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Nepal’s extraordinary devotion to preserving its rhinos

  • Despite its proximity to China, the epicenter of demand for wildlife products, only one of Nepal’s rhinos has been killed by poachers since 2014.
  • Observers credit this success to broad-based support for conservation, including at the highest levels of Nepal’s government and military.
  • Other species also benefit from this commitment to conservation, including elephants and tigers.

Rhinoceroses have become emblematic of the absolute horror of today’s poaching wars. Images of bloated corpses, their foreheads and horns viciously sawed off, epitomize the greed and malevolence that some people are capable of. When it comes to rhinos — and increasingly to elephants, lions, and even vultures — the news is almost consistently, demoralizing bad. As the wealthiest country in Africa and home to the great majority of the continent’s rhinos, South Africa’s rate of poaching is alarming, to say the least, with a crippling 1,175 killed last year alone.

But far away, in the misty hills and valleys of Nepal, the population of greater one-horned rhinos (more delightfully known in Latin as Rhinoceros unicornus) had suffered not a single poaching incident in the past two years, until one tragic incident in September. This is an astonishing success story, especially given Nepal’s comparative penury and its proximity to China, the world’s greatest market for wildlife traffickers.

Poaching thrives amid social unrest — just look at the ecological chaos caused by warring terrorists and sectarians in Africa. Nepal’s 2006 peace deal with Maoist insurrectionists, and the 2008 abolition of a despised and corrupt monarchy, helped pave the way for the institutional and societal cooperation that has racked up such a respectable record of wildlife preservation. With new buffered protected areas and enhanced community involvement, along with a Zero Poaching Toolkit encompassing communications technology, enhanced surveillance and increased legal prosecutions, Nepal has made itself a world leader in rhino conservation.

Greater one-horned rhino in Nepal's Chitwan National Park. Photo by Dhilung Kirat/Flickr.
Greater one-horned rhino in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. Photo by Dhilung Kirat/Flickr.

Nepal’s anti-poaching efforts are among the most effective in the world, but nothing is guaranteed; in August, a poacher shot an adult rhino in southern Nepal. The stricken animal was taken to the country’s largest rhino conservation area, the 360 square-mile Chitwan National Park in the south-central part of the country. There, displaying the strength and endurance that characterizes its taxonomic family, it lingered on for weeks until its critical injuries finally overcame it.

This tragedy was perhaps most remarkable for its rarity. What exactly is the secret to Nepal’s success in protecting its rhinos and other megafauna? With around 600 rhinos calling Nepal home, this rugged, mountainous country serves as both a refuge for these marvels and a model for what conservation efforts can achieve when they have full and sincere support from authorities.

“This exceptional success is based on a combination of high-level political will and the active involvement of the park authorities, Nepal Army, Nepal Police, conservation partners and local communities,” Krishna P. Acharya, Chief of the Planning Division and Spokesperson of the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation said in a press statement. Globally, poaching and wildlife trafficking is facilitated by endemic levels of governmental corruption, sometimes at very high levels. This makes Nepal’s commitment to its rhinos, spelled out and enforced by senior governmental staff, all the more commendable. And not just rhinos benefit from this enforced commitment to conservation; in 2014 Nepal announced that not a single rhino, elephant or tiger had been poached anywhere in the country.

A rhino takes a dip in Nepal. Photo by Wonker/Flickr.
A rhino takes a dip in Nepal. Photo by Wonker/Flickr.

Taking advantage of their swampy habitat, the greater one-horned rhino lives in northern India and southern Nepal, in riverine grasslands and adjacent woodland. They are large animals, though typically not as big as those of Africa; males generally weigh around 2,700 kilos (6,000 pounds). Like the white rhinos of Africa, greater one-horned rhinos are grazers, but are also able to immerse themselves in water, like hippos, where they graze on aquatic plants. These rhinos enjoy a country with an unusually strong commitment to its natural environmental: Nepal boasts 10 national parks, three wildlife preserves and six conservation areas that together span over more than 34,000 square kilometers (13,000 square miles) or 23 percent of the country.

To protect this bounty of biodiversity, Nepal has enrolled both top governmental leaders and even its military to an extent that should prove a reprimand to wealthier countries less interested in the preservation of their wild heritage. The highest levels of government are actively involved in conservation; the National Tiger Conservation Committee is chaired by the prime minister. In 2014, Nepal established the national Wildlife Crime Control Coordination Committee under the Minister of Forests and Soil Conservation. Meanwhile, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, a collection of enforcement agencies formed to fight wildlife crime, has 16 district cells across the country that have dramatically improved enforcement in the field.

