The sun was about to set on a recent evening at the Trisen Community Forest in the buffer zone outside Chitwan National Park as the pregnant rhino wallowed lazily in the mud at a watering hole.
Suddenly, a shot rang out. The bullet pierced the rhino's armoured skin. She writhed in the reddening mud and even though she was mortally wounded, went into labour. The calf was half out as the mother died.
Villagers, soldiers, and national park employees arrived three hours later. There was nothing they could do, only add another rhino to the grim count of the number of these magnificent endangered beasts that have been killed.
After being hunted nearly into extinction in the first half of the last century, the number of rhinos in Chitwan in a census seven years ago had risen from less than 100 to 612. But since then 150 rhinos have been killed by poachers in Chitwan alone. Another 72 have been killed for their horns in Bardia National Park.
A few weeks after the Trisen incident, another rhino with a bullet wound was spotted at the Panchakanya Community Forest in Chitwan. It was obviously in great pain as it splashed across rivulets and into fields, trying to flee a rescue team from the park. Having lost much blood, and too tired to run anymore, the animal lay down on its side and died. Five days previously, a village in Nawalparasi was overwhelmed by the foul smell from the rotting carcass of a rhino electrocuted to death. Fourteen rhinos have died in Chitwan between July and December, most of which are believed to have been killed by poachers.
The Maoist insurgency and scaling back of army protection in the tarai national parks have contributed to an increase in poaching in the last six years, though most rhinos have been killed in the buffer zone, which is not patrolled by the military.
The ceasefire and restoration of democracy have actually been worse for the animals. When an elderly hunter died after arrest last year, several members of a local anti-poaching unit were accused of killing him and imprisoned, which affected the morale of national park staff. Then, the Home Ministry under the new seven-party government released 15 people detained for poaching, among them experienced hunters. The number of rhino killings suddenly shot up. The ministry released 50 more accused of poaching late last year. The media headlined these events, sparking uproar in the restored parliament, which then formed a House committee in December to probe the matter.
Despite this, the newly-appointed warden of the Chitwan National Park used his discretionary authority to recently deliver an unusually lenient verdict on poaching kingpin Pemba 'Yakche' Lama and 16 of his accomplices. This group is likely to be released soon. Since the restoration of democracy, park staff who helped to put Yakche behind bars are themselves behind bars while this ringleader of rhino horn smugglers is about to walk free.
Rising affluence in the Gulf region, where rhino horns are used for dagger hilts, and in East Asia, where powdered rhino horn is believed to have aphrodisiac properties are the pull factors for smugglers. Poverty, corruption, and lax security in Nepal are additional factors. These can only be resolved in the long-term-by which time all our rhinos will have disappeared. What can we do right now?
Sawing off the horns of rhinos-removing the motivation for killing them-has been successfully tried in Namibia and Zimbabwe. De-horning Nepali rhinos maybe the only way to save them.
Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha, PhD, is a noted Nepali naturalist.