Adult rhino © WWF-Nepal / Samir Jung Thapa

Adult rhino © WWF-Nepal / Samir Jung Thapa

The diary of a rhino researcher

22 Sep 2021

Keywords
  • rhinoceros

Kanchan Thapa, PhD, Head of Wildlife Programs, WWF-Nepal

Kanchan Thapa and Santosh Dai © Kanchan Thapa / WWF-Nepal

Hi! I’m Kanchan, a wildlife conservationist. Here's a glimpse of my first rhino count, back in 2005!

 

Starting out as a young and green wildlife enthusiast in 2003 at the tender age of 27, Kanchan Thapa is now the head of wildlife programs at WWF Nepal. Throughout his 18-year conservation career, Kanchan has worked with over 24 wildlife species in Nepal, focusing primarily on tigers, rhinos, and snow leopards. From his first tiger survey in Shuklaphanta in 2004, to designing the country’s first tiger monitoring protocol in 2008, and later undertaking the country’s first non-invasive genetic survey of tiger populations, Kanchan’s conservation experience ranges across the spectrum.


While he’s always had an affinity for tigers, the rhino remains close to his heart; his first professional assignment being the monitoring of a radio-collared rhino in Babai Valley in 2003.


Here’s a recount of Kanchan reminiscing about his first rhino count, as Nepal announces its latest rhino numbers in April 2021.

 


 

OLD STOMPING GROUNDS

It was just an ordinary day at work. I was seated at my office desk reviewing video footage of the 2021 rhino count.

 

As soon as I hit play, I was greeted by the sounds of a shrill whistle blowing against the wind, and the sounds of Bishnu Lama calling out “Number 16, Number 16!”.

 

The sights and sounds immediately transported me to another time and place—about 15 odd years ago, and to my first rhino count.

 

It was March 21, 2005, just three days after the rhino count had kicked off in the easternmost boundary of Chitwan National Park. It was 8:00 am, and there I was on elephant back, as Dipendra Gaj the elephant, manoeuvred the misty and humid forests of Barandabhar Corridor, Chitwan National Park.

 

Our team was christened “Number 32”—a number akin to my identity over the next 21 days. I am frequently called by this number for the rest of the expedition. To my left is “Number 33”, and to my right “Number 31”. Each team consists of an enumerator, a mahout, and the elephant.

 

Rhino count team in Bardia National Park along Babai Valley © Kanchan Thapa / WWF-Nepal

Rhino count team in Bardia National Park along Babai Valley

 

Rhino count team lined up to begin the National Rhino Count in 2008 © Kanchan Thapa / WWF-Nepal

Rhino count team lined up to begin the National Rhino Count in 2008

 

While I’ve been a part of over five national rhino counts since then, the technique, process, and duration remain the same—direct observer method, with individual rhinos counted by enumerators on elephant back, over a one-month period as teams systematically comb through rhino habitat blocks. These habitat blocks include marshy floodplain grasslands and riverine forests—the preferred habitat type for rhinos—as well as Sal forests.

 

Slowly but surely, we make our way through the tall grasslands that grow as high as seven meters, popularly known as elephant grass. Suddenly my walkie-talkie beeps in “No. 32, Roger, this is No. 33”.

 

I am caught completely off guard; this being my very first rhino count, and I fumble with the walkie-talkie as I respond, “Yes No 33, Roger”.

 

It was captain of the rhino count field team, Madhav Khadka, at the time a government employee posted in Chitwan National Park and today a close colleague at WWF-Nepal.

 

“A rhino is headed in your direction, please check and note the animal description, over” his voice crackles through the connection.

 

It was an adult male rhino, two meters tall with a prehistoric-looking grey body, armour plated skin, and a hooked horn, standing just 10 meters away. I noted its features along with the date and time.

 

My first rhino counted in my maiden rhino count.

 

Unable to discern the gender of the rhino from a distance, I checked with the mahout, relying on his experience.

 

Captain of the rhino count field team, Madhav Khadka directing enumerators on the process and rhino count line-up © Kanchan Thapa / WWF-Nepal

Captain of the rhino count field team, Madhav Khadka, directing enumerators on the process and rhino count line-up

 

Left - Midterm review of the rhino count in Sukhibar Post in Chitwan National Park. Right - Then Chief Warden of Chitwan National Park Mr. Megh Bahadur Pandey, addressing journalists and team members during the final dissemination of rhino count data at Nagar Ban © Kanchan Thapa / WWF-Nepal

Enumerators on elephant back keeping a lookout for rhinos in 2021

 

To avoid double counting, the team ensures that the counted rhinos move behind the monitoring line. Throughout the process, teams continually shout out their adjacent team numbers to avoid any gaps in the elephant line and ensure that no rhino is missed in the count.

