Murder in the Storm: Rhino Poached in Nepal
Storm clouds had been gathering over Chitwan National Park on Friday. By nightfall, the tropical forest in Nepal’s south central region bordering India was aglow in lightening. Rolling thunder followed, like artillery, well into the night. At some point after 8PM, a gunshot was fired in the park’s vicinity. The park authorities never heard it.
On Saturday, morning birds continue to dart through the forest under a grey sky, their songs creating an endless chorus. The spring air is thicker and warmer. Even when overcast.
In Nepal’s first national park: Chitwan National Park (CNP), the morning routine has included wildlife elephant safaris for royal and aristocratic hunters through the mid-20th Century, and tourists and conservationists since the 1970s. Around 6:30AM, one such group of tourists on elephant back with their guide waded their way through thick elephant grass, named so for its height, in Hariyali Belhatta Community Forest, about 200 metres from the park’s core area. It is natural to find rhinos resting along the Rapti river in the mornings and evenings, and the group had hoped for the same. As they approached the river, it became clear to the elephant mahout they had stumbled onto an international crime scene instead. The patch of green grass, still moist from the previous night’s storm, was blotted in dark red. Around it, a rare greater one-horned rhino lay motionless on its right side. The magnificent animal’s body looked unscathed, but its butchered face was soaked in blood. It’s horn, stolen. Since 7AM yesterday, when the National Park Warden was alerted, officials from the National Park and Central Investigation Bureau’s Wildlife Crime Unit (CIB) have been on the scene investigating.
Ram Chandra Kandel, Chief Conservation Officer, CNP
The rhino was found shot dead in the head with its horn brutally removed from the base with an axe. The male rhino was 12 years old.
“They took advantage of the situation where authorities, including park staff and security personnel, were busy with rhino translocation,” he added. In the last week, four rhinos have been translocated from Chitwan to Shuklaphanta National Park. The process requires substantial manpower.
This would not be the first time poachers have taken advantage of Park officials being stationed elsewhere. During the Maoist insurgency (1996-2006), particularly the latter half, when the army from national parks had to be deployed to various areas, poachers killed around 200 rhinos. Part of the post-conflict peace dividend has been the restoration of security in Nepal’s national parks. Chitwan is home to 605 of the 645 rhinos recorded in the country in 2015.
Chitwan itself celebrated its first Zero Rhino Poaching Year in 2011. It has not even been three months since the world celebrated Zero Rhino Poaching in Nepal. “This case comes at a time when we are gaining some positive momentum in rhino conservation through coordinated efforts, with all concerned conservation partners and community,” said Kandel.
“We are seeing rhinos targeted more frequently outside protected areas, such as in community forests. This presents a fresh challenge to authorities,” he added with concern. “It is time to realise the need to strengthen and expand our efforts outside the core protected areas for effective surveillance and protection.”
In August last year, an adult male rhino from CNP succumbed to bullet injuries at Gaindakot in Rautahat district. There were six bullet wounds spread across his head, neck, and abdomen. A CIB investigation concluded the rhino was not killed by professional poachers.
Increased use of guns by traffickers in Nepal is a real concern. “Poachers have become technologically advanced. This makes fight against wildlife crime more challenging,” said Pravin Pokhrel, Chief of Wildlife Crime Unit, CIB.
The brazen and precise nature of the crime is worrying. CIB has sent the bullet they discovered in Friday night’s poaching in Chitwan for forensic analysis to confirm the type of firearm used to kill the rhino. The only thing certain for now is that the poachers slipped in and out, shielded by the darkness of a stormy night, leaving behind a brutal reminder that winning the fight against wildlife crime is far from over.