In the morning of 10 March, four rhinos were sedated in the Royal Chitwan National Park and loaded on to trucks to make a long journey across the tarai. No, this wasn't the work of poachers, but conservation officials and NGO workers beginning the annual rhino translocation programme. Established in 1986, the programme will translocate ten rhinos to Royal Bardiya National Park this week in an attempt to help control the rhino population in Chitwan and establish a viable rhino population in Bardiya.
Nepal's rhino population, which now numbers 612, is finally making a comeback after decades of habitat destruction and hunting decimated its numbers to just 100 in 1966. According to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), Nepal's rhino population is now growing at an impressive 3.88 percent annually. The programme is so successful, in fact, that right now there is as much of a good thing as Chitwan can take-529 at last count two years ago. With the new arrivals in Bardiya, the rhino population there will total nearly 100, which is considered the threshold for a viable population group. The rhinos need to be translocated not just because too many of them in Chitwan would be bad news for other species, but also because conservation common sense dictates that there should be as many population pools as possible within the habitat of animal, to reduce chances of their being killed by disease or conflict with humans.
The programme works on a scale that seems to beg heavy dockyard equipment. Sedation darts are shot at individual rhinos, which are then driven by a team of 40 elephants into open grassland. Once asleep, each animal is measured and loaded onto a tractor-pulled sled with the help of three dozen labourers. From there they are transferred to an enclosed wooden pen, where they are given an antidote. Finally, the cage is loaded onto a truck and the enormous one-horned creatures begin their 15-hour trip across the tarai.
Dr Shanta Jnawali of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (KMTNC), who coordinated this year's rhino translocation, says the long-term prospects for the species' survival are "very good", providing that conservation remains a high priority in the long term. "As long as you have the natural resource base, the rhino population will have a bright future," he added.
Nepali environmentalists and international observers say the country's rhino efforts are among the best of their kind. The programme shows that conservation efforts such as this also have economic benefits for the country, says Dr Chandra Gurung of the WWF Nepal Program, with ecotourism emerging as a major cash industry in the Chitwan area. "Conservation has been a major success for Nepal," says Dr Gurung. "The environmental work is carried out by Nepalis and the country is reaping the economic rewards."
The organisation of a programme such as this involves as much logistical manoeuvring as the actual translocation itself, and the fact that the rhinos are getting from Chitwan to Bardiya is a cause for celebration. The Nepal rhino translocation programme is considered a model of cooperation among government agencies, NGOs and international donors. This year's program, for instance, is a joint initiative of the DNPWC and KMTNC with financial support from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The DNPWC and KMTNC oversee the technical aspects of the animal translocation, while the international donors provide the $4,000 it costs to transport a single rhino from Chitwan to Bardiya.
Although Nepal's estimated rhino population stood at 800 in 1950, sixteen years later that number was down to about 100, and there were serious doubts about how much longer the rhino would be around in Nepal. The widespread poaching that existed throughout South Asia before World War II-in 1938, for example, a hunting expedition in Nepal killed 38 rhinos - threatened rhinos as well as other species. Meanwhile, the natural habitat of the rhino, which at one time was found in the stretch of land from the Hindu Kush to the mountains of Burma, was also being encroached upon due to hastening economic development, and in Nepal in the 1950s, the eradication of malaria, which caused the plains population to boom.
It became obvious fairly soon that something had to be done, and in 1957 Nepal passed its first rhino protection law. By 1973, the government was worried enough about the threat to Nepal's wildlife to create the country's first national park in Chitwan and pass stiff anti-poaching laws. Today more than 18 percent of the country's land is under state protection. Anti-poaching efforts have also helped to protect the country's rhino population-there have been 137 poaching arrests since the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, after the emergency was declared last November, the army troops that patrol the Chitwan National Park have reduced their strength there to seven posts. (See also "Nepal's national parks are endangered," # 77.) But, says Dr Gurung, "So far, even the Maoist problem hasn't affected our ability to work with animals or bring tourists into the park."
Now that the rhinos are back on track, conservation officials and activists are also looking into other conservation programs that could help rhinos and other threatened species to thrive in larger areas. Meingma Narbu Sherpa, a director of Endangered Species for WWF-US, says that more work needs to be done to protect natural habitats that straddle international boundaries. The WWF is working to develop a biological corridor between Assam and Bhutan, and proposals have been made to create the "Tarai Arc" encompassing 50,000 square kilometres in Nepal and northern India. As animal populations reach capacity in enclosed areas, argues Sherpa, that it is important to open up larger areas of land so they can spread out. "We feel that success in Nepal isn't enough."