Nepal's Jurassic Park
Weighing in at three tonnes, give or take a few pounds-the rare one-horned Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis). With his spiked horn, deeply creased, near impenetrable hide and air of forlornness, the rhino looks like a relic from the Jurassic age. He stands two metres tall at the shoulder and four metres long-the world's third largest land animal after the elephant and hippopotamus. Despite their bulk, rhinos can run at speeds of up to 45 kilometres per hour. They may have weak vision but they more than compensate for it with their acute sense of smell and hearing. In fact, they can smell you up to 100 metres away. Luckily, rhinos won't eat you because they prefer plants, but they might attack, leaving you for the tiger's dinner.
On a quest to get a glimpse of this almighty beast, my boyfriend and I travelled 120 kilometres southwest of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, to Royal Chitwan National Park. Chitwan was established as a wildlife reserve in 1973 after centuries as the Nepalese Royal Family's hunting grounds, and in 1984 it was declared a World Heritage Site. Within the park's 932 square kilometres, there are 51 mammalian species, including the Royal Bengal tiger, four kinds of deer (spotted and barking), wild oxen, langurs and rhesus monkeys, sloth bears, wild boar, leopards, two kinds of crocodile and more than 400 species of birds. Most notoriously, the park is home to 500 of the world's remaining 700 Indian rhinos.
On the eve of our departure we'd read in The Kathmandu Post about a Nepalese boy who'd recently been gored to death by a rhino during a school trip to the park. Though few and far between, this was not an isolated incident. Rhinos have killed several locals, guides and tourists over the years. Within an hour of arriving in the park's neighbouring village of Sauraha, we heard several stories about great wrestling matches with rhinos. Real tales of adventure or wishful acts of heroism? Indeed, the people in Sauraha and other nearby villages regularly face the menace of these large animals. Rhinos cross the river at night and stomp through the villages to eat the crops. Believe me, it would be a living nightmare to bump into a rhino on the way to the bathroom in the black of night.
Sufficiently intoxicated with terror, I became worried about our safety when I met our very youthful-looking guides. But there was no cause for concern. Ram and Mayaram belonged to the region's indigenous Tharu peoples and had been jungle guides for more than 10 years. In fact, villagers had nicknamed Mayaram the "Tiger Guy" because he'd seen so many tigers in his life; and, he actually guarantees to find a tiger if you go on his two-day jungle trip. Another guide said that only a crazy man would make such promises.
We arranged a half-day jungle walk and the four of us began our excursion in the early morning. We tread lightly and said very little, whistling if we wanted the others' attention. Ten minutes into the walk, the guides stopped and, in a very serious tone, gave us these pointers. "If a rhino charges, split up and go in different directions. Run in zigzags, climb the nearest tree and throw an article of clothing toward it." End of survival skills briefing session. "Okay, now we're ready to go!" GULP.
Armed with only their keen senses and strong, sleek bamboo walking sticks, Ram and Mayaram led us into the heart of the jungle. They carried these staffs for banging against trees to make loud noises or, if it came down to it, for jamming into the mouths of rhinos. Their animal-scouting techniques included: climbing trees, making monkey calls, noting territorial scratch marks and analyzing animal droppings. Indeed, the animals had left many clues and so we tried to retrace their steps. The rhino's odd-toed hoof prints lingered around mud pools, a favoured hangout, and tiger paws imprinted the exposed sandy trail. (I began to worry how close behind them we actually were.)
We continued along the trail, leaping over logs and ducking under branches. And there in all his glory a rhino was enjoying a morning bath in the river. Slowly, quietly, we crawled along a fallen tree that stretched across the river. Talk about a perfect stakeout-our perch sufficiently high above the water provided protection and positioned us only 25 metres from the rhino.
It looked as if the animal had been superimposed onto this present day scene. The rhino had inherited, without question, some physical characteristics from his extinct dinosaur cousins. Wrinkled and weather-beaten, the torso of this massive beast is separated into what-could-be several shields of detachable armour. Skin so tough that even a lion's teeth can scarcely make a dent. And his trademark feature-the foot-long horn protruding from the centre of his eyes into a menacing spike. The guides told us that the rhinos are poached for their horns, which are highly valued in Asian medicine as an aphrodisiac. (An entire army battalion is deployed in the park to prevent such crimes.)
I noticed one physical trait that didn't seem to match the rest of his body. For such a stern-looking animal, he had the small, soft, bristly ears of a donkey! Knowing the rhino could engage in battle with us at any moment, this mismatched body part provided some comic relief. Only metres away, the rhino definitely smelled and heard us but apparently didn't feel threatened by our presence-he barely flinched at the sound of our camera rewinding-and so he continued soaking himself. Every now and then he would rise, stretch his legs and then plop back into the water. Although we saw several more rhinos later that day, including one who nearly charged our jeep, none could compare with this undisturbed private screening on the log over the river.
During our last sunset in Chitwan we were treated to one more incredible spectacle. At this time of day, the riverfront was especially lively-jeeps and elephants returning from their afternoon safari rides, Nepalese teenagers playing volleyball and tourists enjoying the vista. All of a sudden a local boy yelled, "Rhino!" I followed his gaze and some 150 metres from where we were playing was a rhino grazing on the other side of the river. Everyone ran to the water's edge. Feared and revered, the rhino was still a local celebrity. No guide was required for this rhino sighting; he'd come to the outskirts of the park of his own accord for a happy hour nibble. But would the rhino keep his distance or... Imagine the pandemonium. And just as this anachronistic creature had surreptitiously appeared, he retreated quietly into the thick of the forest, the fiery red sun setting slowly behind him.
Published on 10/13/01