'Milestone' Growth of Nepal's Rhino Population Is Linked to COVID-19 Lockdowns, Officials Say

The endangered one-horned rhinos of Nepal have experienced a bit of a population boom over the last six years, and conservation officials believe that it is likely linked, in part, to the worldwide travel restrictions placed in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to multiple outlets, a recent census conducted by Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation shows that the country's one-horned rhino population increased by about 17 percent from the previous survey six years ago. The census also notes that the current one-horned rhino population in Nepal is 752 rhinos.

"It's great news for all of us who care for conservation of rhinos," Deepak Kumar Kharal, the department's director-general, told the Wall Street Journal. "COVID-19 had a small but an important role helping the growth in our rhinos' population."

The population of one-horned rhinos was once below 100 in the 1960s. But authorities and the government stepped up conservation efforts to boost the population and began a census every five years starting in 1994. The first census revealed there were roughly 466 rhinos in Nepal in 1994. In 2015, the census counted 645 one-horned rhinos.

Per The Wall Street Journal, rangers performed the latest census, which was delayed by one year due to the pandemic, by riding on the backs of elephants for nearly three weeks in late March to count the rhinos. GPS equipment, binoculars, and cameras were all used to create the census, Phys.org reported.

While the gestation period for rhinos is as long as 18 months, the rangers said they saw more baby rhinos than ever before and believed many survived last year due to COVID-19 lockdowns around the world, which led to a lack of tourists in jeeps.

"COVID lockdown gave the best environment for the birth and growth of baby rhinos," said Bishnu Lama, a wildlife technician who worked on the census, according to the WSJ.

According to Phys.org, the World Wildlife Fund, which provides financial and technical assistance for the census, called the rhino population increase a "milestone" for Nepal, according to Phys.org.

"The overall growth in population size is indicative of ongoing protection and habitat management efforts by protected area authorities despite challenging contexts these past years," said Ghana Gurung, the WWF's Nepal representative.

According to ANI News, 161 rhinos were found dead in and around Nepal's Chitwan National Park over the last five years. Five were killed by poachers, while the rest reportedly died of natural causes.

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