‘Habitat loss major threat to rhino conservation’

Protected areas continue to suffer from human encroachment and grazing by domestic livestock is causing serious damage

Kathmandu, January 29

A recently published report on rhino conservation in Nepal, India, and Bhutan showed that habitat loss and poaching are emerging as major threats to rhino conservation.

WWF Nepal had recently published a report titled ‘The Greater one-horned Rhino: Past, Present, and Future 2016’. According to the report, habitat destruction is the main threat to rhinos, followed by poaching.

Protected areas and buffer zones continue to suffer from human encroachment, and grazing by domestic livestock is causing serious damage in some localities. Alien plant species are also invading some of the grasslands on which the rhinos depend, dominating and destroying indigenous vegetation.

The report says specific details vary across different population centres, but the overall effects are clearly damaging. “In Chitwan Natoinal Park of Nepal for example, the grassland has reduced from 20 per cent to 4.7 per cent of the park. Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary of Assam, India has seen woodland increase by almost 35 per cent since 1977, alongside a 68 per cent decline in alluvial grassland,” it mentioned further.

The report said unlike poaching, where the discovery of a horn-less corpse is an unarguable indicator, it is hard to quantify the damage caused to rhino population by habitat change and destruction. Many factors affect life expectancy, reproductive rates and so on, and need addressing in different ways but detailed zoological studies show that there is a definite correlation between a decline in the quality of habitat and a threat to population numbers.

Similarly, the report said poaching is a constant menace in all areas where rhinos are found. The rhino horn is a highly prized (though now outlawed) ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. “More recently it’s gained a  totally unfounded reputation as a cancer treatment, as well as an aphrodisiac and a hangover cure. Demand has soared, particularly in Vietnam, and criminal gangs can make fortunes illegally selling it on the Asian market,” it added, “Poachers themselves will only see a fraction of the profits but to many desperately poor people, it’s a risk worth taking.”

This growing demand has fuelled a poaching crisis in Africa and South Africa, where the number of rhinos killed by poachers jumped from 13 in 2007 to 1,175 in 2015. The report appreciated the commitment of anti-poaching of Nepal and India both.

“Thanks to the bravery and commitment of anti-poaching teams, backed up by strong government and donor support and good relationships with local communities, poaching of rhinos in India and Nepal has largely been kept under control,” the report said further, “Nepal, for example, has achieved zero poaching for four years since 2011. But as long as demand for rhino horn persists in nearby consumer countries, poaching will remain a threat, and constant vigilance is needed. The concentration of rhinos in just a few areas makes them particularly vulnerable to poachers and the organised crime syndicates that run the trade.”

Greater one-horned, or Indian, rhinoceros once roamed from Pakistan to the Indo-Burmese border, and in parts of Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. But by the beginning of the 20th century, hunting and habitat loss had reduced the species to fewer than 200 individuals in northern India and Nepal.