Home Flora & Fauna Chitwan National Park: The ‘Death Zone’ for Rhinos

Chitwan National Park: The ‘Death Zone’ for Rhinos

by Team TrickyScribe
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Ramesh Pokhrel | The TrickyScribe: The greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), also known as the Indian rhinoceros, is a grey giant, second only to an elephant in size weighing between 2-2.5 metric tonnes. It is mostly found only in South Asia and southeast Asia. Its population was more than 3500 around the world. Today, however, the population of rhinos is diminishing feverishly with no more than 2,000 in the wild. Rhinos inhabit the alluvial flood-plain vegetation of sub-tropical climates where water and green grass is available all year. In Nepal, the rhino population is estimated to be around 1,000 in the Chitwan Valley until 1950. The Rana rulers had been using the area for their leisure sport hunting.

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 This made the areas inaccessible to the general public. Another factor that shielded the area from invasive human settlements was rampant malaria in the area at that time. However, after the end of the Rana regime in 1950, there was also the eradication of malaria. This led the doors of Chitwan open to people from around the country leading to clearance of wildlife habitat for human settlements, agriculture and urbanization. This not only destroyed the forest but also affected the wildlife population mainly of the large mammals like tigers, elephants and rhinos. As a result, the rhino population dropped to less than 100 in the late 1960s.

Recognizing the urgency to avert the erratic diminishing of one-horned rhinoceros, Government of Nepal formulated the “Gainda Gasti”, an armed Rhino Patrol Unit in 1961, and declared the remaining prime rhino habitats, about 544 sq. km along Rapti, Narayani and Reu rivers, as the Chitwan National Park (CNP) in 1973. Later the park was extended to total coverage area of 932 sq. km and was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1984 for its richness in biological diversity. After the successful effort of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), the declining rhino population began to gradually increase.

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The CNP demonstrated that the population can rebound vigorously when sufficient habitat and protection are provided. It is an example of a population that was almost on the verge of extinction that has recovered while still maintaining a high genetic diversity. Various organizations dedicated to conservation have been working for more than three decades to make the rhino population rebound through multiple strategies of protection, livelihood options, awareness campaigns and law enforcement. Today, it is a success story of how a species that was almost on the brink of extinction that has recovered while still upholding a high genetic diversity.

Nepal’s main rhino sanctuary, Chitwan National Park, received more than 150,000 tourists during the 2018-19 fiscal year, bringing in 167.8 million rupees ($1.52 million) in revenue. But the park is unable to use those funds to finance programs like the census. By law, half of the park’s revenue goes to local communities, while the other half goes into the central government’s general budget.

Counting rhinos is not a priority for the government, which must also allocate funds for important programs related to health and education, said a former wildlife department official. Meanwhile, park authorities rely on donors like Nepal’s National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), the WWF and the Zoological Society of London to finance the census.

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Wildlife officials are advocating for a change in policy. “As the government is working on the new budget, we are proposing that the whole process be funded by the government,” Chitwan National Park  said. A rhino takes a dip in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. The 2015 census counted 645 rhinos in Nepal, including 605 in Chitwan. But 41 of the park’s rhinos have been found dead in the past nine months.

The wildlife department tries to conduct a rhino census every five years to take stock of the population and devise conservation strategies. The last census was conducted in Nepal between April 11 and May 2, 2015, and counted 605 rhinos in Chitwan National Park, 29 in Bardia National Park, eight in Suklaphanta National Park and three in Parsa National Park. Officials said it was particularly critical to conduct a census this year, rather than waiting until 2020 as scheduled, because significant numbers of Chitwan’s rhinos have been dying due to unknown or natural causes. In the past nine months there have been no known poaching incidents, but 41 rhinos have been found dead in and around the park.

The deaths have prompted calls to assess whether Chitwan is hosting more rhinos than its ecosystem is able to support. To assess the carrying capacity of the park, we need to take stock of the population. The census is also important because it will help us assess the damage caused by the floods in 2017.

“The count, especially in Chitwan, takes around two to three weeks to complete and has to be completed between April and May,” said Naresh Subedi, program manager at the NTNC, one of the funders of the census. “If we miss the window period, the heat becomes unbearable for the elephants and visibility also decreases as grass grows tall.” While a shortage of funds is the official reason for the postponement, some members of the conservation community speculate that government officials allowed the clock to run out on the rhino census because they want to avoid a count that experts believe could reveal a decline in the population of the threatened species.

