Once abundant across the vast landmass from Myanmar in the east to the Indus in the west, from Nepal in the north down to the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in the south, the Rhinoceros unicornis, or Indian rhinoceros was pushed to the brink of extinction in the early 20th century. Since then, though, there has been a slow but significant revival, with more than 3,500 individuals today from a low of 200.
This, though, is no time to relax, say conservationists, as a new set of threats are emerging. Hunting was the major factor for historical decline of the species – first legally and then through poaching – accompanied by massive habitat destruction. Now the new threat is climate change.
Releasing a report titled, “The greater one-horned rhino: past, present and future” Shanta Raj Jnawali – a rhinoceros expert at the World Wildlife Fund’s Nepal office – said, “It was a miraculous success in the conservation history but a new set of challenges have emerged, climate change and [massive] intrusion of invasive plant species in the protected areas have the potential to impact the species to the same scale or more than what the hunters and poachers did in the past.”
One example of the impact of invasive species was seen in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. The park, which is the major habitat for the rhino, has seen the rapid invasion of the Mikania micrantha, also called “mile a minute weed” due to its ability to spread rapidly. Research done by the Jnawali’s team suggested that 44% of total study plots had more than 50% invasion of the weed, with the area inhabited by the rhinoceros showing the largest infestation. The report says that the plant, “can smother and kill native flora such as grasses and sapling trees, several of which are important fodder plants of the Rhinoceros.”
The rising temperature is also a danger. Although the rhino can tolerate high temperatures, they cannot dissipate heat without wallowing in water bodies. As temperatures increase these water bodies are drying up. As global temperatures continue to climb with no ease in sight anytime soon, this may become a critical component in the health of the species. Their habitats too are being degraded. “In Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, for example, grassland has been reduced from 20% to 4.7% of the park whereas Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam has witnessed [a] 68% decline in alluvial grassland—the major habitats for Rhino,” since 1977, the report mentioned.
The recent bad past
From their original wide ranging habitats, the rhinoceros is now confined to 11 pockets spanning around 20,000 square kilometres of protected areas today— Kaziranga, Manas, Orang and Dudhwa national parks and the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in India; the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan; and the Chitwan and Bardiya national parks, as well as the Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in Nepal.
Originally the killing of the rhinoceros was the sport of kings. After George V was crowned King Emperor of India in 1911 he travelled to Nepal for a ten-day hunting expedition during which 18 rhinoceros and 39 tigers were killed. Nor was this sport exclusively that of foreigners; until 1979 it was customary for rulers of Nepal to kill a one horned rhinoceros and make an offering of its blood called ‘Blood Tarpan’ to their ancestors, praying for peace and prosperity.
By then, though, steps to conserve the species were well underway. The Indian Constitution, adopted in 1950, states in Article 51A(g) that “every citizen of India has a duty to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.” In 1974 all hunting in India was banned. A year before, in 1973, Nepal’s National Park and Wildlife Conservation Act was passed, and punished the killing of wild animals and trading of wildlife body parts, with imprisonment ranging from 5 to 15 years. However, this law did not apply to the monarchy.
Unfortunately mythical stories that rhinoceros horn, as part of traditional Chinese medicines, can cure impotency – and even cancer – have fuelled poaching. Vietnam and China are the main drivers of this trade, according to WWF’s report.
The cost of conflict
Internal conflict played a part as well. There were around 100 rhinoceros in India’s Manas National Park in 1989, but during the long Bodo people’s unrest from 1989 to 2003, all of them were killed. In Nepal, all 30 rhinoceros translocated to the Bardia National Park from Chitwan National park were killed during the Maoist insurgency between 1996 and 2006. “If the same thing would have happened in the Kaziranga National Park [in India] the world would have lost two-thirds of total population of one horned rhinoceros. Decades of efforts to bring them back from the brink of extinction would have become worthless,” said Kanchan Thapa, another researcher from WWF Nepal.
Kaziranga National Park has the largest population of the greater one horned rhinocero in the world. Poaching figures in and around the park over the last three decades show how serious the problem is. Since 1984, the park lost 577 rhinoceros to poachers and the WWF report mentioned that about 100 people lost their lives fighting with poachers. “It’s true that poachers are very strong but in last few years the governments have geared up their collaborative efforts and results are very encouraging which you can see how Nepal was able to go years without poaching,” said Maheshwar Dhakal, Joint-Secretary at Nepal’s ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation.
“Nepal celebrated 1,000 days of zero poaching of rhinoceros at the end of January this year. In addition, inter-country cooperation to fight against wildlife crime has increased with strong commitments and we are very hopeful this will lead to zero poaching in other countries too,” Dhakal added. In 2010, the governments of South Asian countries decided to establish an intergovernmental agency to fight wildlife crime. The secretariat was set up in Nepal. “Since then we have had regular meetings, statutes of the agency have been approved by all countries and the governments are mobilising their security forces in more coordinated ways than before,” Dhakal said.
The result of these efforts is that the species has been upgraded from the category of endangered to vulnerable on the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN)’s Red List of threatened and endangered species. “There are ample things to be proud of and be happy but the days to come are not easy as the threats are increasing with changing climate, advances technologies that could be used by the poachers and the rapid pace of development on the same area where the rhinoceros live,” said Jnawali of WWF Nepal.
Shift in conservation strategy
At the beginning, major efforts were applied to bring back the rhinoceros population from the brink of extinction. The establishment and extension of national parks patrolled by forest guards was the first step. As the population of the endangered species started to recover, the focus shifted to dispersing them across their former ranges, so that a problem at one place would not impact the whole species. Nepal started its first rhinoceros translocation in 1986; so far, it has translocated 92 rhinoceros from the population thriving in Chitwan National Park in the central region to the Bardia National Park in western Nepal.
From small pockets of protected areas like national parks, Nepal has embraced landscape conservation approach and countries have been trying to establish forest corridors between Nepal and India so that rhinoceros can have greater mobility, and to reduce human wildlife conflicts. In Bhutan, in the areas adjoining Manas National Park in the Indian state of Assam, the re-introduction has been done successfully. “The most important thing is to increase ownership in the communities of the adjoining areas of the rhinoceros habitat and efforts have been increased to reduce the conflict as the number grows but more needs to be done,” said Dhakal at Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation.