Interview: WWF Chief Scientist Eric Dinerstein

John Nielsen interviews Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist and vice president for science at the World Wildlife Fund. They discuss the future of the greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) conservation project in Terai Arc, Nepal.

'Radio Expeditions' Report

John Nielsen — For better and for worse, and hopefully for better again some day in the future, this grand project has always been one of the models that all the rest of the conservationist community watches to see how landscape, scale conservation, cross border, multi species programs are supposed to work. That's right, isn't it?

Eric Dinerstein — I think you need to add one more phrase to that, which is, how do these ambitious, large scale restoration projects for large mammals survive and prosper in the midst of a civil war? And that to me is the piece of great news hidden behind the somewhat discouraging headline, which is that there are fewer rhinos in Bardia than there were, say, five years ago. If you look at what we've been trying to do to restore rhinos in the rest of Nepal and in India, think about it as not just as restoring rhinos but as restoring separate populations. And if you look at it that way, three of the four populations that we have had a hand in restoring are actually increasing, and doing so in the midst of a civil war. One of the ones that I've written in my book about rhinoceros is the fact that there are any rhinos alive in today in the world is a miracle. But that in the midst of what was essentially an intense insurgency in western Nepal, the rhinos have gone from four to seven in the Suklaphanta reserve, and from seventeen to thirty in the other population in Bardia is very encouraging. It's that other population in the Babai area where the population has declined to maybe only 3 individuals that's upsetting. But you know, three out of four isn't bad when you're facing a civil war.

JN — And not when you compare it to large populations of charismatic animals in other war-torn parts of the world.

ED — Or take Indochina. It's hard to find tigers in Cambodia now, and we thought they were common there only 5 years ago. And that tigers are also even holding their own in Suklaphanta in Bardia tells me there's another story here, which is how did the animals survive here in the midst of the insurgency? Particularly when the Nepalese army was pulled out of their guard posts to go and fight the Maoists.

JN — How did they? What do you think happened?

ED — I think it was the dedication of the staff who remained, the national park staff, and basically, that most Nepalis are law abiding, that most of the poaching was done by a handful of people. In the areas where we had intense poaching, to be honest, there was poaching before there were Maoists. When I was first in Bardia in 1975 we were told that going to the Babai valley could be dangerous because there was poaching out there. And that never stopped. That group and others have been responsible for the loss of the rhinos there. But in other parts of the Terai we've seen the pops increasing and its why when you think of the Terai arc as this metapopulation, a population linked by dispersal, whether tigers or rhinos, you have to think about the individual populations you're trying to restore as well as the overall number.

JN — So if we do take this program as a grand example of what's to come, what you're telling me is that this is by no means bad news. It's not time to write an epitaph for this thing.

ED Not at all, in fact, maybe it's just my naïve side of me overwhelming the biological side, but I don't think so. You know we're taught in population biology to break things down into population and when you do that, 3 of the 4 populations where we've moved rhinos there are now more rhinos there today than there were 10 years ago, and that's encouraging. What it does tell you is where you've got to target your efforts to prevent poaching and do more work in local communities to get people on your side there.

JN — It's a scary illustration of how all you've got to do is look away and the poachers will notice.

ED — George Schaller once said about conserving tigers is that it's going to require –They're one of those conservation dependent species. In other words, you turn your eyes away and the next moment they're gone. You've probably heard about in the Sariska reserve in India where all 15 tigers, I think, that were there were wiped out by poachers, and the shock wave that's going through India now about how many fewer tigers there are in many of their reserves than we thought. And it's what happens when you don't keep focused on species that require intense vigilance and protection throughout the years until they really get to a population size that you can step back a little bit.

JN — Or when, because of this situation, you just can't. The guards were the army, and the army had to leave because the Maoists wanted the army to leave. It's not that the Maoists were out to wipe out all the rhinos, its kind of a side effect here.

ED — That's right. And in fact, you know what's interesting here is that the Maoists allowed us to operate our project out in the western Terai that was handing over forests to local communities and empowering them to manage and handle their own forests and resources as consistent with a lot of their [Maoist] principles so we were still able to operate. It was only recently that there started to be attacks. And as you say, it was very much targeted at the army and at police, not at conservationists and not at tourists. I think the Maoists realize that had they been successful they would have to govern the country afterwards and deal with the same groups and they were assets, not enemies. I haven't been more hopeful for Nepal as I have been in the past few weeks than in the past five years. I think they're on the right track now. The way I look at it, john, is that, for Bardia, we're back to where we were in 1990 in terms of the numbers there. We know how to achieve success in restoring of rhinos and tigers and we'll just repeat that. Its just we got knocked back a little bit.

JN — How do we explain this to people? What's the lesson we draw from this?

ED — I think its commitment to conservation. I'm writing a new book now where I just spent some time in Vietnam and going back from my third trip there and looking at the conservation history there and there's a case where we did let some things slip away and that's unfortunate. That's because if you look away things can disappear. And in Nepal, I think, if you can define our conservation effort in a sentence, it's that we didn't look away. It's just that the events got the better of us here but we stayed focused and so we kept the core population there. But I think that it's no question if we want to have these large mammals alive into the next century it's going to require a much greater level of vigilance than we've exerted in the past.

JN — It's hopeful that you've still got them. I really want to stress this fact of what a chill it ought to send through people to realize how fast something like this could happen. And you were lucky because these guys still have primitive guns and things, don't they?

ED — That's right, it's why in my rhino book one of the main differences I used to point out between Asia and Africa is that the poachers were heavily armed, better armed than those who were to protect the rhinos and other wildlife in Africa. And in Asia, it was very difficult to get a gun, certainly in Nepal and India and in Bhutan and elsewhere. So the absence, the virtual absence of firearms made it very difficult to poach these big mammals indiscriminately as they did in Africa. But if that changes, which certainly was the case in southeast Asia with the insurgencies there and the wars going on and the weapons that got funneled through there, then you're talking about a very different situation.

JN — Is there any central message you want to make sure that we've gotten? You've pretty much answered my questions.

ED — Don't give up hope. In the midst of bad news which gain the headlines there are these important stories which if you just dig a little deeper you see the perseverance and the dedication who have committed to restoring these populations over the next few decades. They're still at work, they're still out there, and they deserve all our support. It's a courageous effort and it requires tremendous patience and tremendous courage to be out there doing what they're doing and they deserve all our credit.

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