The number of rhinos killed by poachers in the Royal Chitwan National Park has doubled in the past year. Since November, 38 great one-horn rhinos have been killed. Only the carcases or skeletons were found, with skull bones minus the horn (see picture).
Poachers appear to have taken advantage of the Royal Nepal Army's deployment against the Maoists to step up killing rhinos for their valuable horns. Government records show that of the 48 rhinos lost in the past year, only eight died natural deaths.
"If we don't do something the species could be lost within a decade," warns Ravi Sharma Aryal, a Nepali expert on CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
A 2000 census showed that there were 544 rhinos in Chitwan, one of the two viable populations of Asiatic rhinos in the world. As Chitwan got crowded, the government started translocating rhinos to Bardiya two years ago, and 25 have so far made the move. But poachers are active in Bardiya too-four rhinos have been killed there in the past four months, three by poachers.
Nepal's efforts to save the rhino is an internationally-recognised success story. After being hunted and killed nearly to extinction in Chitwan, the rhino population rebounded in 30 years. Besides Chitwan, there are now 88 rhinos in Bardiya and eight in Suklaphanta.
But after November, soldiers were pulled out of conservation duty. The 39 army posts set up to guard the 32 sq km area in Chitwan were reduced to 10 posts. Patrolling, especially at night, was stopped.
"Economically and politically influential people are involved in poaching," states Anil Manandhar, at the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Kathmandu. A rhino horn can sell for up to Rs 800,000 per kilo within the country and for more than Rs 2.4 million in the international market. Besides rhinos, tigers are also being killed by poachers in Chitwan, but there is no way to tell how many. Poachers take away every part of the tiger they kill, whereas they are only interested in a rhino's horn.
But there is good news: park management in Chitwan has changed tactics and there hasn't been a single rhino poached in the past month. "Poaching is now under control," Chandi Prasad Shrestha at Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation told us. Officials are secretive, but what did the trick seems to be the deployment of the army in villages outside the sanctuary, and a change in park management. In the last five months 52 suspected poachers have been arrested, and three were killed in an armed confrontation.