Where have Bardia’s rhinos gone?

Loss of their favourite grass due to the spread of invasive vines have forced rhinos to venture outside Chitwan National Park, like this one in Sauraha in 2019. Photo: SAGAR GIRI

Between 1986 to 2017, as many as 100 rhinos were translocated from Chitwan to Bardia National Park. Three decades later, only 37 remain.

The rhinos were taken to Bardia because the animals were dying due to overcrowding, increase in infrastructure, human-animal conflict, and frequent territorial fights among males in Chitwan National Park. 

Among the translocated animals, 55 were male and 45 female rhinos, and transferring them to Bardia was also an insurance in case disease felled rhinos in Chitwan, or they were washed away in floods as happened in 2017.

A 2005 census put the rhino population in Bardia National Park at 67, but the number had slumped to 22 by 2008. Authorities at the Park say 34 rhinos fell prey to poachers. In 2020 alone, 4 rhinos were killed by ivory traffickers, dashing Nepal’s hopes of achieving a five-year streak of zero rhino poaching.

“The population of the rhinos had been increasing prior to the surge in poaching last year,” says Bardia National Park conservation officer Bishnu Prasad Shrestha. “Poaching goes up whenever the attention is diverted, as happened during the conflict or the pandemic.”

During the 1996-2006 insurgency, the Nepal Army that guards parks was deployed to fight the Maoists, and this became a boon to poachers. The number of the one-horned rhinos nationwide plunged during that period from 612 in 2000 to less than 375 by the end of 2005.

Until the 1950s, Nepal boasted an estimated population of close to 1,000 Greater One-horned Rhinoceros in the Chitwan region. At that time, the numbers dwindled because of habitat loss as Tarai jungles were cleared for settlements, hunting, and poaching.

After the national parks were established, the military guarded the parks and brought poaching under control. The comeback of the rhinos and tigers in Nepal was regarded as an international success story.

After watering holes inside Chitwan National Park started drying up, rhinos often saunter around Sauraha for a drink. Photo: CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK

However, with the pandemic, security was relaxed and poachers took advantage of this. After five years of zero rhino poaching, Chitwan alone has lost four rhinos to poachers in the past year. This was of serious enough concern for the Nepal Army to launch ‘Operation Maha Hunt’ to track down poachers.

“While there was a surge of poachers during the pandemic, the rhino population in the region is increasing again,” says Shrestha. But there is enough evidence on the ground that points to continued threats faced by wildlife in Nepal.

In April 2020, poachers killed six endangered Himalayan musk deer inside the Sagarmatha National Park, a protected area. Police in Bajura district seized wildlife contraband including tiger and leopard pelts, bones, bear gall bladders, and deer antlers from poachers intending to smuggle them into China in June 2020, providing evidence to the killing of animals in the conservation areas that were going unchecked.

In Chitwan, rhinos prefer the western floodplain grasslands and riverine forests near the Rapti, Narayani and Reu rivers, and are relatively fewer in number on the eastern side of the park. A similar lack of watering holes and suitable grassland habitat along the Babai Valley in Bardia could be one reason for the decline of translocated rhinos.

The rhino’s favourite grasses are being over-run by invasive mikania micrantha, locally known as banmara. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Bardia National Park is constructing and managing artificial ponds and grasslands for rhinos and other wildlife, but it seems this not enough of an incentive for them to thrive.

“Rhinos require watering holes in riverine areas as well as suitable grassland to rest and graze, both of which are lacking in Bardia,” says Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Forests and Environment Dr Ramchandra Kandel. “Bardia’s natural habitat is not suitable for rhinos.”

A rhino washed down to India in a flood in 2017, being tranquilised and returned to Chitwan National Park three years later in August 2020.

Their preference of habitat makes rhinos especially vulnerable to floods during the monsoon. Moreover, the species face an increasing threat of inhospitable changes in their living environment brought about by calamities due to climate change.

Massive flooding on the Rapti and Narayani rivers in Chitwan National Park swept away 11 rhinos along with other wildlife to India in August 2017—the last rhino was repatriated to Nepal in August 2020.

Last year, 13 rhinos died due to flooding amid record-breaking rainfall across much of Nepal. Chitwan—the primary sanctuary of the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros in the country—recorded 3,130mm of rain, significantly higher than the annual average in the region. 

According to the 2015 census, the wildlife population in Nepal surged back, over the years upping the total rhino population in the country to 645. Of these, at least 620 are in Chitwan National Park alone, with the rest scattered in Parsa, Bardia, and Shuklaphanta reserves.  

Conservationists say that the tale of Bardia’s missing rhinos is an important reminder that suitablility of the habitat, food supply, and adequate water should be important considerations before translocating wildlife.

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