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Nepal, in a bid to create a new rhino population, pauses to take stock

  • Efforts to establish a population of Indian rhinos in Nepal’s Bardia National Park have a checkered history.
  • The park received 87 rhinos from Chitwan National Park between 1986 and 2003, a process that continued even as Bardia was buffeted by armed conflict. Only 22 of those rhinos survived.
  • Two years ago, Bardia began receiving rhinos again, although so far just eight of a planned 25 have been relocated. Two of them have since died.

THAKURDWARA, Nepal — Staff at Bardia National Park in mid-western Nepal have been looking after a “special guest” for the last eight years. The inmate, an Indian or greater one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) born in Chitwan National Park in central Nepal, is confined to a 67-square-meter (720-square-foot) enclosure.

“We call him Vikram,” says Ramesh Kumar Thapa, former warden of the park. “Vikram, come here, boy,” he calls as he waves a bundle of straw. But Vikram doesn’t respond; he continues to pace behind the bushes. “He would have come if he had seen food. But he’s blind.”

Vikram was brought to Bardia in 1999, one of 87 rhinos translocated here from Chitwan between 1986 and 2003. Eight more rhinos from Chitwan were introduced to Bardia between March 2016 and April 2017. These translocations were part of the government’s bid to protect the threatened species from disease and natural disaster by ensuring they had more than one habitat in the country.

“Vikram’s translocation and other such translocations were problematic in many ways,” says Thapa, referring to the transfers that took place before 2003. “Back then, officials wanted quick results, and not enough studies were carried out to choose a rhino for translocation.”

The results were catastrophic.

Vikram and four other orphaned rhinos from Chitwan were injured after locals attacked the animals in retaliation for foraging on their crops. Vikram lost both of his eyes in the attack in 2008. Then, in 2011, he had to be caged after he charged at and killed a local priest.

“The translocation did not work because officials carried out the work in haste. They did not account for the sex ratio of the translocated animals, neither did they look at the source population to choose individuals who could adapt to the new habitat,” Thapa says.

In addition to hosting rhinos, the grasslands inside Bardia National Park are today home to the biggest Royal Bengal tiger population in Nepal. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi for Mongabay.

Sending rhinos to a conflict zone

An armed conflict that raged in Nepal from 1996 to 2006 didn’t help the cause, either. Bardia was one of the hotbeds of the Maoist rebellion that sought to unseat Nepal’s monarchy.

The Babai Valley, one of two habitats in Bardia into which the rhinos were transferred, became so dangerous that government soldiers were pulled out. “The Babai Valley is a very remote place,” Thapa says. “Before the conflict, there were only two army posts on the 46-kilometer [29-mile] stretch from one end to the other end of the valley. When the conflict peaked, the posts had to be removed because the soldiers found themselves as easy targets of the insurgents.”

Nevertheless, rhinos kept being sent in. “We continued to translocate rhinos until 2002, without monitoring their activity or their habitat, in the name of creating a second viable population, and the poachers continued to take advantage of this,” Thapa says.

Of the 87 rhinos brought to Bardia between 1986 and 2003, only 22 survive today. Exact figures aren’t available, but Thapa says 36 rhinos were believed to have been killed by poachers, while the rest were thought to have died of natural causes. The Babai Valley was hit particularly hard.

This raises questions about why the government moved rhinos into a completely unmonitored area, even as authorities knew the animals made a tempting target for poachers, with a lucrative black market for rhino horn waiting just across the border in China.

“The situation then can be compared to the practice of polygamy in Nepal’s villages in the past,” says Ana Nath Baral, Bardia’s current warden. “Men were allowed to wed as many women [as] they wanted and they were not bound by law to look after all of them. In [the] case of rhinos in Bardia, authorities could translocate as many as they wanted without having to look after them.”

Rhinos roam the famous Tinkune area of Bardia National Park. The area is well-known among wildlife enthusiasts as it offers a vantage point to observe rhinos and tigers at the park who come to the river during hot days to cool off. Image by Sagar Giri.

