Rare One-Horned Rhino Bouncing Back in Nepal

Paroma Basu in New Delhi, India
for National Geographic News
March 27, 2008
Numbers of the rare Indian rhinoceros are nosing upward in Nepal, a nationwide government census has found.

Recently field observers counted 408 rhinos over two weeks in Royal Chitwan National Park, one of the last remaining strongholds for the endangered animals.

Preliminary numbers from the census suggest an increase from 2005, when observers reported seeing only 372 rhinos in the park.

Rhino numbers in other parts of the country have remained stable, with preliminary counts suggesting there are 31 rhinos in Royal Bardia National Park and 6 in the Royal Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, both in western Nepal.

A healthier sex ratio as well as gradual improvements in habitat management have helped boost rhino numbers, said Laxmi Prasad Manandhar, chief conservation and education officer at Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

Officials say the rhino rebound is also due to new anti-poaching measures implemented in the aftermath of the country's decade-long Maoist insurgency.

Jungle patrols had ground to a halt during Nepal's civil war, in which Maoists occupied the forests and poaching activities went on unchecked.

"Since the end of the conflict period [in 2006], we have increased the number of guard posts in Chitwan to 34," Manandhar said.

"We are similarly constructing new guard posts in Bardia and Suklaphanta. Those who are now patrolling the forests include army people, civil servants, and members of the public."

Ramping Up

The Indian rhino, also known as the great one-horned rhinoceros, once roamed through large parts of South Asia.

Its horn is reputed to have aphrodisiac properties and can be worth thousands of dollars in China's traditional-medicine market.

Decades of poaching and habitat destruction brought the species to the brink of extinction in the 1900s. Today fewer than 2,000 rhinos live in fragmented pockets of Nepal and northeastern India.

Last January wildlife officials announced that more than four dozen rhinos appeared to have gone missing in Nepal over the course of a few years, most likely due to unchecked poaching.

Royal Chitwan National Park saw its rhino numbers fall from 544 in 2000 to 372 in 2005.

A recent spate of rhino killings prompted Nepal's government and conservation authorities in February to ramp up anti-poaching measures and launch the latest census.

About 200 wildlife biologists, technicians, forest rangers, and field observers took part in the survey, which was a joint effort among Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, WWF-Nepal, and the National Trust for Nature Conservation.

The team also included 40 elephants that ferried members through remote forest areas, said WWF-Nepal spokesperson Anil Manandhar, who is unrelated to the national parks division's Laxmi Prasad Manandhar.

The census used global positioning systems for the first time, and observers carried digital cameras to photograph every rhino seen, WWF's Manandhar said.

Full results of the census are expected in the next two weeks.

"The final numbers will give us a clearer picture as to whether poaching is reducing in other parts of the country as well, and not just in Chitwan," he said.

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