 

I was a bit sceptical of the method initially. After all, wasn't there always a chance that a counted rhino from one block could move to the adjacent block the next day?

 

Dr. Narendra Man Babu Pradhan, Former Ecologist, Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation was happy to explain to me “There are always assumptions that we have to make during the count, for instance what comes in is equal to what goes out. While there’s always a possibility that animals counted today may move into the next un-surveyed block, there is also an equal probability that rhinos from an un-surveyed block may move into surveyed blocks.”

 

RETURNING TO BASE

By 11:30 am we’d reached our next camp—Khorsor at the southern end of the Barandabhar corridor—marking the end of the count for the day. As wildlife are most active in the early mornings and evenings, the count usually begins in the morning. I had counted three rhinos, whereas the entire team comprising of 33 enumerators counted a total of 15 rhinos in the corridor on that day. The rhino count would resume early next morning, finish at mid-day every day to avoid elephant fatigue.

 

As per protocol a veterinarian undertakes a daily inspection of the elephant’s health and fitness, while other members engage in logistics for the next day. A bulk of this time is allotted to establish the temporary camp and prepare meals for close to 200 people.

 

Left - Experts identity potential habitat blocks for the rhino count. Middle - Walkie Talkies being recharged after the team returns to camp. Right - Logistics team packed up to move to the next camp for the day © Kanchan Thapa / WWF-Nepal

Left: Experts identity potential habitat blocks for the rhino count | Middle: Walkie Talkies being recharged after the team returns to camp | Right: Logistics team packed up to move to the next camp for the day

 

Just before dinner begins, I attend the evening debrief along with the rest of the enumerators, to review the day and discuss the line-up and location details for the next day. I clearly remember being reprimanded by the captain of the rhino count field team for temporarily dozing off on elephant back, just like it was yesterday. Since then, I’ve remained cautious and vigilant in every consecutive rhino count.

 

GPS tracking is used to track, record, and review the line-up, and movement of teams on elephant back as well as identify shortfalls. This data is then downloaded and reviewed during the evening meetings, alongside discussions on potential gaps that need to be considered, possibilities of double count, and logistics and plan for the next day.

 

“CLANG, CLANG, CLANG, CLANG!”

 

We’re interrupted by the sound of a utensil beating against a stainless-steel plate. Tired and hungry, we rush out to the dining area built under a temporary tent. We’re served simple yet delicious fare, a meal of rice, lentils, and meat for dinner.

 

Weary from the day’s exertions, I retire to my tent. I’m asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

 

Left - Camp setup for food preparation. Middle - Team members being served lunch for the day © Kanchan Thapa / WWF-Nepal. Right - Elephant handlers preparing food for elephants © WWF-Nepal / Samir Jung Thapa

Left: Camp setup for food preparation | Middle: Team members being served lunch for the day | Right: Elephant handlers preparing food for elephants

 

I GET KNOCKED DOWN, BUT I GET UP AGAIN

And just like that it’s 5:00 am in the morning.

 

The camp is in chaos, as teams hurriedly get ready, grab breakfast, and line-up near their respective elephants by 6:00 am. The procedure is the same every day. Before we begin the count for the day, the first team in the line-up undertakes a 15–30-minute check of the site for rhino tracks, to account for any movement of rhinos between the consecutive blocks of Day1 and Day 2 to check for double counting.

 

Each day of the count is a challenging and painstaking task. The islands of Narayani River, located in the northwest of Chitwan National Park, is one of the most difficult locations for the rhino count, as it is almost impossible to do an elephant line up or cut through forests along the delta formed by the meandering Narayani River and its dense habitats. Thorny bushes and dense vegetation often provide low visibility to locate rhinos, which makes it difficult to identify them or observe details such as gender, age group and other physical features. Enumerators therefore shout out rhino identification to adjacent team members to make teams aware that the animal has been counted.

 

Enumerators line-up ready to move ahead with the count for the day © Kanchan Thapa / WWF-Nepal

Enumerators line-up, ready to move ahead with the count for the day

 

Enumerators on elephant back wade through the Beeshazar wetland in Barandabhar Corridor © Kanchan Thapa / WWF-Nepal

Enumerators on elephant back wade through the Beeshazar wetland in Barandabhar Corridor

 

Data sheet used for documenting rhino details such as gender, age group and other physical features © WWF-Nepal / Samir Jung Thapa

Data sheet used for documenting rhino details such as gender, age group and other physical features.

 

The rhino count may sound simple, and yet the entire event, while adventurous, is physically and mentally exhausting and sometimes dangerous, as there is always the chance of encountering a wild animal.

