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THE CASE OF THE RESURGENT RHINO

The former Kingdom of Nepal rarely makes the news, unless it experiences a particularly horrific earthquake, as in 2015, or one member of the royal family organizes the massacre of the rest, as happened in 2001.

Last month, however, Nepal made it into the pages of The Economist with a piece of indisputable good news (tempered by a footnote that could be argued either way).  The good news is that the country’s population of greater one-horned rhinos has grown to 752, adding 107 animals in the last five years.  As well, there are signs of an imminent rhino baby-boom due to the dearth of tourists during the pandemic lockdown.  Apparently, greater one-horned rhinos are very shy with tourists around.

The population numbers were taken during a country-wide census, carried out by game rangers on elephant-back.  The questionable footnote was the discovery that one rhino had been killed by a tiger, which can be interpreted either way.  Undoubtedly bad news for the rhino, but the fact that it was a tiger, another critically endangered species, is definitely positive.

The greater one-horned rhino has been in dire straits for a long time.  Found only in Nepal and north-eastern India, at the turn of the 20th century there were only 200 animals left in the world.  In Nepal, the greatest concentration is in Chitwan National Park.  Another 3,000 or so survive in India, and the World Wildlife Fund calls their resurgence one of Southeast Asia’s greatest conservation successes.

Nepal is very serious about protecting its wildlife and carries out vigorous anti-poaching operations.  Since its game rangers are drawn from the same population that supplies soldiers for the British and Indian Armies’ Gurkha regiments — and, it’s believed, many rangers are retired Gurkhas — it would be a foolhardy poacher who would attempt to kill a Nepalese rhino or, for that matter, a Nepalese tiger.

The experience of the pandemic may cause the Nepalese to change their policies regarding tourists in their national parks.  Local rhino experts told The Economist they had noticed a decided change in rhino behaviour.  Normally “timorous” creatures, they now “roam widely” and are reported to “seem happier and more relaxed.”

There do not seem to be any recent tiger population figures, and one should not read too much into the killing of one rhino by one tiger, but historically Nepal’s tiger population has been closely tied to that of India.

The Champawat Maneater, which Jim Corbett killed in 1907, immigrated from Nepal.  By 1902, she was an established maneater who had killed more than 200 people before the Nepalese hill people mounted a massive drive and pushed her over the border into Kumaon.  She established herself in a river valley about 45 miles from Corbett’s family home in Naini Tal, and over the next four years killed another 200 people.  By the time Corbett took on the task of hunting her, she was killing an average of one person every three days.

Today, Jim Corbett National Park, which contains India’s highest concentration of wild tigers, is on one side of the border and Nepal’s Chitwan is on the other side, about 200 miles to the east.

The history that entangles India, Nepal, Corbett’s family, the Gurkhas, and of course, the tigers, stretches back 220 years.  After a brief series of wars (1814-16) between Nepal and the British East India Company, a treaty was signed that has lasted to this day.  One curious clause gave the British the right to recruit Nepalese men for special “Gurkha” units.  In fact, in his history The Gurkhas, Byron Farwell says the British could “hardly wait for the war to end, so they could recruit” their erstwhile enemies.  He describes the relationship as “a love affair,” and that pretty much describes it.

Since 1969, the Gurkha Welfare Trust, a British charity, has collected funds to help ex-Gurkhas and their dependents in the hills of Nepal.  This is one way, if an indirect one, to support the efforts of the game rangers in Chitwan National Park.–Terry Wieland

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