Diary of a rhino researcher: a look back at Nepal’s rhino count
After Nepal announced its latest rhino numbers — showing a 16 per cent increase between 2015 and 2021 — WWF-Nepal’s head of wildlife programs Kanchan Thapa, PhD, wrote about his first rhino count back in 2005.
Old stomping grounds
It was just an ordinary day at work. I was seated at my office desk reviewing video footage of the 2021 rhino count. The sights and sounds immediately transported me to another time and place — about 15 odd years ago, and to my first rhino count.
While I’ve been a part of over five national rhino counts since then, the technique, process, and duration remain the same — with individual rhinos counted by enumerators on elephant back, over a one-month period as teams systematically comb through rhino habitat blocks. These habitat blocks include marshy floodplain grasslands and riverine forests — the preferred habitat type for rhinos — as well as Sal forests.
Slowly but surely, we make our way through tall grasslands that grow as high as seven meters, popularly known as elephant grass. Suddenly my walkie-talkie beeps in: “No. 32, Roger, this is No. 33.”
It was captain of the rhino count field team, Madhav Khadka, at the time a government employee posted in Chitwan National Park and today a close colleague at WWF-Nepal.
“A rhino is headed in your direction, please check and note the animal description, over,” his voice crackles through the connection.
It was an adult male rhino, two meters tall with a prehistoric-looking grey body, armour plated skin, and a hooked horn, standing just 10 metres away. I noted its features along with the date and time.
My first rhino counted in my maiden rhino count.
To avoid double counting, the team ensures that the counted rhinos move behind the monitoring line. Throughout the process, teams continually shout out their adjacent team numbers to avoid any gaps in the elephant line and ensure that no rhino is missed in the count.
I was a bit skeptical of the method initially. After all, wasn’t there always a chance that a counted rhino from one block could move to the adjacent block the next day?
Dr. Narendra Man Babu Pradhan, former ecologist at the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation, was happy to explain to me. “There are always assumptions that we have to make during the count, for instance what comes in is equal to what goes out. While there’s always a possibility that animals counted today may move into the next un-surveyed block, there is also an equal probability that rhinos from an un-surveyed block may move into surveyed blocks.”
I get knocked down, but I get up again
Each day of the count is a challenging and painstaking task. The islands of Narayani River, located in the northwest of Chitwan National Park, is one of the most difficult locations for the rhino count. It is almost impossible to do an elephant line up or cut through forests along the delta formed by the meandering Narayani River and its dense habitats.
Thorny bushes and dense vegetation often provide low visibility to locate rhinos, which makes it difficult to identify them or observe details such as gender, age group and other physical features. Enumerators therefore shout out rhino identification to adjacent team members to make teams aware that the animal has been counted.
The rhino count may sound simple, yet the entire event, while adventurous, is physically and mentally exhausting — and sometimes dangerous, as there is always the chance of encountering a wild animal.
I remember falling off the back of an elephant in the 2015 rhino count. Hearing the snort of a rhino, I had leaned over the elephant to spot it under the tall grasslands of Sukhibar.
Disturbed by the snorting, the elephant was jolted, and my hand slipped over the safety rope. The next thing you know, there I was on the ground. Fortunately, I had landed on damp soil, and escaped with just a few bruises as the mahout helped me scramble back to safety atop the elephant. The rhino had thankfully moved away.
The last leg of my rhino count concluded in Nagar ban, near the city of Narayanghat. That afternoon, the rhinos counted throughout the day were summed up with earlier tallied figures. The total count of rhino was verified by experts and officials of the national park, and then endorsed by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. Similarly, the count from the other two national parks — Bardia and Shuklaphanta — were tallied to the total. There were 409 rhinos counted nationally that year.
Over those 25 days, I counted a total of 10 rhinos. I was absolutely thrilled having experienced the ups and downs of the rhino count.
Onward and upward
Back at my desk, I sit and contemplate the figures. There’s something about watching the rhino numbers steadily grow to 752 today — close to double the numbers since my first rhino count 16 years ago — that brings me immense joy and satisfaction.
Good protection efforts also resulted in 365 days of zero poaching of rhinos on seven occasions between 2010 and 2021.
While government efforts have played a critical role in this, local communities living in buffer zones deserve an equal share of the credit. Communities are active users of buffer zone forests, also inhabited by rhinos. Community-based initiatives such as management of negative human wildlife interactions, forest management and supporting protection efforts underpin the success of rhino conservation in Nepal.
The rhino count isn’t just about the number. It reflects the effectiveness of conservation measures and shapes strategies for effective rhino conservation in the future.
While rhino numbers have increased, it should be noted that growth rates have recorded a downturn. Furthermore, rhino distribution data indicates its concentration in the western part of Chitwan National Park — another troublesome sign — which many believe is due to dryness of habitat conditions in the eastern part of the park. Efforts to tackle these issues therefore need to be prioritized.
While the rhino count has always had a risk factor with a few cases of injury, 2021 was the first year when a life was also lost to a tiger during the count. After seven National Rhino Counts conducted using the same methodology, it is time to consider alternative methods.
Genetic sampling using rhino dung is one viable proposition. Another option, yet to be piloted, is the use of thermal imaging cameras on drones, that capture heat signatures of the rhinos, detectable even under canopy cover and tall grasslands.
With the next rhino count scheduled for 2025, I am confident that Nepal will leverage the increasingly available alternative technologies while maintaining the legacy of rhino count.
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