The one-horned rhino has become a part of our national identity. Primarily found in the Indian state of Assam and the Tarai plains of Nepal, Rhinoceros unicornis is a truly majestic creature. There are 3,000 believed to be left in the wild, and around 550 are in Nepal. Back in 1960, the rhino population in Nepal was estimated to be 800, which had plummeted to 100 by 1973 due to rampant poaching and hunting. That was the year the Chitwan National Park was established with the specific purpose of protecting this endangered species. The conservation effort proved wildly successful and today there are five times more rhinos than there were in 1973. But it has been far from plain sailing. The decade-long insurgency had threatened to undo all the gains from targeted conservation efforts. In 10 years, 143 rhinos were lost from the wild. Due to growing security threat, the security personnel started fortifying their base camps inside the national parks and wildlife reserves, leaving huge tracks open for poachers. There were also reports of security personnel themselves abetting poachers for a share of the profit. But as human security was the main concern at the time, growing wildlife poaching was conveniently overlooked.
The rapid decline in poaching (and not just rhino poaching) since 2006 can primarily be attributed to the post-war peace dividend. After the emergence of the Maoists from hiding, the security personnel again started patrolling whole jungles, making it difficult for poachers to make an easy kill. Help was also sought from locals living around the national parks to report on any suspicious activities. Anti-poaching mechanisms were strengthened and robust laws enacted; coordination between wildlife and security officials and the conservation community improved as well. As a result, in last one year alone, 37 people allegedly involved in rhino poaching have been arrested, including kingpins like Raj Kumar Praja and Prem Mahato. This has undoubtedly deterred other would-be poachers. The results have been truly astounding. In the last one year, not a single rhino was killed. In the last three, only two or three have been lost to poaching.
The conservation officials are in a jubilant mood, as they should be. But they also believe the job is only half done. Even now, around 350 people charged with killing wild animals including rhinos still walk free. So far the law enforcement authorities have not been able to track them. This is not surprising. The details on many of them are sketchy and they constantly shift their base to evade capture. Unless a better mechanism is developed to track their whereabouts, they will be hard to catch. At present, it is not clear what such a mechanism would comprise. But whatever else is being done to protect our invaluable wildlife is clearly working. If the high level of vigilance is maintained, the poachers would be dissuaded from taking a chance. For those few who do, the chances of their capture will be high. The successful conservation of one-horned rhino is something worth celebrating. So is the fact that at least some of our public officials are doing their job well.