The world has successfully brought the greater one-horned rhinoceros back from the brink of extinction and ensured it now has a stable and growing population of over 3,500 individuals. That is the topic of a recent Mongabay article telling the story of the rhino’s conservation in Nepal, which has involved everything from the deployment of 1,500 national troops to protect conservation areas to the direct involvement of local communities in nature tourism, habitat and wildlife management and protection against poachers (which has been crucial to the rhino’s success). The greater one-horned rhino was once nearly extinct, with less than 50 individuals left in India by 1910, but through a combination of efforts the rhino’s population has now been restored to over 3,500 in several locations in India and Nepal (and conservationists are hoping to restore its population to several thousand in Nepal alone). This is a powerful story of how, when the efforts of governments and local communities converge, anything is possible — and how local communities are key to ensuring the rhino’s future.
The Greater One-Horned Rhino
The greater one-horned rhino, or Rhinoceros unicornis, is the largest living rhinoceros species today, with a folded plate armor-resembling hide and a single black horn extending 8 to 25 inches. It is a semi-aquatic species that lives in grasslands and forests adjacent to rivers, and these rhinos once ranged from northwest Myanmar across northern India to Pakistan’s Indus Valley. However, habitat destruction due to conversion of grasslands for agriculture and hunting by European hunters and local farmers forced the species to the edge of extinction by the early 1900’s.
The story of the rhino in Nepal is quite unique and you should read the article to find out more about it. However, the rhinos co-existed with the indigenous Tharu in the foothills of the Himalayas until the 1970’s, when the government eradicated malaria in the region and a mass wave of human settlers entered (leading to destruction of the environment and a decline in the rhino’s population).
Conservation Strategies: From National Troops to a Community-Managed Buffer Zone
In 1973 Nepal’s King Mahendra created Chitwan National Park, an area of key rhino habitat and now Nepal’s largest national park at 359.8 mi², and soon thereafter he replaced the local rhino patrols with 1,500 national army troops to ward off poachers. Unfortunately, as the government expanded the park it also forced 20,000 villagers off their land and resettled them outside the park’s borders. Thus, conservation of the one-horned rhino basically followed a traditional Western, top-down approach relying heavily on military power. This approach also mirrors that of India’s Kaziranga Park (which holds the largest population of one-horned rhinos in the world—over 2,400), where rangers basically follow a shoot-to-kill policy and the government has evicted local communities.
Under this militarized strategy the rhino population grew from under 100 in Nepal in 1970 to almost 550 by 2000. However, the top-down conservation model was basically unsustainable in the long term, because local communities were not seeing enough benefits from the park or getting a say in the park’s management or the region’s development. To make matters worse, there were also security issues and during Nepal’s Maoist Insurgency from 1996 to 2006 Chitwan National Park lost a third of its rhino population (around 200 animals) due to poaching.
Starting in the 1990’s, the government and partners created an unfenced buffer zone around the park, which allowed human settlement. Under a new legal framework, the buffer zone allowed community forestry — i.e. management of the habitat and wildlife by the communities — and the communities were legally allowed to harvest a limited amount of products from the forest. The communities also began to be represented by a group of community forest user committees, which basically means the communities have a direct say in which resources they harvest, how much they charge (to themselves) and they manage the protection, use and patrolling of the buffer zone habitat. As a result of this arrangement, not only has the rhino population recovered to 600 but the widespread deforestation in and around Chitwan Park has greatly diminished.
Above: Greater one horned rhino calf. The one-horned rhino has a relatively long 16-month gestation period and three year intervals between births, which makes its comeback even more remarkable. It also a reason why it is so important to protect this species from poaching. Photo by Steve Wilson and copyrighted under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0 license).
Creation of the buffer zone opened up a host of opportunities, as tourists who want a more in-depth cultural experience can now stay in villagers’ homestays and go on multi-day walking safaris with local guides. A law in 1995 also required that 50% of all revenue from Chitwan National Park go to buffer zone community funds for local development projects like schools, health clinics, water projects, and biogas. All of this has resulted in the near elimination of rhino poaching in Nepal since 2011. It is also quite similar to the model of community involvement and community management of forests at India’s Jaldapara National Park, which has resulted in a large reduction in poaching of rhinos due to local communities acting as the “eyes and ears” of the forest — i.e. providing precious intelligence and helping keep out poachers.
Conservation of the one-horned rhinos is not an “either or” story. The government did not move from completely relying on military force to cooperating with local communities — it does both now — and it is not a story of either environmental protection or development. Rather, it is a story of involving an ever larger circle of people (and habitat) in the conservation process and of attempting to bridge the divide between government and communities. The government now sees that the communities are an essential key to unlocking the success of the rhinos, the park and the entire region.
In reality though, the current conservation model does not really represent effective decision-making by the indigenous people. The indigenous communities around the park have always had a very strong conservation ethic concerning the rhinos, which is why they were willing to contribute to the rhino’s conservation even while it involved (temporarily) limiting some of their rights and powers. However, at the same time as protecting the rhinos they are now focusing on how to improve the system and ensure they are treated more fairly. For instance, the Tharus currently have very low representation on the buffer zone management committee and there are few local businesses (e.g. hotels) that are run by indigenous people. Therefore, indigenous leaders are pushing for social and institutional changes and it is very important they are listened to.
It is clear that the well-being of the one-horned rhino is tied closely to the inclusion and well-being of local communities. It is also clear that the future of the rhino depends on the work of these communities, and we should do all we can to respect and fulfill their rights and decision-making power in order to ensure a fair, balanced and sustainable ecosystem for humans and rhinos.