Trumping Tigers in Chitwan National Park, One-horned Rhinos are Nepal’s new ‘Kings of the Jungle’
Deep in the tangled subtropical jungle that fringes southern Nepal, we bounce through Chitwan National Park on the back of a jeep, peering into the elephant grass where wild Bengali tigers roam.
Watching and waiting in the muggy monsoon heat, the tracker guide beside me falls asleep, lulled by this slow, lurching ride and the distinct lack of tigers.
That’s when we spy her: a great, grey giant and her tiny calf by a trickle of a stream. Nose raised high, she sniffs us out and despite her terrible vision, locks us in her sights with a piercing, silent gaze that is my undoing.
This leathery, one-horned beast is not the reason I endured 10 uncomfortable hours on a crowded Nepali bus. Yet, to eyeball this rhino – one of the world’s rarest creatures – is a moment of surprising rapture.
I came to Chitwan National Park with tigers on my mind. In Nepal’s oldest and most famous wildlife sanctuary, I encounter the world’s largest rhino instead: a solitary alpha male that saunters across our path and female-led family groups feeding by the dusty track.
There are all-alone orphans grazing on the edge of the park, patiently ignoring our presence and safe from the rogue males who might challenge them deep in the jungle.
As we sit by the Rapti River at sunset, sipping chilly Kingfisher beers in wicker chairs sunk into the sand, we suddenly spy an enormous male rhino, known as gaida in Nepal, bathing up to his neck 100 metres away.
It’s a moment worth celebrating and we do, because in Chitwan – Nepal’s ‘heart of the jungle’ – these stoic survivors are staging a remarkable comeback. Finally, after more than 100 years of hunting, greater one-horned rhino numbers are on the rise and drawing a crowd.
The War on Wildlife
It’s a recovery that the World Wildlife Fund has called one of the greatest conservation success stories in Asia, but before national park boundaries were enforced in 1973, Chitwan’s greater one-horned rhino (rhinoceros unicornis) was close to extinction.
The rhino’s annihilation – from 800 to 95 individuals in just 20 years – was a swift but entirely man-made toppling. What savaged their population began with a century of royal hunting, habitat destruction and poachers chasing valuable rhino horn with a black market value three times that of gold.
The rhinos’ final downward spiral started in the 1950s when a state-led malaria eradication program using DDT to wipe out mosquitoes across the Terai, enticed land-hungry migrants south to Nepal’s lowlands. The farmers stripped the Terai of great swathes of forest and with it went the rhinos. With 70 percent of Chitwan’s jungles gone, the rhinos didn’t stand a chance.
Nepal’s royal-led recovery plan was bold. More than 22,000 people were forcibly relocated from within Chitwan’s park boundary: Tharu villagers were destroyed, houses burnt to the ground and locals were beaten and threatened at gunpoint. It was tough love in the name of the rhino.
The Rhino Patrol fails
The government had amends to make and they meant business. A new army of 130 men – the Gaida Gasti – took control of Chitwan, staking out a network of guard posts all over the national park and targeting and arresting poachers in promising numbers.
Things were looking up when in 1984, Chitwan was granted a World Heritage listing. These successes, however, were short-lived.
Enter the Maoists
In 1996, Maoist rebels staged an uprising that gripped Nepal for a decade, seizing almost half the country and leaving 13,000 people dead.
With soldiers diverted from their Terai posts to fight the insurgents, poachers moved in and with unobstructed access to Chitwan’s lucrative wildlife, rhinos, tigers, leopards and more were slaughtered in unthinkable numbers.
Rhinos were shot and trapped, electrocuted, speared and poisoned. In 2002 alone, poachers killed and dehorned 37 of Chitwan’s precious rhinos, and the population of less than 200 hovered very close to extinction.
Peace and protection eventually returned to Chitwan and today, 12 years since the war ended, 605 greater one-horned rhinos call the national park home. That’s almost a fifth of the 3550 left in the wild. So stable has Chitwan’s rhino population become that individuals are being used to bolster neighbouring reserves and those populations are swelling too.
Conservation groups are now calling Chitwan National Park the world’s most important rhino refuge, critical to the recovery of this species that once ranged from Pakistan to Myanmar.
But while rhinos remain restricted to a handful of fragmented jungle pockets, the still vulnerable species remains on the IUCN Red List.