Even the Nepalese Army is involved, actively patrolling protected areas and bringing the threat of arrest or even death to poachers and traffickers. Intelligence is gathered, the seizing of contraband is ongoing, and arrests are regularly carried out. According to the Global Tiger Initiative, “The heads of protected areas in Nepal are unique in that they hold special judicial powers to fine and send to jail those who commit crimes within protected area boundaries. In Nepal’s major protected areas with tigers, Chitwan and Bardia national parks, and Parsa and Suklaphanta wildlife reserves, park chiefs have used their authority to crack down on wildlife criminals.”

These extraordinary legal powers give those on the front of Nepal’s poaching war a leg up in indicting, sentencing and punishing wildlife criminals with extraordinary haste and efficiency. Unfortunately, this sweeping authority can also be abused; on March 10, 2010 a child and two women were killed in Bardiya National Park by Nepalese soldiers for collecting kaulo trees, also known as cassia or the “Tree of Paradise,” which is illegally harvested for firewood and animal feed.

A greater one-horned rhino wanders Chitwan National Park. Photo by Nomad Tales/Flickr.
A greater one-horned rhino wanders Chitwan National Park. Photo by Nomad Tales/Flickr.

The direct involvement of the people of Nepal in the protection of miraculous beasts like the greater one-horned rhinoceros is perhaps the most significant cause of the country’s record of success. According to the World Wildlife Fund, by 2008, the government of Nepal had handed over approximately one-third (28 percent) of the country’s forests to local communities to manage, which has helped to save forests and wildlife while reducing poverty. Community-based anti-poaching units, originally set up to reduce the level of poaching of charismatic species such as tigers and rhinos, are now monitoring the trafficking of a wide range of native wildlife. More than 400 units work throughout the country, patrolling critical areas like wildlife corridors and providing vital information on illegal activity. Citizen sentries, determined to protect their country’s magnificent wild inheritance, actively patrolling protected areas and transit points for malefactors: sounds like a good idea to apply elsewhere.

Meenakshi Nagendran is a wildlife biologist and program officer with the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund. Recently she told Mongabay about her experiences as a federal agent working on the ground to preserve iconic Nepalese species such as the greater one-horned rhinoceros. “Nepal is an incredible success story,” she told Mongabay. “I’d say that Nepal is unique in Asia for employing its army, park rangers, local communities and foreign NGOs in a collaborative system that has strong support from the country’s leaders.” But what is perhaps most important, Nagendran says, is the value that local communities place on protected areas for sustainable forest products and reliably clean water. In addition, half of the proceeds from ecotourism are returned to villagers living near protected areas, further incentivizing their preservation. Meanwhile, regular army troops collaborate with park rangers to hunt down poachers and intercept traffickers, aided by information provided by locals eager to see their wild heritage preserved.

“I predict a high level of continued accomplishment in the preservation of the greater one-horned rhino in Nepal, because the people are working together to make it happen. There is very little corruption to disrupt a collaborative conservation effort when everyone involved has a stake in its success,” Nagendran said.

A greater one-horned rhino and calf, photographed in India's Kaziranga park. Photo by Lip Kee/Flickr.
A greater one-horned rhino and calf, photographed in India’s Kaziranga park. Photo by Lip Kee/Flickr.

Nagendran grew up in India, where she made herself a local legend as a child through her unusually devoted love of snakes. When asked what made the greater one-horned rhino such a major part of her current professional work, she replied incredulously: “Have you seen these things? They’re absolutely spectacular, and just watching them takes you back in time. It’s just wonderful to see so ancient a creature still tromping around in the modern world, knowing they’ve been around so much longer than us and are still surviving, still doing their thing.”

The Nepalese people’s commitment to its wildlife can be illustrated by a single incident Nagendran mentioned: a ranger’s own father had been killed by a tiger yet the young man remained enthralled by Nepal’s megafauna and successfully became a park ranger, surely a supreme testimony to a people’s love of their native wildlife despite occasional tragic conflicts.

This widespread cultural resolve to preserve their wildlife against substantial odds is what’s most striking about Nepal’s outstanding achievement in the conservation of some of the world’s most striking animals. While the country certainly has its share of problems in becoming a democratic, fully representational government, the greater one-horned rhino remains among the living today due to the incomparable determination of its human defenders, from villagers and rangers to soldiers and government officials. Nepal’s efforts at wildlife conservation should be recognized, replicated, and celebrated the world over as a testament to what communal willpower and a refusal to surrender to even the toughest conservation challenges might yet bring forth.

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