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Nepal stops impending disappearance of tiger, rhino species

By Pramod Raj Sedhain   |   Sept. 27, 2013 at 4:12 PM   |   Comments

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Nepal has halted the near-imminent disappearance of two of the subcontinent's most vulnerable species -- the Bengal tiger and the one-horned rhinoceros -- and recorded an increase in their populations, government conservation authorities say.

Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation Tek Bahadur Thapa Gharti told UPI Next last month there are now 198 adult tigers in Nepal's wild and 534 one-horned rhinoceroses, based on the most recent counts.

"The increase of endangered species clearly indicates Nepal's success. Endangered one-horned rhinos and tigers are our natural wealth. We remain committed to ensuring our achievement," Megh Bahadur Pandey, director-general of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, told UPI Next.

The tiger figure comes from this year's first joint Indian-Nepalese government tiger survey and represents a high since Nepal began counting the big cats in the early 1970s. The population in Nepal was 121 in 2009, 126 in 2005, 109 in 2000 and 98 in 1998, National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Department data shows.

The five-month survey began in February and assessed the Bengal tiger population across a 600-mile stretch of Nepalese and Indian territory. About 500 cameras were placed in five protected areas and three wildlife corridors, and 250 wildlife experts were involved in the tiger census. Survey results were released by the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Department in July.

Forest and Soil Conservation Minister Tek Bahadur Thapa Gharti credited Nepal's zero-tolerance approach to wildlife poaching for the tiger increase.

"There have been no instances of poaching since January 2011," Gharti told UPI Next.

The tigers are found on Nepal's southern plains in the Terai Arc, a swath of forest land covering 600 miles of 15 protected area networks in Nepal and India.

Kathmandu aims to double the number of wild tigers in Nepal by 2022, Garthi said.

The global conservation group World Wildlife Fund says there are a total of 3,200 tigers in the world, compared with more than 100,000 a century ago.

The attainment of a population of 534 rhinoceroses also is linked to anti-poaching measures in recent years.

Poaching was rampant in Nepal's forests during the 1996-2006 Maoist insurgency as soldiers were occupied with anti-insurgency operations, sending the one-horned rhinoceros population into decline, Pandey said. The rhino numbers dwindled from 544 in 2000 to 372 in 2005 and 435 in 2008, observers conducting surveys for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation estimated.

A raft of new anti-poaching measures implemented since the insurgency have seen elephant patrols by soldiers, drones and local villagers deployed to protect the endangered species.

By 2011, the rhinos’ numbers were back up to, and beyond, 2000 levels, reaching an estimated 534.

"Law enforcement, active participation of local villagers and security deployment have played a vital role in the endangered species conservation effort," Maheswar Dhakal, a wildlife department ecologist, told UPI Next.

The government deployed 6,778 security personnel, including 12 army battalions and security firms, to protect the rhinoceroses.

In 2002, about 37 were killed by poachers, triggering grave concern over the rhinoceroses' future, Pandey said.

Nepal's Chitwan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 100 miles south of Kathmandu, is a major habitat of both endangered species, home to an estimated 408 rhinoceroses and 147 of the 198 tigers.

About 1,000 soldiers are now deployed across Chitwan, charged with regularly patrolling its protected forests to ward off poachers. Some teams patrol on foot, some on elephants and some use speedboats on the rivers and canals crisscrossing the park.

"We have succeeded in protecting the endangered species since we have enhanced our intelligence," Brig. Gen. Suresh Sharma, a Nepalese army spokesman, told UPI Next.

"We have re-deployed soldiers inside the park by coordinating with other security agencies and the local community. We have also used new technology.”

The Nepalese army uses small unmanned aircraft with cameras to fly over large areas of Bardia National Park, about 230 miles southwest of Kathmandu. There are 30 guard posts in that park, while park rangers and a unit of 15 soldiers conduct daily anti-poaching patrols. Police are also deployed along highways.

"We arrested a number of fugitive poachers through our surveillance of suspected anti-poaching and anti-trafficking areas," said Deputy Inspector-General Nawaraj Silwal, a Nepal Police spokesman.

"Most of the sharpshooters [working with poachers] are villagers," Silwal told UPI Next.

Silwal said villagers' involvement in the conservation effort has been mutually beneficial.

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