18 Dec 2013

Up Close And Personal With Rhinos In Chitwan

Chitwan literally translates to Heart of the Jungle and is a huge national park in South Nepal. It's just five hours by bus from Pokhara and then another five on to Kathmandu, its most famous resident is the One Horned Rhinoceros and we were looking forward to meeting them. There are also Bengal tigers but sightings are very rare but if you head to Bardia National Park just 15 hours by bus in the other direction you should get to see one. 

rhino in chitwan nepal

There are a few options for spotting wildlife in Chtiwan and in order of safety they are: Jeep Safari, Elephant Safari and Jungle Walk. Given our failed attempt to spot a wild elephant on a jeep in the Wayanad Jungle we opted for a one day Jungle Walk.  Our rational being that jeeps are very noisy with about 15 people crammed on the back and we were not convinced of the welfare of the elephants - there is a 'breeding centre' nearby which sounds pretty grim. 

There are not many jungles in the world where you are allowed to walk on foot, we assume this is due to safety. There are a few reports of fatalities and injuries on these walks either by stampeding rhinos or grumpy sloth bears. Still we decided to take our chances, when we were booking our tour we got chatting to two French cousins booking the same thing so we joined together as we felt a little safer in a party of six.

chitwan nepal

Dressed in our 'jungle gear' ie. dark clothes and our damn hiking shoes again, we headed to the riverbank for a very short boat ride to the other side for our safety briefing. Leading our tour we had two guides, one senior with over twenty years experience and a native from the old village that used to be in the park (it was moved for safety reasons) and a junior guide with five years. They each had a sturdy looking bamboo stick to protect us - no weapons or tranquilliser darts here (!) - we were heading into the animals territory now, uninvited so a weapon would be just plain rude and unfair. They shared a few jungle survival tips with us, by animal these were:

These beasts weigh between one and three tonnes and can run up 40 kph so its best not too upset them. Rhinos have poor eye sight but make up for it in sound and smell, and they're notoriously grumpy, so you have to be very quiet around them. If they do stampede obviously you RUN and then you CLIMB a tree, ideally one thats quite fat in case the rhino charges at it and be sure to climb above two metres so you're above the rhinos eyeline. You can also throw your bag in the opposite direction in a bid to get the rhino to focus on that.

Sloth Bear
Sloth beers have the reputation for causing the most injuries and are most likely to attack unprovoked, they are perceived to be stupid with a bad temperament. If you ever encounter one you should bulk together so that you look as big as possible and make lots of noise - the idea being to make it think we're bigger and stronger than it. They are around 6ft+ tall when they stand on their back legs and are omnivores so eat anything, including humans! So not the sleepy white sloths that hang out in trees then Vicky. 

Bengal Tiger
There was not much advice on this one, so we interpreted this to mean if the tiger wants to kill you it can and it will. Our comfort was that they only eat humans when they want an easy kill, either they're very old and missing teeth or the tigress is heavily pregnant. Also, a tiger sighting was pretty unlikely. 

deer chitwan nepal
Two handsome stags give us their best Blue Steel.

Safety briefing done we were feeling very apprehensive but it was too late to turn back now! Silently we followed a trail through the jungle at the edge of the grassland where the grass was about two metres high, our guides pointed out fresh tiger faeces (tiger poo is hairy!) and claw marks on the trees which is how the tiger marks its territory, each tiger has its own 100km patch within the park. In our first 90 minutes we saw numerous deer, ducks, herons, and bugs but none of the larger mammals...

rhino chitwan nepal

Suddenly our senior guide stops and signals us to stop and be quiet, we were ushered to one side in a military type manoeuvre and there about eight metres ahead of us was a Rhino in all its grey, bulky glory, chomping away on some foliage oblivious to our presence. Our first instinct was to run (especially Steve!) but we managed to suppress it and watched fascinated to be so close but also very aware that this temperamental creature could rush at us at any point. We all started looking around for suitable trees to climb but there wasn't many good candidates and Vicky realised she didn't even know how to climb one. 

rhino chitwan nepal

At one point the Rhino realised we were there and stared straight at us for about 10-15 seconds (the scariest 10-15 seconds of our lives!) - no-one moved but after two long minutes he moved on about ten metres in another direction to a tastier looking bush. PHEW!

