KATHMANDU South Asia's endangered Great One-horned Rhinoceros is being driven out of its natural habitat in search of food into the hands of illegal poachers, experts said on Thursday.
A meeting of the Asian Rhino Specialist Group in Nepal said that the massive animal's feeding grounds were being invaded by "exotic species" of weeds and wild plants and the rhino could soon run out of natural fodder.
"Grassland is being invaded by weeds and other unwanted plants that are not suitable for rhinos," Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, co-chairman of the group said from the Chitwan National Park, home to 408 rhinos.
"We have to concentrate on how best to control the weeds and for this we have to intensify research."
The endangered animal, whose numbers have been rising in Nepal and India, is found mostly in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, and in southwestern Nepal.
"The weeds and wild plants are an exotic species and how it came we don't know. It is spreading fast in the habitat and we are looking into the reasons now," Shyam Bajimaya, an expert with Nepal's national parks said.
Nepal's Chitwan National Park, located 81 km (51 miles) southwest of Kathmandu, is the second-biggest home for the rhinos after the Kaziranga National Park in the Indian state of Assam, which has 1,855 animals.
The number of rhinos in the Indian park has risen from about 1,200 in 1999, helped by a reduction in poaching, Talukdar said. The rhino population in Chitwan was also on the rise, he added.
Poaching is the main threat to the survival of rhino which is illegally killed for its horn and other body parts. Rhino horns are believed to have aphrodisiac qualities and are sold for a high price in China and other Southeast Asian countries.