Post-conflict translocations

After a peace deal was reached in 2006, conservationists hoped the government would once again translocate rhinos to Bardia. Confining the threatened species to Chitwan meant that all of the country’s rhinos would be vulnerable if a disease were to spread or a natural calamity were to strike. Concerns were also growing as to whether Chitwan might be reaching its carrying capacity for the species. Meanwhile, suitable habitat in the Babai Valley was completely devoid of rhinos.

However, no progress was made on translocations until after 2015, when a new constitution was promulgated and elections held. In February 2016, the government finally decided to translocate at least 25 rhinos to the Babai Valley.

This time, it made extensive preparations for the safety of the rhinos. Two more guard posts were built, a road constructed across the uninhabited valley, and solar-powered lights installed for security personnel to patrol the area. “We also used solar pumps to create watering holes for rhinos,” Thapa says.

The source population was studied carefully, and an appropriate male-to-female ratio chosen for the translocation, says conservation biologist Kanchan Thapa from WWF (no relation to the former warden). Between March 2016 and April 2017, eight rhinos (two males and six females) were translocated to Babai Valley. Only six survive today: one of the males died from liver failure, and a female was killed by the remaining male while mating. There are also no surviving calves: one born soon after the translocation was killed by a tiger, while another born later died of pneumonia.

The rest of the 25 rhinos the government planned to transfer remain in Chitwan. It’s unclear exactly why the translocations stalled. One government official involved in the program told Mongabay the government ran short of funds; others attribute the halt in transfers to political pressure, which ramped up after the relocated rhinos starting dying.

When the government decided to resume translocations of rhinos from Chitwan to Bardia, people in Chitwan protested. They didn’t want the iconic animals, which had become synonymous with Chitwan, to be moved elsewhere, especially to a place where poaching was so rampant. “It is only natural that the people were concerned that a competing tourist attraction could be established,” says Man Bahadur Khadka, director-general of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. With elections looming, the ruling parties didn’t want to run the risk of angering the electorate.

The official reason given was the 2017 floods. “We could not translocate the rhinos in 2018 because the monsoon floods caused a lot of damage to the habitat, especially in Babai Valley,” Khadka says. “The floods also caused damage in Chitwan, where around 10 rhinos were swept away to India.”

The other rhino habitat in Bardia, the Karnali floodplain, is also tricky, even though rhinos there have been relatively better off. The area borders India, and during informal conversations Nepalese officials say they don’t want the rhinos that they’ve raised with so much effort to migrate into India.

Rhinos roam the Tinkune area of Bardia National Park. Although translocations have not gone as well as officials may have hoped, the park’s rhino population is already a popular attraction for wildlife enthusiasts. Image by Sagar Giri.

“In addition to that, it had been three years since we conducted a census of the rhinos in Chitwan, where individual monitoring hasn’t been possible,” says WWF’s Thapa.

The government plans to conduct a national rhino census this April. “We cannot decide how many or which rhinos to translocate without knowing the details of the source population,” Thapa says.

The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation recently established an informal committee to look into the status of the translocated rhinos and their habitat in Bardia. The committee, which has held discussions with conservationists and park officials, concluded that the population in Bardia isn’t yet large enough to be viable. “We have suggested that the translocation continue so that the population becomes viable in the future,” says Kanchan Thapa, who is part of the committee “We found that the rhinos we translocated are doing well in the Babai Valley, and this gives us hope that a second viable population is slowly rising. For it to gather pace, we need to translocate more animals.”

But before the translocations can move ahead, there’s an urgent need to intervene to create a better habitat for the rhinos in Bardia, says ecologist Maheshwar Dhakal. “We have until now adopted classical management practices under which we translocated rhinos just because we saw river floodplains and grassland. That is not going to work in the future as population increases,” he says. “We also need to build the capacity of park staff to monitor translocated rhinos and to prevent history from repeating when it comes to poaching.”

“Let’s hope the translocations happen soon,” says former warden Ramesh Thapa, “and the animals do not suffer the same fate as Vikram.”

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