- Up until the mid-20th century, a similar, if larger, undertaking would mean hunting parties for maharajas and their guests looking for exotic trophies. Today, such parties are reserved for wildlife census and other research and conservation efforts.
- In the 1960s there were less than 100 one-horned rhinos in Nepal and by 1975 only about 600 survived in the wild globally.
- By 2015, Nepal's Chitwan National Park alone was home to 605 rhinos.
With one palm above the rhino’s nostril to check its breathing and another under its head to make sure it wasn’t slumping, an anxious official yelled over the sound of metal wheels grinding against stones on a dirt road inside Chitwan National Park, Nepal.
The sun was ready to set, and it had already been an hour since the 12-year old male was sedated. Despite the efforts, the rhino’s placement on the wooden flatbed trolley after being subdued was not ideal, and at one point an empty jute sack — the only thing they could find — was folded and placed under its head in a desperate effort to try and not strain the animal’s neck too much during the very bumpy ride.
“Do they realize how heavy that thing is?” grumbled the nervous driver inside his excavator, trying his best to quickly but carefully pull the trolley with nine men holding the animal in place along a trail that included trudging across a creek and several dips and rises.
It had been a long and trying day, and against the backdrop of local protests denouncing the translocation, this rhino and everyone involved in the process were under pressure to ensure its safe release in Bardiya National Park, about 150 miles west, the following morning. This meant a near-nine-hour drive through the night soon after the cage was loaded onto the truck.
In the next two years, this translocation effort, led by the Nepali government’s Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation in partnership with WWF and National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), with partial funding by the USAID Hariyo Ban Program, plans to populate Bardia National Park with at least 20 to 30 rhinos from Chitwan. By the end of this particular weekend, they hoped to translocate the first five.
Since then, news of a rhino dying of tuberculosis in Chitwan has come to light. And on May 22, one of the translocated animals gave birth to a healthy male calf. Just in time, Nepal’s new 100-rupee-bill, which came into circulation this month, replaces the image of a single rhino with that of an adult rhino with a calf.
A New Dawn
The last time rhinos were translocated from Chitwan National Park to Bardia National Park was in 2003.
On Tuesday, March 1, 2016, the hiatus ended. The day began at dawn, fog still lifting off the southern forest plains, the sky still a deep blue. By 6:45AM, the sun had begun to rise and mahuts were busy readying elephants for the long day ahead in the park’s Sukebar area. Minutes later a distant yell echoed into the camp.
“There’s a tiger in the area,” someone explained. “That’s common.”
By 7AM, Shanta Raj Gyawali, Coordinator of Biodiversity Conservation for Hariyo Ban Program, had his hands full — literally. As the lead for the technical team comprised of representatives from NTNC, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), WWF, and Chitwan national park, Gyawali had begun preparing a mixture of M99 (3-4mg Etorphine Hydrochloride and 12-15mg of Acepromazine) that would be used to sedate the rhinos. Once the darts were ready, three shooters from NTNC loaded it on their respective rifles.
The plan was to dart at least two to three rhinos by that afternoon, for the next day’s release, and a total of five by the weekend. Nearby, Kanchan Thapa, a conservation biologist with WWF Nepal, had finished checking five radio collars for rhinos and carefully placed them in a nylon duffle bag. The equipment made by the German company Vectronic Aerospace cost $7,000 plus 40 percent tax each.
By 8:30AM, an army of 33 elephants had marched into the forest to track and find rhinos, then corral them as close as possible towards the area where large wooden cages and a couple of trucks awaited.
Up until the mid-20th century, a similar, if larger, undertaking would mean hunting parties for maharajas and their guests looking for exotic trophies. Today, such parties are reserved for wildlife census and other research and conservation efforts.
In the 1960s there were less than 100 one-horned rhinos in Nepal and by 1975 only about 600 survived in the wild globally. By 2015, Chitwan alone was home to 605 rhinos. “We are a leader in rhino conservation,” Phanindra Raj Sharma, Director General of DNPWC, explained.