“There are many people who claim credit for a halt in poaching of rhinos in Nepal. The issue has become a matter of prestige and no one wants to take the blame for a fall in the rhino population,” one source within the wildlife department told Mongabay.

Chitwan National Park is home to 68 mammal species. The “king of the jungle” is the Bengal tiger. The alluvial floodplain habitat of the Terai is one of the best tiger habitats anywhere in the world. Since the establishment of Chitwan National Park the initially small population of about 25 individuals increased to 70–110 in 1980. In some years this population has declined due to poaching and floods. In a long-term study carried out from 1995–2002 tiger researchers identified a relative abundance of 82 breeding tigers and a density of 6 females per 100 km2 (39 sq mi). Information obtained from camera traps in 2010 and 2011 indicated that tiger density ranged between 4.44 and 6.35 individuals per 100 km2 (39 sq mi). They offset their temporal activity patterns to be much less active during the day when human activity peaked. Leopards are most prevalent on the peripheries of the park. They co-exist with tigers, but being socially subordinate are not common in prime tiger habitat. In 1988, a clouded leopard was captured and radio-collared outside the protected area. It was released into the park, but did not stay there. Chitwan is considered to have the highest population density of sloth bears with an estimated 200 to 250 individuals.

 Smooth-coated otters inhabit the numerous creeks and rivulets. Bengal foxes, spotted linsangs and honey badgers roam the jungle for prey. Striped hyenas prevail on the southern slopes of the Churia Hills. During a camera trapping survey in 2011, wild dogs were recorded in the southern and western parts of the park, as well as golden jackals, fishing cats, jungle cats, leopard cats, large and small Indian civets, Asian palm civets, crab-eating mongooses and yellow-throated martens.

Rhinoceros: since 1973 the population has recovered well and increased to 544 animals around the turn of the century. To ensure the survival of the endangered species in case of epidemics animals are translocated annually from Chitwan to the Bardia National Park and the Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve since 1986. However, the population has repeatedly been jeopardized by poaching: in 2002 alone, poachers killed 37 individuals in order to saw off and sell their valuable horns.Chitwan has the largest population of Indian rhinoceros in Nepal, estimated at 605 of 645 individuals in total in the country as of 2015.

From time to time wild elephant bulls find their way from Valmiki National Park into the valleys of the park, apparently in search of elephant cows willing to mate.Gaurs spend most of the year in the less accessible Churia Hills in the south of the national park. But when the bush fires ease off in springtime and lush grasses start growing up again, they descend into the grassland and riverine forests to graze and browse.

The Chitwan population of the world’s largest wild cattle species has increased from 188 to 368 animals in the years 1997 to 2016. Furthermore, 112 animals were counted in the adjacent Parsa Wildlife Reserve. The animals move freely between these parks.

Apart from numerous wild boars also sambar deer, red muntjac, hog deer and herds of chital inhabit the park. Four-horned antelopes reside predominantly in the hills. Rhesus monkeys, hanuman langurs, Indian pangolins, Indian porcupines, several species of flying squirrels, black-naped hares and endangered hispid hares are also present.

The greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), also known as the Indian rhinoceros, is a grey giant, second only to an elephant in size. An adult rhino usually weighs between 2-2.5 metric tonnes. Rhinos usually lead a solitary life, but they may also graze and wallow together. Calves follow their mothers for 1-3 years. Females are sexually mature between 5 and 7 years old, while males mature at about 10 years of age.

The greater one-horned rhinoceros is commonly found only in South Asia and South East Asia. Historically, the rhinos were distributed in the floodplain and forest tracts in Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus river valley.

Today, however, no more than 2,000 remain in the wild, with only two populations containing more than 100 rhinos: Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India (1,200) and Chitwan National Park (CNP), Nepal (600). Despite joint efforts between Bhutan and India, the survival of a small population of rhinos living along the Indo-Bhutan border in Manas still remains doubtful (Jnawali et.at, 2000).

