local communities in conservation.  This instrumental move was initiated during mid-90s leading to the formation of groups of young dedicated people for Community Based Anti-Poaching Operations (CBAPOs) outside national parks.  I personally think this was a momentous step in conservation and saving rhinos", says Santosh Mani Nepal, Director for Policy and Support Program, WWF Nepal.

Dr. Maheshwor Dhakal, Ecologist, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) explains, "Rhinos used to cross international boundary when they were introduced in Bardia, they would travel to and from Katarniaghat Wildlife Reserve. Back then we used to have local level park meetings with India to share information and develop cooperation to protect rhinos from poachers and this is still continuing." He explained that the understanding of the seriousness of illegal wildlife trade helped to initiate trans-boundary collaboration and coordination with India at higher level. "We have national level meetings with India each year to tackle organized transnational poachers. This has been equally instrumental in conservation," he states.

Another important step in conservation according to Santosh Mani Nepal is the formation of institutional mechanism involving all enforcement agencies of Nepal. A step towards formation of Wildlife Crime Control Bureau in 2009 brought the effort of all law enforcement agencies under single umbrella to control poaching and illegal wildlife trade in Nepal.

In spite of these initiatives, rhinos are still at risk. Poaching, habitat degradation, rapid infrastructure development, and human-rhino conflict are still threatening their survival. “Large infrastructures like Karnali high dam in Bardiya National Park, and National railway and Hulaki road that is bifurcating Chitwan National Park through the prime rhino habitat will have a tremendous negative impact on the survival of rhinos in their natural habitat” argues Santosh Mani Nepal.  Jnawali explains that climate-related threats are equally exerting added pressure in already susceptible rhino population. "Prolonged drought is drying oxbow lake that rhinos use for wallowing. River beds are raised drying flood plains and reducing the growth of tall grass species that rhinos prefer – we see this very distinctly in the eastern part of Rapti River beds in Chitwan National Park," points Jnawali.  

So how do we secure the future populations of rhinos in Nepal? Dr. Dhakal explains that only recently feasibility study on rhino translocation was concluded and that either this year or the coming year the government of Nepal will translocate rhinos to Babai valley in Bardia. However, before doing so the DNPWC wants to be certain on three things – firstly ensuring that the translocation will not have negative impact on the source population, secondly establishing strong security measures in Babai area, and lastly having 3-5 years post monitoring plan.

In conjunction with these efforts Subedi says restoring rhino habitat is crucial; including management of invasive plant species such as Mikenia, restoring wetlands and grasslands, using innovative techniques to monitor rhinos such as ID based, radio or satellite collaring, and controlling rhino-human conflict with installation of power fence or other measures.

All the conservationists and experts I talked to agree that what worked for rhinos were many different things done together in wide-ranging partnerships between governments, security personnel and communities. They recognize the importance of research and monitoring in the changing context of climate change and its execution in policies and actions being crucial for protection of any endangered animal.

What I personally hope is to be able to see rhinos in Bardia as I witnessed in Chitwan last May. While it is going to be a challenge for conservationists of Nepal, looking at the past successes of conserving rhinos, I am positive that Nepal is perfectly capable of doing the same in the near future.

The opinions expressed herein are personal