Rare Rhinos Go Missing in Nepal

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
January 3, 2007
How do you make a 4,000-pound (1,800-kilogram) rhinoceros disappear?

That's the weighty mystery facing a Nepali nature reserve where more than four dozen Indian rhinoceroses have gone missing over the past several years.

Starting in the 1980s wildlife officials introduced 72 of the rare rhinos to a protected valley about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southwest of Nepal's capital city of Kathmandu as part of a conservation program.

"We have records showing 23 rhinos had died due to poaching or other causes. The rest are missing," Laxmi Prasad Manandhar, a senior official at Nepal's Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation, told the Reuters news service.

"Where did they go? I have no answer. It is a mystery," Manandhar said.

War Victims

The Indian rhino, also known as the great one-horned rhino, once roamed wild in the Babai Valley, which was made part of Royal Bardia National Park in 1984 (related photo: baby Indian rhino born in California zoo [February 11, 2005]).

The species is also found in the wild in the northeast Indian state of Assam.

In Nepal, army units stationed inside the national parks once effectively deterred poachers and helped the country's rhinos rally from about 60 animals in the mid-20th century to more than 500 in 2000.

But Nepal's recently ended civil war hampered conservation efforts and fueled the poaching of rhinos and other wildlife (photos: inside Nepal's revolution).

The monarchy's troops were needed to battle Maoist rebels, so the parks were left unguarded and poachers were free to ply their trade.

Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal's largest rhino stronghold, has seen its population fall from 544 of the animals in 2000 to 372 in 2005.

Yet some Nepali officials think it unlikely that poachers killed Babai Valley's 49 missing rhinos, because only one skeleton has been found after an exhaustive search.

Poachers usually kill rhinos for the animals' horns, which are valuable in Chinese medicine. The massive carcasses are then left to rot.

Disappearing Act?

Eric Dinerstein is a rhino expert with the international conservation organization WWF and author of Return of the Unicorns, an analysis of Indian rhino conservation efforts.

Dinerstein explained that the rhinos have a high rate of natural mortality.

Calves often fall victim to tigers or are separated from their mothers by monsoon floods. Males engage in vicious battles during mating season that frequently end in the loser's death.

Still, Dinerstein suspects that there is a human hand behind the Babai Valley mystery.

"The likely answer is that many of them were poached," he said.

"The truth is that even back in 1975 I was told [by local people] not to go into the Babai Valley, because there were a lot of poachers there and it was very rough. There has been poaching there since long before there the [Maoist] insurgency," he said.

As for the missing carcasses, Dinerstein suggests that many factors could have caused them to disappear.

He's seen local Nepalese carry off the remains of a rhino that died naturally.

"Every part of the animal was considered valuable," he said. "There wasn't a shred of that rhino left."

The reserve's animal denizens may have also played a part.

"There are lots of scavengers on the [southern plain known as the] Terai—mammals, birds, lots of species," Dinerstein said.

"If somebody had been patrolling they would have been tipped off [to a dead rhino] by lots of vultures.

"But because nobody was patrolling, you could easily have a carcass disappear quite quickly without much of a trace."

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