History of Rhino Conservation in Nepal

In Nepal, the rhino population was estimated at ca. 1,000 in the Chitwan valley until 1950. The area was well protected by the then Rana rulers for sport hunting. It was also secure from outsiders since malaria was rampant. Only a few indigenous communities like the Tharus , who are immune to the disease, lived there. Their impact on the natural environment was negligible.

After the collapse of the Rana regime in 1950 and the eradication of malaria during the mid-1950s, Chitwan opened to outsiders. Thousands of people cam down from the mid-hills and large swathes of wildlife habitat was cleared for human settlements, agriculture and other development activities. This not only destroyed the forest but also affected the wildlife population because of poaching. This affected mainly large mammals including rhinos and as a result, the rhino population dropped to less than 100 during the late 1960s al 1999s.

Recognizing the need to halt the decline of rapidly diminishing rhino population, Government of Nepal established the ” Gainda Gasti “, an armed Rhino Patrol Unit in 1961, and declared the remaining prime rhino habitats, about 544 sq km along Rapti, Narayani and Reu rivers, as the Chitwan National Park (CNP) in 1973. The park was later extended to encompass a total area of 932 sq km and was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1984 for its high biological diversity.

After the successful effort of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), the declining rhino population began to gradually increase. The CNP demonstrated that the population can rebound vigorously when sufficient habitat and protection are provided. It is an example of a population that was almost on the verge of extinction that has recovered while still maintaining a high genetic diversity.

Rhino Habitat

Rhinos inhabit the alluvial flood-plain vegetation of sub-tropical climates where water and green grass is available all year. Many rhinos now live within blocks of the suitable rhino habitat in CNP. Rhinos occurred in highest densities along the flood plain grasslands and riverine forests bordering the Rapti, Narayani, Reu, and Dhungre rivers, suggesting that floodplain grasslands dominated by 4-6 m tall Saccharum spontanium are the single most critical habitat (Dinerstein and Price, 1991).

Grasslands interspersed with patches of riverine forests together make about 30% of the park area and have Saccharum spp., Narenga spp., and Themeda spp . (Shrestha, 1995). This grass species is the fundamental food resource of rhinos comprising more than 60% of the animal diet. Due to the flood and vegetation succession, the grassland may have decreased. Sal Shorea robusta forest associated with species such as Dillennia pentagyna, Syzigium cumini, Trijuga oleofera, Lagerstromia parviflora, Terminalia tomentosa, T. bellerica, and Phyllanthus emblica comprise 70% of the park area and are seldom eaten by rhinos.

Inundation by regular flooding of the alluvial plains along major rivers creates conditions favorable for the quick appearance of sprouts and germination to maintain the dominance of Saccharum spontaneum . This makes the monsoon flood very critical for maintaining rhino habitat. Oxbow lakes and other open water bodies are also important because the rhino spends about 8 hours in a day in wallows or streams during high humidity periods (August-September). In December and January, they spend at least an average of a day wallowing (Laurie, 1978).

Rhino conservation in Nepal has taken a long journey. Once widespread throughout the lowlands, they were reduced to only few pockets by 1950s and only around 100 individuals. Conservation efforts boosted the population by the 1990s but took a toll during the political turmoil between 1996 to 2006. Their numbers are now rising again and reaches over 600 individuals. Strengthened park management combined with effective army patrols along with community engagement have allowed Chitwan’s rhinos to rebound from extinction. Chitwan National Park remains the stronghold of rhino population in Nepal and in order to reduce the vulnerability of a single population to stochastic events—disease and natural disasters—NTNC in collaboration with the Government of Nepal and conservation partners have translocated rhinos to Bardia and Suklaphanta National Parks to create additional viable populations.

Chitwan National Park, buffer zone area and adjoining forest areas.

Problem tigers camera trapped, rescued or killed location in Chitwan National Park and surrounding areas during 2008e2016.The white square with black point inside represents locations where problem tigers caused conflict or captured, colored dots represent the camera trapped location of problem tiger in different years and black dots represent the camera trap locations of other tigers (source population) in 2013. The polygons represents the locations of problem tigers based on camera trap captured & tiger rescued locations.

Spatio-temporal patterns of attacks on human and economic losses from wildlife in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

Average number of livestock depredation incident per month and season in buffer zone of Chitwan National Park during 1998–2016, b) Number of livestock killed by tiger and rhino in the distance from forest edge and park boundary.

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