As a traveler, I often hear terrible things about wildlife decline so I was thrilled about going to find rhinos in Chitwan National Park. This elation was because I knew I stood a real chance of seeing one due to the country’s strict zero-tolerance policy on poaching. After establishing 24-hour army patrols, CCTV, strategic security posts and conservation awareness campaigns, Nepal was giving its endangered one-horned rhinos a fighting chance. It worked because over 600 rhinos now thrive in and around its parks.
After the exhaustion of trekking Everest Base Camp, the rightfully UNESCO world heritage site of Chitwan sounded like a dream to me. The one issue was that bus journeys are long and incredibly arduous in Nepal, usually travelling at around 10 miles an hour in the absence of unsealed roads. This meant my partner and I rocking up in Sauraha and trekking in the dark to the hostel on the other side of town.
I could see dark creatures moving in the blackness as frogs and mice crossed the pathway in front of us. Taking a shortcut brought us within metres of a bull elephant, being led back to its stable by its mahout after a day of work carrying tourists. We exhaled. I couldn’t imagine coming across a wild animal that size at nighttime. Just a few metres later, a woman shouted to us and pointed – ‘rhino, rhino’. Nobody keeps rhinos as pets so we weren’t sticking around, regardless of how much we wanted to see one.
A man whose home backed onto the field shone his torch to guide along the pathway to our hotel. We had no idea if the rhino was behind us or not but there was no way we were taking a chance. The next day we did our laundry and went to a traditional performance by the indigenous Tharu people. It included an impression of a peacock that felt like the person was the embodiment of the animal itself. Proof that humans have a greater connection with nature by living in harmony with it.
Sauraha is built on a corner of the Rapti River and just from standing on the bank, I saw gharials, mugger crocodiles, wading birds and kingfishers. It was incredible that it was here on the doorstep of the town. It turned out that this was nothing compared to what we’d missed back at the hotel. The waiter informed us that a rhino had been to the door of reception and they’d had to chase it away. The second rhino we’d missed in as many days.
Rapti River Crossing at Chitwan National Park
I didn’t know what to think as the dugout canoe propelled us across the Rapti early the next morning. Were there any rhinos in Chitwan or were they all urbanised and hanging around the backstreets of Sauraha? As we got into our jeep, a wild boar that been raised by park guards snuffled around our feet and a spotted deer stag emerged from the mists. Once poaching stops, it’s clear that wildlife doesn’t have the same fear of humans.
About 20 minutes into the journey, we were rewarded. A mother rhino and her calf were grazing in the grasses just metres away before slipping away into the forest. Seeing a baby is such a positive way to begin a safari that I couldn’t help but feel hopeful.
A few hours later we crossed the river on foot, walking past openbill storks, Red-napped ibis, Woolly-necked storks and ruddy shelduck to eat lunch next to an abandoned shrine. I ate rice and eggs while svelte grey langur monkeys and young spotted deer patrolled the old building that they’d made their own.
The afternoon had more in store, as we came across a male rhino bathing in a muddy pool and another eating in tall grasses. Left until last were the best views of another male feeding right next to the road. So close that the guides and tourists on a walking safari got nervous and sheltered behind our jeep. The small crowd was entranced by the rhino, who continued stripping the grasses of their nutritious shoots, unperturbed by our presence.
If a rhino was to charge, the guides are unarmed and carry only a stick. This means they cannot harm the wildlife they show to tourists. Only the park’s official security guards are armed but against poachers and not wildlife. Nepal’s conservation efforts manage to be peaceful to both wildlife and the community, but with zero-tolerance for illegal slaughter. This is why the rhino walks the streets at night, metres from the neighbours it has finally learnt to trust.
Written by: Jennifer Sizeland
Jen is a British writer and producer based in Manchester in the UK. She writes for various publications about ethical and eco-friendly living and travel, including on her blog: landofsize.com