KATHMANDU (Reuters Life!) - Nepal has begun combing its southern plains for endangered one-horned Asian rhinoceroses to determine their numbers and locations to help protect them from poachers who sell their horns as an aphrodisiac.
Dozens of elephant-riding experts armed with global positioning system devices and cameras will scour the plains over the next three weeks to see how many rhinos are left, Krishna Acharya, chief of the National Park and Wildlife Conservation Department, said on Wednesday.
The horn of the rhino is believed to have aphrodisiac qualities although it is made of keratin, the same substance in fingernails.
Nevertheless, demand for the horns for use in concoctions is high and poachers can make thousands of dollars for one on the black market, which is based mainly in China.
Nepal, the second biggest home for the animal after India, had 435 of the rhinos when the last count was made in 2008. But officials said at least 60 of them had died in the three years since then, 28 at the hands of poachers.
"We have to know the status of rhinos and their distribution in different habitats," Acharya said.
"The count will help us devise anti-poaching strategies and plan measures for their effective conservation."
But Acharya said despite the poaching over the past three years, when Nepal was emerging from a decade-long civil war, the number of rhinos could have increased.
The one-horned rhino, also know as the Indian rhino, is found in national parks at Chitwan, Bardiya and Shuklaphanta in the flat south of otherwise mountainous Nepal.
A recent study in neighboring India found that conservation efforts had seen a steady increase in the number of tigers living in the wild, despite a warning of an increase in the trade of tiger parts, especially to China.
Editing by Henry Foy and Robert Birsel