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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We have an update this morning on a journey to Nepal. NPR's John Nielsen traveled there five years ago for an NPR/National Geographic Radio Expedition. He was reporting on the Terai Arc project, a promising effort to save that nation's endangered species.

John rode into the jungle on an elephant, with a team trying to find and capture a rare one-horned rhinoceros.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

There's a rhino, 20 yards ahead, a thousand pounds, at least, with skin that looks like armor plating, and a head that belongs on a dinosaur. It's looking right at me. The elephant circles the rhino.

Okay, the elephant - the shooter is moving in. Everybody stand back. We're going to shoot her right her. Listen for the pop.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Unidentified Man: Got him. Uh-oh. They're running away. They're taking off.

WERTHEIMER: That rhino was eventually captured unharmed and moved to a network of parks that had lost its rhinos to poachers. But that park system is in serious trouble due to years of fighting between government forces and Maoist insurgents. NPR's John Nielsen has more.

NIELSEN: When I was in Nepal in 2001, the ambitious plan to rebuild the nation's enormous lowland forests appear to be succeeding. With help from conservations groups like the World Wildlife Fund, areas that had lost their rhinos and tigers were getting them back. Tourist numbers were rising fast, and traditions like this community dance were being revived.

Bobu Karki(ph), a Nepalese army major added that poachers were being run out of the Terai Arc.

Major BOBU KARKI (Nepalese Army): If (unintelligible) will control in those areas, particular areas, that will help the Terai Arc (unintelligible). And we hope that this will remain like this, a peaceful park.

NIELSEN: But not long after that interview, those anti-poaching patrols began to run into trouble, well-armed groups of Maoist rebels who had been fighting the government since the 1990's. They were hunting the Nepalese army and not rhinos and tigers.

Mingma Sherpa is director of the Eastern Himalayas program at the World Wildlife Fund.

Mr. MINGMA SHERPA (Director, Eastern Himalayas Program, World Wildlife Fund): The forest where the wildlife lives is also the best hiding place for the Maoists for hiding their weapons, hiding themselves.

NIELSEN: Sherpa says the Maoists weren't doing the poaching, but when they chased the army out, the poachers poured in, seeking valuable rhino horns and organs.

More of these hunters arrived in 2004 after an insurgent group detained and assaulted a rhino tracking team. That prompted conservation groups to all but pull out of the region. Recently, the Maoists agreed to a ceasefire with the government. That allowed conservation groups to return to the region and conduct wildlife surveys. In Bardia National Park, Mingma Sherpa says they found that 67 of the 70 rhinos had apparently been killed by poachers.

Mr. SHERPA: This really alarmed us, that there's a serious, serious problem of poaching that took place during the Maoist insurgency in Nepal.

NIELSEN: Eric Dinerstein, the chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, says the speed with which these rhinos were wiped out puts a spotlight on the vexing question faced by conservationists working in strife-torn countries all over the world.

Mr. ERIC DINERSTEIN (Chief Scientist, World Wildlife Fund): How do these ambitious, large scale restoration projects for large mammals survive and prosper in the midst of a civil war?

NIELSEN: Dinerstein says one lesson from the Terai Arc project is that conservationists must build good relationships with local people. He thinks that happened in Nepal, and as a result the damage, while considerable, wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been.

There are still rhinos left in some areas, and the forests are in pretty good shape. That means they have a chance to start over.

Mr. DINERSTEIN: We know how to achieve success in restoring rhinos and tigers, and we'll just repeat that. It's just we got knocked back a little bit.

NIELSEN: Dinerstein's colleague, Mingma Sherpa, adds another point. The Maoists seem to have realized that politically at least it's a good idea to be on the side of the rhinos.

Mr. SHERPA: The poaching of rhinos probably affected the credibility of the Maoists themselves. They don't want to be all bad guys either. They want to show good side of them as well.

NIELSEN: Sherpa says anti-poaching units recently began patrolling parks like Bardia again. So far, none have been attacked by Maoist rebels.

For Radio Expeditions, this is John Nielsen, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. For links to the original stories about the Terai Ark, visit npr.org/radioexpeditions.

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