It’s a remarkable feat that rhinos today are the most common of Chitwan’s premium ‘Big Five’, stealing the thunder from rarely seen royal Bengal tigers, wild Asian elephants and sleepy sloth bears.
Safaris routinely encounter langurs and spotted deer, peacocks and fearsome mugger crocodiles, and the endangered freshwater crocodiles known as gharials that languish on the banks of the Rapti River in clear, delightful view.
For every visitor to Nepal, Chitwan National Park remains one of Asia’s best, most important and accessible wildlife sanctuaries and a safari in search of its remarkable grey giants is worth every bit of its $250 price tag.
Make it happen: Nepal offers 30-day visas-on-arrival (US$40 adults, free for kids under 10 years (welcomenepal.com). Fly to Chitwan or brave the bus. On arrival in Sauraha on the national park’s fringe, book a jeep safari (from $250) or pre-book an all-inclusive stay at Tiger Top (Karnali Lodge from $335 per person, tigertops.com).
When: Visit from February to April when conditions are cool and wildlife is easier to spot.
Refuse Elephant Rides: The treatment of captive elephants in Sauraha should appal every traveller. One look at that long, sharp metal pole used to coerce the elephants into giving rides and participating in archaic tourist bathing routines, and you know that the fun of riding or sliding off an elephant’s back into the river is not worth a lifetime of captivity for these dignified creatures.
Save the Rhino: To explore how you can help save the world’s rhinos visit worldwildlife.org, savetherhino.org or rhinos.org (International Rhino Foundation).
Headed to Nepal? Tick off Chitwan’s Big 5
1. Greater one-horned rhino
With good hearing and an exceptional sense of smell, greater one-horned rhinos know what’s coming. Their poor vision can allow watchers to get exceptionally close, but when they do, a rhino’s charge can be swift and deadly.
This surprising creature that weighs as much as an SUV can reach speeds of40kph – that’s 2700 kilos of rhino bulk headed straight at you. Attacks, however, are rare.
Top Fact: Greater one-horned rhinos follow familiar jungle tracks that they mark with a scent gland located on the souls of their feet.
2. Bengal tiger
It’s said that in Chitwan National Park, a tiger is 100 times more likely to see you, than vice versa. Despite being home to Nepal’s largest wild tiger population, Chitwan’s tigers are rarely seen and their numbers are dwindling.
Figures released in September 2018 put the number of big cats in Chitwan at a troubling 93 adult tigers. In the last five years, 27 tigers have disappeared (five tigers in 2018 alone).
Top Fact: Experts wonder if Chitwan’s territorial tigers are fighting each other inside the reserve over dwindling food resources.
3. Asian elephant
The largest and most majestic of all Nepal’s mammals, the hathi most commonly spotted in Chitwan is a shadow of its former self: tamed and enslaved to ferry tourists through the jungle.
At sunset alongside Chitwan’s Rapti River, travellers queue up for the chance to ‘bathe’ on a captive elephant’s back, the animal pocked and prodded to perform while their handlers pocket the cash.
Wild elephant encounters are extremely rare in Chitwan, although buffering reserves nurture a small group of around 25.
Top Fact: Asian elephant trunks utilise 100,000 muscles and can hold 9 litres of water, which is good considering they drink 200 litres a day.
4. Sloth bear
Despite all appearances, sloth bears are not slow at all. They can outrun humans, are good swimmers and climbers, and are quick to attack when intruders approach. No one really knows how many sloth bears thrive in Chitwan National Park, although in 2015, a survey team counted 39 incidentally.
Top Fact: In December 2017, Nepal’s last two dancing bears were rescued from captivity. Six months later, despite all promises, Sridevi died in Nepal’s Central Zoo. Pressure from rescue groups finally freed Rangeelawho was later released to India’s Wildlife SOS sanctuary.
5. Gharial crocodile
Critically endangered gharials measure a massive seven metres long, but the world’s second largest crocodile is just a harmless fish eater, sunning itself on the banks of Chitwan’s Rapti River and ignoring the tourist canoes that paddle on by.
When their numbers plunged in the 1970s, Nepal opened a captive breeding centre inside Chitwan National Park but most released into the wild in the years since have been washed down river into India, unable to swim back upstream over human-made dams and catchments.
Top Fact: In 2016, only 166 gharials were recorded in Chitwan’s river system.