In Nepal, a Desperate Fight to Save the Struggling Rhino

War, poverty and poaching are making rhinos disappear from Nepal.

CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK, Nepal, April 10, 2008 — -- This assignment took us to the other side of the planet -- to one of the most hard-to-reach spots in the world, the wilds of southern Nepal.

ABC News producer Almin Karamehmedovic and I patrolled with Nepali soldiers and game wardens on elephant back, in wooden boats along crocodile-infested rivers and on foot in forests filled with wild animals.

We were given unprecedented access to a massive effort by the Nepali government and the World Wildlife Fund to save the great one-horned rhino, or Rhinoceros unicornis.

The rhino can be dangerous, and we were advised to run away if the rhino gets too close. One local told us that the trick is to run away in a zigzag because the rhino's body is too heavy to run zigzag -- the massive creatures can weigh up to 3 tons. But then one of his colleagues told us that actually wouldn't work.

Despite the danger rhinos pose to humans, the danger the massive animals face from humans is even greater; they are being poached into near extinction.

Rhinos have small brains and poor eyesight, which is part of why they are such easy prey for poachers who are after their coveted horn.

One horn can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the black market. The horns are made into dagger handles in places like Yemen or sold to rogue practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine who peddle rhino medicine. Rhino pills are advertised as fever reducers, but there is no scientific evidence that they work. In fact, legitimate practitioners of Chinese medicine say they don't use them.

At dawn, we took a spine-rattling elephant ride with Christy Williams, a scientist with the World Wildlife Fund. Raised in India and educated in Arizona, Williams is one of the world's leading experts on rhinos. He said that rhinos are disappearing from the planet "for stupid reasons."

"I could understand if rhinos had lifesaving properties -- that they died to save somebody's life, but they don't. Yet they are still being shot for a beliefs that have no basis in science," he said.

One huge reason the rhinos are in danger is the history of upheaval in Nepal, a Himalayan kingdom about the size of Arkansas sandwiched between India and China.

It's one of the most friendly but foreign-feeling places I've ever been. It's the birthplace of Buddha and is reputed to be the mythical Shangri-la. In the streets of the capital Kathmandu, you can see Hindu holy men and sacred cows.

But for many years, Communist insurgents were at war with the Nepalese army. This distracted troops from their job of protecting Nepal's Chitwan National Park, home to hundreds of rhinos. That opened the door to rampant poaching.

Shortly after we arrived, we heard about a freshly killed rhino, which we went to see. As we stood by the carcass, covered in thousands of buzzing bugs, Williams was incensed.

"I mean, I would have no regret if I knew this guy was a poacher and I saw him on the road, I would have no regret running over him," he said.

The poacher had chopped the horn from both sides of the head and ripped the horn out of the rhino's face.

Chitwan National Park chief warden Megh Bahadur Pandey was also on the scene and was infuriated.

When asked what he would do if he caught the poacher, Pandey responded, "If you ask me … who is working, who is dedicated for 30 years to save the rhino … I would do the same thing as he did my rhino."

Pandey took us to the room where he stores more than 100 rhino horns he's confiscated from poachers.

"Those poachers -- they kill even the small baby, this is -- may not be more then 2, 4 years. Small baby," he said while showing us one tiny horn.

The Nepali government is now starting to have some success in its anti-poaching crackdown. The most recent rhino census found 36 more rhinos than last year, which is terrific news. But no one is popping any champagne corks yet. These animals are still extremely endangered because the poachers are still active.

The World Wildlife Fund has also set up a network of informants in the local community, providing rewards to undercover agents. One agent we met, whose identity we had to protect because his work could get him killed, said he helped to catch 70 poachers.

The chief warden then took us to meet an arrested poacher in one jungle prison, where he is serving a 15-year jail term.

He claims he was just a middleman who was paid about $300 to transport a rhino horn from one area to another. Like most people who live here, he says, he was ignorant about how endangered the rhinos are. And what's more, he needed the money.

"That's the saddest part," Williams said, "The … guys who actually set the traps or shoot it, they will live in poverty for their entire life. They will die in poverty. They will never see the profits for this trade."

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. It doesn't take much for the Mafias that trade in rhino horns to bribe the locals into becoming poachers. Many of these people are more worried about feeding their kids than protecting the rhinos.

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned on this trip was this: When you start trying to save wildlife, you quickly get into complex human issues of culture, sociology and economics. Williams says he spends more time thinking about human behavior than rhinos.

"One person told me: Listen, conservation is 99 percent man management and 1 percent actually doing something in the field," he said.

Williams says the only way to protect these animals in the long term is to mobilize public opinion. He'd like to see everyone who has a "Save the Whales" bumper sticker add one that says "Save the Rhinos."

As he points out, rhinos have a public relations problem. Elephants have Dumbo, lions have the "Lion King," but there isn't a cuddly rhino character in popular culture. As a consequence, humans haven't created the same sort of emotional bond with rhinos.

In the middle of interviewing Williams, we heard a snort. We scrambled and caught a glimpse of two rhinos running away. The male was chasing the female as part of a mating ritual.

Even after years of studying these creatures, Williams was exhilarated.

What a shame it would be if these creatures that have been around since the time of dinosaurs disappeared and their awkward majesty erased, because of us.