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Nepal's bold moves have Rhino poachers running scared

A greater one-horned rhinoceros pauses among the grasslands of Kaziranga National Park, in northeast India, home to the largest population of the species. (Photo by Denis Gray)

CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK, Nepal As morning mists sweep the jungles of this wondrous wildlife sanctuary, visitors mounted atop elephants will almost always encounter a 50-million-year-old species, thriving here but lumbering toward extinction elsewhere in the world; an animal with an ancient curse on its head: the rhinoceros.

Madhav Khadka, who has 16 years of anti-poaching experience, is key to the WWF's support of Nepal's wildlife conservation efforts. (Photo by Denis Gray)

Slaughtered wholesale in Africa and trafficked by international criminal syndicates, rhinos are under threat in almost all their habitats. But numbers have grown dramatically in this Himalayan nation. Indeed, Nepal has notched up an astounding record: Only three rhinos have been poached over the past five years, and not a single one since May 2014. More than 1,300 rhinos were taken by poachers across Africa last year.

Nepal's achievement would be remarkable by any measure, but it is especially notable since the country faces three challenges that invariably prove deadly to wildlife conservation: It is exceedingly poor; it is plagued with corruption; and it lies next to China, unquestionably the world's largest consumer of wildlife.

A plea on behalf of the globally endangered animal is prominently displayed in Sauraha, the main tourist gateway to Chitwan National Park. (Photo by Denis Gray)

Although the creature is hardly a beauty contest winner, Nepalis have proudly elevated the rhinoceros unicornis to a national icon, along with Mount Everest. It even appears on the 100 rupee banknote.

But winning the rhino war does not come easily, given that the animal's horn -- highly prized in Chinese traditional medicine -- can fetch close to $100,000 per kilogram, which makes it far more valuable than diamonds, gold or cocaine. Fourteen members of the "Dead Zoo Gang," based in Ireland, were convicted in February of stealing rhino horns from museums and collections across Europe. Nepal's success story is attributed to an array of converging factors, but conservation officials say the pivotal reason is a pairing of tough, intensive anti-poaching measures with efforts to convince villagers in rhino country that their incomes and lifestyles would be improved by helping to preserve wildlife and its habitat.

Both steps are clearly evident at Chitwan, once a hunting preserve for Nepalese kings and foreign VIPs (one British party bagged 120 tigers and 38 rhinos during a shoot in the 1930s). Now, it is a haven for nearly 800 animal species ranging from tigers to gharial crocodiles, whose snouts jut above the waterline as an elephant safari -- a popular way of wildlife viewing -- fords a shallow stream. Further on, a pair of foxes is roused from its lair, peacocks shriek and monkeys chatter. A stately sambar deer peers shyly through the forest cover.

The rhino is a major Nepali icon, featuring on its 100 rupee note and used to brand everything from restaurants to banks. (Photo by Denis Gray)

But Chitwan's pride and glory is the greater one-horned rhino -- 605 of them, according to last year's count, compared with about 100 in the 1960s, when the species was nearing local extinction. Today, Chitwan and Kaziranga National Park in northeast India, where 2,400 roam, stand as the last bastions of this primeval creature, one of five extant rhino species.

SUPER-SNIFFERS Chitwan is as highly protected as any strategic military base. Nurendra Aryal, the deputy warden, told the Nikkei Asian Review that more than 1,000 Nepalese soldiers guard the reserve around the clock, reinforced by 150 park employees and four sniffer dogs (including two Belgian Malinois, the breed used in the 2011 U.S. raid to capture Osama bin Laden).

Over 50 guard posts are embedded within the 932-sq.-km sanctuary, providing bases from which foot and bicycle patrols are launched. The rangers are armed with software that links their mobile telephones to computers at park headquarters where their location and activity can be monitored and analyzed. Drones have also been introduced, and Google Glass, the head-mounted optical display, is being tested.

