The numbers of one of the planet’s “mega-ist” of terrestrial megafauna are on the rise in Nepal.

A recent government census found that the country’s population of greater one-horned rhinoceros, estimated at 752, grew by more than 100 since the last count in 2015.

Nepal's population of greater one-horned rhinos is on the rise according results from the country's latest census. Image © Neeshantkc1

Better than 90 percent of Nepal’s rhinos reside in Chitwan National Park, which along with India’s Kaziranga National Park represents the greatest remaining stronghold of this mighty, tank-like grazer. Much smaller populations in Nepal – reintroductions sourced from Chitwan – are found in Bardiya, Shuklaphanta, and Parsa national parks.

“The increase of rhinos is exciting news for us,” Haribhadra Acharya, information officer for Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, told AFP. “But we have challenges ahead to expand the habitat areas of this animal to maintain the growth.”

Reaching weights up to 2,700 kilograms (6,000 lbs.), greater one-horned rhinos, which formerly ranged from Pakistan to Myanmar, are the second-biggest rhino species after Africa’s white rhinoceros. Their favoured habitat is the riverine grassland and adjoining forest along the floodplains of the Terai Arc Landscape, which covers some 51,000 square kilometres of northern India and southern Nepal.

Nepal has been counting its rhinos every five years since 1994, when 466 were recorded. This most recent census was slated to take place in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed it. And the count, which relied on direct observation by more than 300 participants, came with its share of challenges, including an attack by a wild elephant and the fatal mauling by a Bengal tiger of one of the crew’s mahouts in Bardiya.

The census results, though, are encouraging for a creature that’s had its ups and downs in Nepal. A major increase in human population and the habitat loss and poaching that came with it drastically reduced rhino numbers in the Chitwan Valley in the mid-20th century; by the late 1960s, less than 100 rhinos remained. The government stepped up conservation efforts in response, forming an armed patrol unit (the Gainda Gasti) and establishing Chitwan National Park in 1973.

Nepal has been counting its rhinos every five years since 1994, when 466 were recorded. Image © Aditya Pal

These and other efforts boosted the rhino population, but it took another hit during the Nepalese Civil War (1996-2006), which exacerbated poaching. Rhino horns are highly valued on the black market.

The picture has improved once again over the past 15 years, as this latest rhino census suggests. But government officials and conservationists stress expanded habitat has to be part of that picture going forward, as burgeoning rhino numbers in hemmed-in preserves won’t necessarily be sustainable.

“It is going to be a huge challenge,” Gana Gurung of WWF-Nepal told the BBC. “Both tigers and rhinos need vast areas to roam around as their populations increase. They come to the edge of the park resulting in human-animal conflict.”

Top header image: Steve Hicke, Flickr