Still, the animals were bent on making the conservationists put in a hard day’s work. A rhino was finally darted at 4:46PM.
“Can you guys please hurry up! Its ears are already beginning to twitch!” Mr. Gyawali, the biologist, yelled as men and machine tried to pull the trolley with the rhino inside a large wooden cage under a quickly darkening sky.
Once inside, the technical team administered an antidote to the sedative, M50-50 (Diprenorphine), with the help of a handheld torchlight. Immediately, a handful of young men started lowering the cage door only to hit a snag: the rhino’s snout was too far out, and now the door was resting on it. The rhino started to grunt and move, trying to push the cage door upward. “Hold it down!” Mr. Gyawali urgently instructed the young men above the cage, who were trying to do just that. “And get those guys with the levers to push the trolley in!”
As the rhino pushed the cage door upward and tried to get its head out, the men above tried to push the door down without hurting the animal. Finally, the trolley was pushed in a few inches and the cage immediately shut and locked. Inside, the magnificent animal stood up. The cage shook.
‘A Historical Undertaking’
The following morning, at 10:40AM, I climbed on to the roof of the truck carrying the rhino as it crossed a river in Bardiya National Park to reach the release site. I could see the animal below as sunlight poured into the cage from in between its wooden planks. The rhino grunted, and every time the animal moved the cage shook. A convoy of vehicles followed, bringing the Forest Minister, Hon. Agni Prasad Sapkota, and other high-level officials, experts, and invitees to the release site.
Of the three machans set up to view the release, the closest to the truck was reserved for the Minister and other VIPs. “What to do if it charges our machan?” someone asked as the technical team below inquired whether the Minister was ready to declare the release. “The drone’s battery is going to die, can we release it fast?” someone below asked aloud. “Why aren’t the elephants near our machan to make sure the rhino doesn’t come this way?” a member of the Minister’s delegation asked for the second time. Then, “Is it okay to release it now?” the Minister asked to no one in particular. “Yes, yes sir,” a couple of people reassured him. “So I just say it?” he verified. Then he did.
At 10:46AM the cage door opened to reveal the backside of the rhino, who appeared not to know what to do.
“Maybe when they loaded the cage into the truck, they should have turned it around so that it would face the right way when the door opened,” the Minister mused aloud. On two other machans, others waited anxiously.
Finally, at 11:07AM, the rhino walked backward out of the cage. Very quickly, making a sharp 180-degree right turn, it saw a forest ahead, as intended. Without much hesitation, the freed animal hopped and sprinted into the trees, leaving behind a trail of dust and a marveled crowd. Mahouts who had been waiting on their elephants gently followed the rhino to make sure it did not make another sharp turn and charge back towards the release site (apparently, on at least one prior occasion, the rhino made sure to exact its vengeance on the truck it had been transported in).
At around 11:10AM, someone announced it was safe to get back down.
Back across the river, on its sandy banks, Minister Sapkota made a formal address. “This is a historical undertaking and a happy moment for conservationists,” he told the crowd. “This brings both challenges and opportunities, but most of all it brings opportunity for the community here. If people want, they can conserve and develop. This is just the start, but a good start. We leave resting this responsibility to you, with faith in you.”
Protests and Public Perception
In the preceding days, the media had been regularly reporting on the protests in Chitwan against the translocation. Indeed, on the morning of the release itself, there was unfavorable coverage of the undertaking. The broadsheets appeared to have taken an antagonistic position to the translocation without explaining its role as a conservation exercise.
To get a better sense of why translocation was a preferred conservation strategy, I spoke to my colleague, Prof. Elizabeth Hadly, who heads the Hadly Lab in Stanford University’s Biology Department and guides her students’ doctoral research on wildlife and ecology in Nepal.
