Turmoil gores Nepal’s rhino success story

June 14th, 2010 - 4:21 pm ICT by IANS  

Kathmandu, June 14 (IANS) First hit by a 10-year communist insurgency, Nepal’s success story in breeding the endangered greater one-horned rhino has now been gored afresh, with three animals gunned down by poachers in the last week alone.
Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, already battling the opposition Maoist party to start the budget session of parliament, was compelled to call an emergency meeting with wildlife officials Monday while the army announced a probe into the poaching in a national park guarded by soldiers.

Though India’s Kaziranga National Park became the best known success story for the one-horned rhinoceros, boasting of a population of over 1,550 of the endangered species, unknown to many Nepal across the border also scripted a success tale, reporting a rhino population of 800 in 1950.

However, within two decades the political instability that saw sweeping changes in the government also hit the rhino population, bringing their number down to between 100-174.

After the government initiated special measures, including posting army patrols, the number surged again, reaching 612 in 2000.

But in a series of ups and downs, the modest success began crumbling again as the army was deployed to address the growing Maoist insurgency and the 33 army posts were slashed to a bare seven.

“Our number of informers were also reduced to just five,” says Kamal Jung Kunwar, former assistant warden at the Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal, whose recent book, “Gaindalaai chaar barsa”, exposes the nexus between poachers, forest officials, politicians and judges. “Between 2001-02, nearly 100 rhinos were killed.”

Nepal last counted its rhino population in 2008, when their number was put at 435. The majority - 408 - were in the Chitwan National Park with 22 more in the Bardiya National Park in the remote west.

Though a formal census was not undertaken in a third sanctuary, the Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, it was believed to be host to five more rhinos.

Nepal held an election in the same year that was to have consolidated the uneasy peace that descended in 2006 after the end of the Maoist insurrection.

In the last 11 months, 28 rhinos have died, of which at least 13 were killed by poachers.

Reports of three killings last week and rampant deforestation finally compelled the prime minister to summon Forest Minister Dipak Bohora Monday and ask for an explanation.

However, given the track record of the current coalition government that has not been able to take action against a single minister facing corruption charges, no positive outcome is likely.

“In the 90s, poachers hunted down rhinos with spears,” says Kunwar. “Now, they use Marco Polos - home-made guns bought from Bihar in India with sophisticated bullets. They also have the backing of political parties and forest officials and are often bailed out even after being arrested and presented in court by judges who have been bribed.”

The horn of the rhino is used to make traditional medicine and is believed to have aphrodisiac properties.

“Ninety percent of the rhino horns are smuggled to China, their biggest consumer,” says Kunwar. “Just as it is the biggest consumer of tiger skins and body parts smuggled out of India.”

Poaching is a tentacled crime that has South Asia in its grips. Kaziranga in India’s Assam state also reported the killing of two rhinos in January and March.

“But in India, there’s accountability,” Kunwar says. “A tiger was killed recently leading to the suspension of a wildlife official. In Nepal, no one is ever brought to task.”

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