Chitwan National Park was established in 1973 as Nepal's first wildlife sanctuary in an area where royals and their guests once hunted rhinos and tigers. (Photo by Denis Gray)

"Boots on the ground and eyes on the screen," said Madhav Khadka, who monitors wildlife trade for the World Wide Fund for Nature in Nepal. But Aryal asserts that "human intelligence is best," trumping modern technology to keep one step ahead of the savvy and well-armed poachers. This intelligence is often supplied by villagers on the park's periphery.

Initially, he said, most regarded the park as an enemy depriving them of forest resources and land for their cattle to graze on. But attitudes have changed. "Villagers came to realize that when rhinos are conserved, tourists will come and they will make money," Aryal said. "There is still some conflict, but the communities are slowly developing the idea of ownership, some faster than others."

Now, 50% of the park's revenue is funneled into the surrounding villages, where local committees -- not park officials -- decide how to disperse the funds. Projects range from constructing schools and providing drinking water to training young women as hairstylists and putting up electric fences to stop wild animals from raiding crops.

In the village of Amaltari, which earns substantial income from its 25 homestay arrangements, residents carry out patrols and night ambushes to protect a park buffer zone where 30 rhinos make their home. "Our success has been an integrated effort -- from local people to the prime minister," said Khadka, who has built up considerable experience in anti-poaching work.

Tourists sight a rhino in the morning mist at Kaziranga National Park, where tough anti-poaching measures have dramatically increased the animal's numbers. (Photo by Denis Gray)

The National Tiger Conservation Committee, which protects all wildlife, and other high-level agencies have exhibited political will, effective coordination and an ability to cut through the bureaucratic maze -- all rare in Nepal's chaotic, politicized and sometimes corrupt government apparatus.

Officials and foreign experts are sometimes puzzled why corruption has not also seeped into conservation but agree that it is negligible. "We have to admit there is general corruption in Nepal, but we are proud that in national parks we practice good governance, transparency and rule of law. Nobody is excused. There is no compromise," said Aryal, an 18-year veteran of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation.

"BAD GUYS GO TO JAIL" At the enforcement level, the Central Investigation Bureau, Nepal's equivalent to the U.S. FBI, has added wildlife crime to its mandate. "They knocked out several layers, from the guys who shoot the rhino to the one buying it and trafficking it to China," said the WWF's Christy Williams, a key supporter of Nepal's conservation efforts. Park chiefs, he said, also have legal powers seldom permitted in other countries, including the ability to imprison offenders for up to 10 years so that "lots of bad guys go to jail very quickly, unlike India, where some die before their cases go to court." Earlier this year, more than 50 poachers were netted in a sweep code-named "Operation Wild Eagle."

In many Asian countries, it is the "little fish" who tend to be caught, while the bosses evade the law through influence and bribery. Nepal, however, has put its once most-wanted trafficker behind bars. "One day the park will catch me," poaching ringleader Rajkumar Praja was reported saying as he cleverly evaded capture -- until January 2015, when he was seized in Kuala Lumpur with the help of Malaysian authorities and Interpol, the international police organization. He is serving the maximum sentence of 15 years in a Kathmandu jail, his gang having poached 20 rhinos in Chitwan.

Despite such successes, threats to this endangered megafauna will remain unless Chinese and other Asians are persuaded that rhino horn merely consists of keratin, the main component of fingernails and hair, and is not, as some think, a cure for everything from headaches to cancer. More than a dozen wildlife trafficking trails run from the porous border with India to China.

Around Chitwan, intense pressure on the land, caused by a mushrooming population, is degrading vital buffer zones. Pollution, overfishing and dam construction threaten the park, as does a proposed railway line that would run through it. The poachers also remain in the shadows, waiting to exploit any chink in Nepal's armor, although wildlife officials say they are being held at bay at the moment.

"If Africa really tightens up, you can bet that poaching will swing back to Asia," said Williams, a specialist in large mammals. "Criminals will always be willing to take the risk."

In a more optimistic vein, Williams recalled the dark days of Nepal's decadelong civil war, when wildlife was being slaughtered. "Donors used to tell me: 'Nepal is going down the drain. Why are we there?' I said: 'We can't give up.' But at that time I couldn't envision that one day Nepal would have zero poaching."

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