“The goals of translocation are not always clearly articulated and their success may be contingent on factors that are unanticipated such as disease resistance or behavioral differences that prohibit translocated individuals from successfully integrating into a new environment,” said Prof. Hadly, whose recent book End Game (co-authored with Prof. Anthony Barnosky) begins with a chapter on Nepal.
“Translocation has been used in many ways for conservation; to repopulate an area that has seen demise or extinction of a population; to increase genetic diversity; to relocate a problem individual or individuals; or to anticipate future environments that might be better suited for the survival of species,” Hadly added. In Nepal, it was more or less all of the above.
Back on the riverbank, I spoke to Santosh Mani Nepal, Senior Director of Policy and Outreach for WWF Nepal and a respected voice on conservation policies in the country. “WWF is a historical partner in this kind of innovative initiatives and will continue to be,” he said. “Some are successes, some are not, depending upon the sociopolitical situation of the country. But eventually our goal is to make sure that conservation wins, which is why we support this endeavor.”
The point that protestors and the media have latched on to is this: 70 rhinos were translocated from Chitwan to Bardia’s Babai Valley between 1985 and 2003, bringing its population to 85. However, by 2015, only 29 remained. Using this historical premise to highlight the insecurity for rhinos in Bardia today and in the near future, protestors are seeking to block the translocation.
The problem with this position is the incomplete picture it paints about the shared safety issues and success of rhino conservation in Nepal’s national parks, and the many poached and natural deaths of rhinos in Chitwan itself.
Between 2000 and 2006, Chitwan National Park saw a decline of 31 percent in its rhino population, dropping from 544 to 372, almost all of it due to poaching. Between 2011 and 2015, the population increased by 21 percent. Over a dozen rhinos there have died of natural causes since 2014.
The massive rise in poaching of rhinos and tigers between the late 1990s and 2006 was largely due to the Maoist conflict, which forced the Nepal Army, previously enlisted to guard national parks, to mobilize and address the conflict instead. Post-conflict, the Government of Nepal beefed up its national parks security. In Bardia, the number of guard posts inside the park was nearly doubled to 33. There has been no rhino poaching in Bardia since 2010, and Nepal has maintained a remarkable “Zero Poaching” rate for three years of the last five years.
“I personally visited the sites where the rhinos will be released,” Mr. Kahrel, DNPWC’s Director General, said. “And I have made sure we have done everything we need to keep the rhinos safe in their new home. The main challenge is security, and on this we have a proven track record and experience, and we are confident we are up to the task.”
In Bardia, it is also not just about adding the number of guard posts for the army. Previously, because of flood risks, soldiers would retreat to safer areas during the monsoon and poachers would take brutal advantage of the temporary security vacuum. Learning from this, the army is working towards maintaining its standard positions throughout the year and identifying strategic locations that are also less prone to flooding.
At the same time, the USAID-funded Hariyo Ban program has engaged local communities in various capacities in recent years, including helping them to transition from traditional hunting to newer sources of livelihood, as well as establishing youth anti-poaching groups and community forest monitors.
“The one-horned rhino is a source of national pride and identity for the Nepali people,” Amy Tohill-Stull, the Acting Mission Director of USAID/Nepal, explained over email, speaking about the translocation and USAID’s broader effort in wildlife conservation in Nepal. “USAID, in partnership with local communities, the Nepali Army and the Government of Nepal are working together to prevent poaching and re-establish forest land between Chitwan and Bardia. Together, Nepal has created several safe national parks where both wildlife and ecotourism can thrive.”
Indeed, the translocation is positioned to benefit communities in both Chitwan and Bardia. In Chitwan, it could help mitigate the frequent human-wildlife conflicts sparked when rhinos are pushed out of their core area due to population pressure. In Bardia, they would have multiple effects.
