Staying alive in rhino country

We arrived off the bus in Chitwan and were greeted by 20-30 different touts all trying to bring us to their jungle lodge – it felt more like India than the peaceful Nepal we’d gotten used to, though this is the hotter lowlands of course. Edel managed to filter out the guy for the place we had picked just before they all had driven us mad. We organized our plans for the next couple days, full-day trek in the park, elephant-back safari, short trip on the river and a night in a watchtower, before heading off to a nearby Elephant Breeding Center in the afternoon. There were several very young elephants there at the moment, adorably cute, and walking around the center freely so we could get very close and even have them eating from our hands. Next day into the park proper.

Chitwan national park was formerly called Royal Chitwan National Park until the Nepali crown prince massacred most of the royal family (himself included, though he spent 3 days as king while in coma) followed by which the Maoist Communists got the monarchy overthrown a few years later…Nepal can be a volatile country. The park is most famous as a stronghold for the Indian rhino – one of the success stories of conservation with numbers down to just 100 a century ago but now recovered to about 2500. 400 or so rhinos live in this park and it’s a major tourist attraction in Nepal, which has stationed a full army battalion there to protect them from poachers (who are after the horn for useless Chinese traditional medicine..even though it’s the same substance as toe-nail clippings). Some rhinos still get killed each year, but at least not as many as in years when all army resources are busy fighting the Maoists.. Other rhinos haven’t been this “lucky”..the Java one is down to a couple dozen, the Sumatra one a couple hundred, and the West African Black Rhino went extinct a year or two ago.

Edel and guide navigating the tall grass in Chitwan National Park.

Edel and guide navigating the tall grass in Chitwan National Park.

We started the day with a short trip on the river in a dugout canoe, and saw yet another critically endangered species – the Gharial, a very strange fish-eating 5-6 meter crocodile with a long narrow snout. This one’s down to a few hundred pairs, and is dying out because of some of the same reasons that makes it a terribly bad idea to take a swim in the holy Ganges river.. After we got out of the boat the guide gave us a briefing before heading in on foot into rhino-country. He sounded a bit like a broken record, starting off with “Dear guests, I hope you will enjoy this jungle walk..” even though it was just me and Edel there. Next he gave us a list of tips for how not to get killed by a charging rhino – in descending order of preference based on tree availability: “1. Climb a tree, 2. Hide behind a tree, 3. Run fast in a zigzag pattern and hope for the best“. Usually these things are very exaggerated but the guidebook does point out this park can actually be a little dangerous, and that it can be difficult to find a guide with more than a couple years experience as “…anyone with a bit of sense gets out as soon as he can“. Our guide had been doing it for 20 years! He continued on with explaining that it was also important not to get killed by a tiger, wild elephant, or a sloth bear – though more difficult as these can all either climb trees or topple them over.

Rhino-less in the rain.

Rhino-less in the rain.

We didn’t see either of these animals on the walk, but did see droppings, diggings, paths and footprints from all of them. The most exciting moment was when a group of deer came crashing towards us in panic clearly frightened by something! We didn’t see what exactly, but it was in the middle of the day so nap-time for any big kittens. Other animals we saw were barking deer, hog deer, chital, macaques, wild boar, adjutant stork and monitor lizards. The forest was a real “jungle”, not like other lowland rainforests we’ve been to elsewhere where the canopy is so closed hardly any light filters down below and ground-level is pretty open – here it was near impenetrable on the ground with lianas and other vegetation. But it was actually even harder to walk on the grasslands – the grass here grows 4-5 meter high this time of the year so it’s not the best time to see animals (the rhino could be two meter away and you wouldn’t see it!). We were walking on a road through the grasslands, but it was so overgrown that we got our arms cut open making our way through the grass. Harder work than climbing mountains in Annapurna even though it was all flat – it was hot and extremely humid with thunder hanging in the air (this turned out to be the last day before the monsoon finally kicked in).

Rhinos in Chitwan national park.

Rhinos in Chitwan national park.

We’ve been very lucky with the timing so far elsewhere, getting the good weather without the crowds in Andaman islands and most other places in India plus in Annapurna in Nepal – but now it seems the luck had finally run out. The pre-monsoon heat made the jungle-trek exhausting and it wasn’t the good time of the year to see animals, and the next day when we set off in the morning on elephant back to see the rhinos it was pouring rain. We sat in the gentle rolling high up on the back of the elephant in the rain for three hours, searching through a section of forest where they usually hang out, without seeing a single one. It’s virtually guaranteed to see one – everyone who goes to Chitwan does – and the elephant driver seemed as surprised as we and our cameras were wet.. We went back in again in the afternoon when the rains held up a little, and this time we saw seven rhinos in just one hour. Though one of the biggest rhino species they looked almost small from high up on the elephant, and mostly they took very little notice of us. I imagine it’s probably a very different experience to see one while you’re on foot.. We saw two by a water hole, four in an open grass area and another in a different water hole – all places we’d been a couple hours earlier without seeing a single one. Where do rhinos hide when it rains? Maybe they can climb trees after all… This time we had ended up with a big crowd of Indian tourists split on four elephants – we shared the tiny platform on top of our elephant with three of them. They all took several times more photos of us than they did of any of the rhinos..felt almost like being back in India again!

In the evening we went to spend the night in a watch tower in the jungle. We didn’t see many animals, and managed to miss the rhinos again as they were seen by the tower by two other tourists just while we were gone for a dusk walk, but the sounds of the jungle during the night were fantastic. The calls of frogs, crickets and many different birds. We fell asleep on the wooden platform outside of the room while watching hundreds of fireflies move between the trees close to the tower.

Elephant babies playing by Sauraha near Chitwan.

Elephant babies playing by Sauraha near Chitwan.

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