There was a time when the Greater one-horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) roamed safely, and in great numbers, the floodplains and riverine forests of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. This was until habitat loss to human settlements, trophy hunting and poaching for the mythical medicinal properties attributed to the rhino horn, decimated their numbers. Figures dropped drastically on the Indian side and by the mid-1960s the total population of rhinos in Nepal too was estimated to be a mere 100, down from around 1000 animals back in the 1950s.
Fortunately the Royal Chitwan National Park was formed in 1973, and afforded this species a safe haven of sorts within Nepal. But poaching was reduced only after 1976 when the Royal Nepal Army was stationed within the park to curb such activities. Since then, numbers have recovered and currently there are about 612 rhinoceros in Nepal. The recovery from the brink of extinction is no doubt a conservation success story, but with only around 2100 animals in existence today, they remain an endangered species.
An added concern is that most of this population is located in just two geographic areas-544 rhinos in Chitwan and roughly 1300 in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India. A case of having all your rhinos in one basket so to speak, and natural calamities, disease, or adverse human action affecting these areas could have catastrophic results on the existing rhino population. A possibility painfully highlighted when 31 rhinos were lost in the 1998 floods in Kaziranga.
In order to protect this species, conservationists have been working towards creating new populations of rhinos in other suitable habitats. This would spread the existing population of rhinos over several locations and protect them from adverse events affecting any one area. Translocation has been successfully used in Nepal to create a new population of rhinos in the Royal Bardia National Park where there are 67 rhinos. That 54 of them are translocated animals and 13 were born there points to a viable breeding population. Also, with the population of rhinos in Chitwan reaching 544, park resources are being stretched to meet the demands of this huge population and translocation is a means to ease this situation.
Rhino population figures within the parks changed in the last fortnight in a major translocation effort. Fourteen elephants lumbered through the early morning mist and the high elephant grass of the Sukebar area west of Sauraha, Chitwan. Their aim was to find a suitable rhinoceros, herd it to a selected area, tranquillise and render it unconscious, and move it to Bardia or Shuklaphanta where it would be released. The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) and the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (KMTNC) were conducting the entire operation jointly, with financial support from the US Fisheries and Wildlife Services, WWF-US and WWF-Netherlands.
The earlier party of fourteen elephants and their crew were joined that morning by another ten elephants carrying various guests and officials who had been invited to participate in the search and capture of the first rhinoceros to be translocated. These guests included officials from the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation (MFSC), DNPWC, KMTNC, WWF and park staff. The terrain was along the Reu river floodplains with the Someshwar hills to the south-an area of tall elephant grass, open Sal forests and marsh combined with patches of open grassland.
Rhinos would make themselves tantalisingly visible and then just as the elephants approached, slip through a gap in their ranks, cross marshy ground or disappear through tall grass and make good their escape. The tall grass made visibility even between the elephant-borne parties limited, rendering coordination of 24 elephants almost impossible with most communication taking the form of shouts between elephant drivers, relayed by those within hearing or sight.
It was midday before we heard that a beast had been cornered and so we lurched and swayed on our mounts to the location. The cornered animal was an adult male and Dr Claude Martin, Director General of WWF International had been give the honour of darting the animal. The shot laden with Etonphin hydrochloride (M99) mixed with Acepromazine found its mark on the right shoulder of the beast and sent it trotting through the grass and brush towards the forest, hoping to shake this Hannibal-like party that had interrupted his foraging, and gone on to add injury by sticking a dart in his shoulder.
Whatever plans of retribution this mega-herbivore might have had in mind were soon to fade as the drugs in the dart took effect and ten minutes later, he was quite unconscious in a thin grove of trees, 300 yards south of where the loading and transportation crew were located.
As word of the sleeping rhino reached the crew, they were off with their translocation paraphernalia. This included 15 men on a sled and a big blue earthmover deployed to haul the sled and cut a swathe through the brush if necessary. Fortunately, a path existed to the site where the beast slept and it was simply a matter of loading the rhino onto the sled and hauling it to the truck. Perhaps the term 'simply' does not do justice to the operation because there was a lot of shouting and earthmoving and grunting involved before the animal was finally loaded onto the wooden sled and hauled off.
While all this was going on, a team of technicians consisting of vets and park officials were monitoring the animal to make sure it was in good health, and more importantly, that it was actually still asleep. Blood samples were taken and the rhino was fitted with a radio collar-to help track and monitor its progress once released. Despite all the commotion, it was actually quite a smooth operation, and in less than forty minutes the beast had been loaded onto the sled and hauled to the open space where the trucks and cage stood.
Here too there was much commotion as the rhino was loaded, still on the wooden sled, into a 7 x 7 x 11ft cage and the rear door firmly shut. The front door was partially lowered after an antidote had been administered to revive the rhino. As he found his unsteady feet, the sled was hauled out of the cage from under his feet and the door completely closed. This was done because the sled was needed for other rhino-hauling operations and to give the animal, now christened Claude after WWF's Director General, more room to move about in the cage. I suspect that finding his feet after being drugged and then finding the floor hauled out from under him must have led Claude to suspect that he had eaten herbs his mama had warned him about.
The big blue earthmover and the team of helpers then loaded the cage onto a waiting truck that had been backed into a shallow ditch to make the operation easier. Claude was now ready for his 300-km journey to Bardia National Park, accompanied by a team of vets and park officials to ensure a safe passage.
In all, ten rhinos are being translocated in this operation and this would increase the rhino population of Bardia by 6 and that of Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve by 4 animals. This will be the first time that animals are being translocated to Shuklaphanta and it is hoped that over time, this area will be able to support a third viable population of rhinos within Nepal-it takes about 50 animals to form a viable population.
If the animals in Shukla-phanta survive and breed this will be another success story in the efforts to conserve the Greater one-horned Rhinoceros of Asia. Claude is now a resident of Bardia and another male and female have set up home in Shuklaphanta. Early successes of the translocation programme have shown that this is possibly the best way to ensure the survival of the rhino in this part of the world.