With our hearts racing the guides split us into two groups, the boys were to asked to climb about six metres up a tree to get a better view of the rhino and take photos, the girls were ushered closer to the rhino - WHAT(?!). As they edged nearer some branches on the ground crunched very loudly, the rhino looked right at them and let out a low grumble, Vic and the other girl got scared and vacated the vicinity, silently and quickly via the long way round followed by our totally unfazed guides. The rhino didn't actually move and seemed very content with his lunch.

The girls joined the boys in their tree and after about 20 minutes or so the guides recommended we move on, we willingly obliged. We learnt that this rhino was a teenager and weighed about two tonnes, rhinos grow to around three tonnes and have a lifespan of fifty years. They also wee a lot and have tiny eyes!

crocodile chitwan nepal
"She's a maneater!"

Next we followed a path along the river and went looking for some crocodiles. First up the non-maneating kind who is easy to identify because of their protruding eyes on top of a very long nose. A short walk later we met the man-eating one who looks way more sinister with a crooked toothy grin. Luckily both crocodiles were on the opposite river bank to us but we still had to be very quiet. As it was winter they only eat about one meal a week so we didn't feel too threatened. We said silent goodbyes to the crocs and then followed more fresh tiger prints and tail marks in the dust on a trail between some very tall grass. At one point the monkeys were shouting a warning that they could see a tiger! Nothing appeared, so we stopped for lunch in really beautiful spot and reflected on our first ever rhino sighting.

chitwan nepal

Afterwards we walked a while to a lookout tower and Vic saw a large cats behind with a long tail trotting in between the bushes - could it have been a tiger…?! The rest of the group were unsure as they didn't see it but we headed in its direction and followed more tiger prints, we walked along a wide track between the long grass. We heard a loud rustle which made us (ie. Sticky not the entire group) huddle like Shaggy and Scooby Doo! The guides threw rocks but nothing emerged, we felt very silly but remain adamant there was something there! 

rhino chitwan nepal

A few moments later about 50 metres ahead of us crossing our track was a HUGE rhino - this one was about three tonnes - it soon disappeared in to the long grass and we quietly walk past it not wanting to disturb it in an area with zero trees to hide up. Instead we strolled to the watering hole and lounged there for a bit, it's a beautiful spot and the sun was just started to lower itself the sky. 

chitwan nepal

Feeling rested we set off on the 90 minute walk back to the river where we started ie. safety! The path back was quite narrow through more tall, thick grass so we walked single file in silence, nervous about what could be lurking close by. Three pheasants scattered, we all froze and then we heard a very loud growl! We look to our grinning guides, one of whom is covering his mouth making a kind of shushing sound. We waited for what felt like ages, unsure if something was about to pounce, eventually we were given the signal to move on and told that it was a sloth bear. Yikes! That could of gotten ugly quickly and we were so close to home! On another note did you know that Baloo is Nepali for bear?

chitwan nepal

Thankfully we did made it back safely and tried to slow our heart rate as we watched the sunset from the riverbank. 

Observing these endangered animals up close in their wild habitat was fascinating and much better for their welfare - they are certainly not sedated like in some manmade tourist attractions.  Chitwan is now government owned and all of the animals and land are protected. Every six months they conduct a wildlife census to monitor numbers, most of this is done riding domestic elephants but as tigers are so stealth they also use cameras. There was lots of poaching here as recently as in the seventies and the rhino numbers dwindled to below 100. Now the park is protected by wardens to keep these mighty beasts safe and their numbers are increasing year on year. Today in Chitwan there are over 500 rhinos, 120 tigers, plus many sloth bears and wild Indian elephants!

We feel extremely privileged to have had an authentic David Attenbrough style moment and highly recommend it if you think you can handle it! It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience and given the chance we're not sure either of us would be brave enough to do it again! That evening our dinner conversation stemmed around  "Oh my god, we could have died!". But, it's better to try something when you have the chance than to wish that you had. 

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