“Rhinos are mega grazers, so they tend to save ecosystems. So we actually think they might be able to help with that here as they have in Chitwan,” Sabita Malla, a wildlife biologist with WWF Nepal who is part of the translocation team, explained. “Based on available habitat here now and quantitative data of grass patches in Nepal’s floodplains, we think about 50 rhinos can be sustained here in Bardia’s Babai valley.” Tourism prospects would also increase for the region.
New Revelations, More Translocations
A new risk, however, has emerged. On March 3, two days after the first translocation, a paper titled “Mycobacterium orygis – Associated Tuberculosis in Free-Ranging Rhinoceros, Nepal, 2015″ was published in the journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases. The news of the paper and its important findings only made it to Kathmandu media towards the end of the month.
In the paper, the authors write: “On February 16, 2015, CNP officials observed a sick female rhinoceros in the buffer zone of the western sector of the park near Amaltari. The rhinoceros was dull, depressed, and not feeding. The following day, the animal was found dead in the same area.”
The study concluded that the animal had died of tuberculosis (TB). Of their findings, the authors added:
In our earlier study, we isolated M. orygis from chital deer (Axis axis) and blue bull (Boselaphus tragocamelus) from a captive wild-animal facility and postulated that the origin of the infection might be from infected animals in CNP [Chitwan National Park], where the deer and blue bull originated. This new finding of a different strain type of M. orygis in a free-ranging rhinoceros in CNP provides evidence for our hypothesis. Other reports of M. orygis in captive wild animals in Nepal, cattle and a rhesus monkey in Bangladesh, humans in South Asia, and an immigrant from India in New Zealand further support this bacterium’s potential widespread distribution in South Asia and attests to the One Health significance of this organism.
How the rhino translocation plans will be affected in light of this new study remains to be seen. Should the translocated rhinos, who have satellite tracking collars, be pursued again to be tested for TB? How does this affect the remainder of the translocation plans? Officials contacted at WWF Nepal did not respond regarding this query.
There has been no public discussion on the topic of TB in rhinos, although TB-infected elephants of Chitwan National Park have made the news several times over the years. In the meantime, the Nepali government has now started preparing to translocate the rare arna (water buffalo) from Koshi Tapu Wildlife Reserve in eastern Nepal and Swamp Deer from Bardiya National Park in western Nepal to Chitwan National Park.
In late January, the Chinese government asked Forest Minister Sapkota for two rhinos in exchange for financial and technical assistant for a Forensic Science Laboratory that Nepal had proposed.
China made the demand at a time when Nepal was trying to curry favor during the months-long, India-imposed goods blockade on Nepal, and Nepal was trying to play its relations with China against its deteriorating relationship with India. The current Prime Minister has made a habit of appeasing the Chinese. The rhinos that will be traded to China will also be from Chitwan. The exchange of rhinos for funds has thus far not inspired any public discourse or media scrutiny.
In Bardia, as the rhino stepped out of its cage, Minister Sapkota was clearly pleased. Noticing the wound on its back, he asked about it with clear concern. I informed him it was injured in a fight with another rhino in Chitwan before being darted. “I hope it did not bleed more after being darted,” he said.
As the rhino dashed off into the forest, the Minister stood on the machan motionless for a few seconds, staring at the dust the animal had kicked up. Perhaps he was reflecting on the China deal, and having to be in the position of mediating it.
- Thapa, J., Paudel, S., Sadaula, A., Shah, Y., Maharjan, B., Kaufman, G. E., … & Nakajima, C. (2016). Mycobacterium orygis–Associated Tuberculosis in Free-Ranging Rhinoceros, Nepal, 2015. Emerging infectious diseases, 22(3), 570. doi:10.3201/eid2203.151929
Kashish Das Shrestha is an independent sustainable development policy analyst, writer, and photographer. He is an International Research Collaborator to Stanford University (2014-2015) and advisor to the Chairman of the Agriculture and Energy Committee Hon. MP Gagan Thapa. His writings have also appeared on the New York Times – Dot Earth. Kashish tweets at @kashishds.