The greater one-horned rhino (rhinoceros unicornis), inhabiting the alluvial grasslands of riverine forests and flood plains is a natural survivor from some other family sub-species that have become extinct. It is a charismatic large wild animal that has remained a major tourist attraction of the Chitwan valley. This is also one of the species that was heading towards extinction in Nepal in the Sixties. Bringing them back to population recovery through habitat conservation and poaching ban was one of the priority objectives of the historic conservation initiatives in the early Seventies. The move resulting in the establishment of the Chitwan National Park, the first protected area of the country. More than 45 years on, this significant wildlife sanctuary of Nepal has witnessed both successes and setbacks in terms of rhino conservation.
In the latest tiding, four rhinos were found dead in Chitwan National Park. According to the park officials, these rhino deaths happened over the past two months. In chronological order, each of these animals died on August 28, September 22, October 16 and October 26. If we look into larger picture, these fatal incidents are but a continuation of a series of deaths in the past few years. In late June, this daily reported that 45 rhinos had died in Chitwan and elsewhere within the past year. All these deaths were described by government officials as natural. The victims included young and adults; male and female. But how can we dismiss all these deaths as natural? Conservation success has increased the number of Nepal’s rhinos to as many as 645. But on the other hand, the habitat areas have not increased to accommodate the growing population of these animals.
The migration of people from hills to the Chitwan valley is growing continuously. Thus the human encroachment on wildlife habitat is going on. The forest lands are shrinking or being fragmented with the construction of roads and embankments. Building of additional development infrastructure such as airports and railways are in the offing. If environmental sensitivities are not taken into serious consideration, these projects might further fragment and shrink the existing wildlife habitat. Due to habitat shrinking and lack of food for the animals in the wild, human-wildlife conflicts are already happening. As a result, lives are lost on both sides. Such a conflict for territory is taking place within the same species as well. For instance, a large number of male rhinos were killed in fighting. The reason is obviously territorial.
Following the deaths of dozens of rhinos, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation formed an expert taskforce to study and examine the causes of rhino deaths that do not involve poaching. But obviously, the deaths have something to do with the health of habitats which are too congested to allow the animals to lead a fully natural life. This might be the reason why herds of wild elephants destroy houses, kill people and damage crops. Rhinos also come face to face with people, which sometimes results in human deaths. Man’s retaliatory attacks also results in rhino deaths. The same may be the case with tiger which is also a territorial animal living under the stress of shrunken habitat. Until the problem of shrunken habitat is addressed, the rhino deaths, which are improperly called natural, will not come to a stop.