 

I remember falling off the back of an elephant in the 2015 rhino count. Hearing the snort of a rhino, I had leaned over the elephant to spot it under the tall grasslands of Sukhibar. Disturbed by the snorting, the elephant was jolted, and my hand slipped over the safety rope. The next thing you know, there I was on the ground. Fortunately, I had landed on damp soil, and escaped with just a few bruises as the mahout helped me scramble back to safety atop the elephant. The rhino had thankfully moved away. My colleague from NTNC was not as lucky, and was seriously hurt in an attack by a wild elephant during the final days of the 2021 rhino count. He is still recovering in the hospital. Get well soon Binod!

 

Rhino count, disrupted by a wild elephant named Ronaldo along Kamal Tal area in Chitwan National Park.

Rhino count disrupted by a wild elephant named Ronaldo along Kamal Tal area in Chitwan National Park © Kanchan Thapa / WWF-NepalTHE LAST LEG

The last leg of my rhino count concluded in Nagar ban, near the city of Narayanghat. That afternoon, the rhinos counted throughout the day were summed up with earlier tallied figures. The total count of rhino was verified by experts and officials of the national park, and then endorsed by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. Similarly, the count from the other two national parks—Bardia and Shuklaphanta—were tallied to the total. There were 409 rhinos counted nationally that year; 372 of which were from Chitwan National Park; the lowest population count for rhinos since the government started counting rhino in 1994.

 

Over those 25 days, I counted a total of 10 rhinos. I was absolutely thrilled having experienced the ups and downs of the rhino count.

 

Enumerators on elephant back keeping a lookout for rhinos in 2021 © WWF-Nepal / Samir Jung Thapa

Left: Midterm review of the rhino count in Sukhibar Post in Chitwan National Park | Right: Then Chief Warden of Chitwan National Park Mr. Megh Bahadur Pandey, addressing journalists and team members during the final dissemination of rhino count data at Nagar Ban.

 

ROAD TO RECOVERY- 2021

Back at my desk, I sit and contemplate the figures. There’s something about watching the rhino numbers steadily grow, from a mere 409 rhinos in 2005 to 752 today—close to double the numbers since my first rhino count 16 years ago—that brings me immense joy and satisfaction.

 

This year, Chitwan National Park accounted for 694 of the 752 rhinos in Nepal, the highest number of rhinos recorded in the park since its establishment. Good protection efforts also resulted in 365 days of zero poaching of rhinos on seven occasions between 2010 and 2021.

 

While government efforts have played a critical role in this, local communities living in buffer zones deserve an equal share of the credit. Communities are active users of buffer zone forests, also inhabited by rhinos. With large areas of these forests handed over to communities for management, communities are joint custodians of the forests and the wildlife residing within it. Community based initiatives such as management of negative human wildlife interactions, forest management, and supporting protection efforts, therefore underpin the success of rhino conservation in Nepal.

 

The rhino count isn’t just about the number. It reflects the effectiveness of conservation measures and shapes strategies for effective rhino conservation in the future. While rhino numbers have increased, it should be noted that growth rates have recorded a downturn from 4% in 2015 to 2.5% in 2021. This could be a result of increasing population trends, triggering density dependent factors such as competition among the rhinos over food and space, which on occasion leads to physical aggression among rhinos, which can also lead to rhino mortality. Furthermore, rhino distribution data indicates its concentration in the western part of Chitwan National Park—another troublesome sign—which many believe is due to dryness of habitat conditions in the eastern part of the park. Efforts to tackle these issues therefore need to be prioritized over the long run, such as improvement of habitat conditions in the eastern part of Chitwan National Park and subsequently future internal translocations.

 

ONWARD AND UPWARD

One thing is for sure. The rhino count is a laborious and logistically demanding task. While the rhino count has always had a risk factor with a few cases of injury, this year was the first year when a life was also lost to a tiger during the count. After seven National Rhino Counts conducted using the same methodology, it is time to consider alternative methods that take into consideration human safety, technological innovation, and reliability in rhino counts, while also being time and cost effective. Genetic sampling using rhino dung is one viable proposition; especially since Nepal already has a fully equipped molecular laboratory at National Trust for Nature Conservation, Chitwan National Park. Another option, yet to be piloted, is the use of thermal imaging cameras on drones, that capture heat signatures of the rhinos, detectable even under canopy cover and tall grasslands.

 

With the next rhino count scheduled for 2025, I am confident that Nepal will leverage on the increasingly available alternative technologies, while maintaining the legacy of rhino count.

 

The 2021 rhino count was undertaken by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Government of Nepal, in collaboration with the Department of Forests and Soil Conservation, Buffer Zone Users Committee, Community Forest Users Groups, NTNC, WWF Nepal and ZSL Nepal, and supported by local communities and tourism entrepreneurs.

 

Mother rhino along with her calf in the wetlands of Chitwan National Park © WWF-Nepal / Samir Jung Thapa

Mother rhino along with her calf in the wetlands of Chitwan National Park

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