Counting rhinos in the shadow of the Himalayas

Nepal begins census with WWF and partners

This month, Nepal began a national census to determine the status and distribution of the greater one-horned rhinoceros in and around Chitwan National Park, Bardia National Park and Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve, led by Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in collaboration with National Trust for Nature Conservation and WWF. The census will also obtain important information on Mikania micrantha,which is the primary invasive alien plant species that has been taking over the grasslands in key rhino habitats. The results will help shape the long-term strategy for rhino conservation in Nepal.

“Rhinos may appear to be invulnerable but the combined pressures of poaching for the illegal wildlife trade and loss of habitat has often led to starts and stops in their recovery,” said Shubash Lohani, deputy director of WWF’s Eastern Himalayas Program. “WWF has a long history of conservation in Nepal and I hope the results of the rhino census will give us another reason to celebrate during our 50th anniversary.”

How the census is conducted

Each rhinoceros is located and counted by well-trained wildlife biologists and technicians on elephants moving parallel along transects marked on a map to sweep individual blocks. The teams are all equipped with GPS receivers, cameras, binoculars, radio handsets, rhino data recording booklets, an invasive alien plant species recording sheet, and spare batteries for the GPS receiver.

Individual animals are indentified by the shape and horn size, folds present in the neck and rump, special body marking (cuts, scars, skin lobes) and any other special characteristics present on both flanks of the body in order to prevent double counting. Special attention is paid to differentiate the sex among each rhino in order to estimate the population's sex ratio.

History of rhino conservation efforts

Since the 1960s, WWF supported conservation efforts in the Eastern Himalayas for rhinos and their habitat. Key dates include:

  • 1950s: 800 greater one-horned rhinoceros lived in the Chitwan valley, but hunting and migration caused numbers to drop to fewer than 100 within a decade.
  • 1973: The government established Nepal’s first national park in Chitwan as a response and by the new millenium, the rhino population grew to 544.
  • 1986 to 2003: The government started an ambitious tranlsocation program, moving 83 rhinos. Years of civil unrest led to reduced protection and rampant poaching.
  • 2005: The security situation resulted in only a partial rhino count in Chitwan and by 2007 poaching was taking a toll on rhinos across Nepal. WWF launched intensive anti-poaching efforts with community mobilization and risky undercover investigations, which yielded a decline in poaching.
  • 2008: The national rhino count estimated a population of 435.