Join us on our journey to a Rhino refuge in Chitwan, Nepal
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 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 eyesight, locks us in a piercing, silent gaze that is my undoing. This one-horned leathery beast may not be the reason I endured 10 uncomfortable hours on a crowded Nepali bus, but to eyeball this rhino — one of the world’s rarest creatures — is a moment of pure rapture.
I came to Chitwan National Park with tigers on my mind but in Nepal’s oldest and most famous wildlife sanctuary I encounter the world’s largest rhino in wondrous droves: female-led family groups feeding by the dusty track and a solitary alpha male that saunters across our path.
In Nepal’s oldest and most famous wildlife sanctuary I encounter the world’s largest rhino in wondrous droves: female-led family groups feeding by the dusty track and a solitary alpha male that saunters across our path.
There are all-alone orphans grazing on the edge of the park, patiently ignoring our presence, safe from the rogue males that 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.
The war on wildlife
The World Wildlife Fund has called it 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. Savaged by a century of royal hunting, habitat destruction and poachers chasing valuable rhino horn with a black market value three times that of gold, the park’s population had bottomed out at just 95 individuals.
The rhino’s decimation — from 800 to 95 individuals in just 20 years — was a swift, surprising but entirely man-made decline. It began 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 per cent 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 villages 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.
Conservation groups are calling Chitwan the world’s most important rhino refuge, critical to the recovery of the species overall.
The government had amends to make and it meant business. A new army of 130 men — the Gaida Gasti or Rhino Patrol — 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.
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, slaughtered rhinos, tigers, leopards and more 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 fewer 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 — 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 as well.
Conservation groups are calling Chitwan the world’s most important rhino refuge, critical to the recovery of the species overall. But, while greater one-horned rhinos remain on the IUCN Red List as “vulnerable”, the battle for survival is far from over.
While the greater one-horned rhino once ranged from Pakistan (where it became extinct) all the way east to Myanmar, today it is restricted to a handful of fragmented pockets of jungle, making the species exceptionally vulnerable to natural disaster and disease.
In fact, all five of the world’s rhino species are listed as critically endangered, vulnerable or near threatened and scientists fear that the two Indonesian species — the Javan and Sumatran rhinos — are headed for extinction in the wild.
Enough is known about the solitary greater one-horned rhino to keep it alive, if we commit to its survival. With good hearing and exceptional 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. Although it might not appear nimble, this surprising creature that weighs as much as an SUV can reach speeds of up to 50km/h. Attacks, however, are rare.
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. The fifth most sought-after sighting is the endangered gharial, a rare freshwater crocodile that lazes on the banks of the Rapti River in clear view, much to the delight of tourists.
In all, an astounding 68 mammal species and hundreds of birds and reptiles colour Chitwan’s landscape — langurs and spotted deer, peacocks and fearsome mugger crocodiles — but none excites quite like Chitwan’s remarkable grey giants.
With more than 932 square kilometres of forests, grasslands and boggy marshes for animals to roam, Chitwan National Park remains one of Asia’s best and most accessible wildlife sanctuaries and a safari here is worth every bit of its $250 price tag.
Make it happen
Air Asia (airasia.com) flies from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and the Gold Coast to Kathmandu via Kuala Lumpur. A 30-day visa-on-arrival costs US$40, payable in Australian dollars (kids under 10 years are free). Plan your trip for the cool, dry months from February to April when wildlife is easiest to spot. Find out more at welcomenepal.com.
Plan your safari
Online packages that include accommodation, meals and safaris can be booked in advance through Tiger Tops (Karnali Lodge from $335 per person, tigertops.com). Alternatively, organise your tour through any hotel upon arrival in Sauraha, the tourist village and gateway to Chitwan National park (from $250 per jeep with food, park permits and guide included).
Refuse elephant rides
The treatment of captive elephants in Sauraha should appal every traveller who visits. 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).
Chitwan’s Big 5
- Bengal tiger
It’s said that in Chitwan National Park a tiger is 100 times more likely to see you than vice versa. Despite a near doubling of Nepal’s tiger population in the last decade from 121 to 235 creatures, tiger numbers in Chitwan — home to Nepal’s largest wild tiger population — have dropped dramatically.
Figures released in September 2018 put the number of big cats in Chitwan at a troubling 93 adult tigers, meaning that 27 tigers have disappeared in the past five years (five tigers in 2018 alone). Experts theorise that Chitwan’s territorial tigers may be fighting each other inside the reserve, whose borders and food resources are constantly under threat from human encroachment.
- 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 an elephant’s back; the animal is poked and prodded to perform while the handlers pocket the cash.
Wild elephant encounters are extremely rare in Chitwan, although buffering reserves nurture a small group of around 25. With their large, forward-bending, India-shaped ears, Asian elephants are fascinating beasts. Their trunks employ 100,000 muscles and can hold a whopping nine litres of water, which is good considering they drink around 200 litres a day.
- 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.
In December 2017, Nepal’s last two dancing bears were rescued from a dire situation in captivity. Six months later, despite their promised repatriation to India’s Wildlife SOS sanctuary, one of the bears, Sridevi, died in Nepal’s Central Zoo. Pressure from rescue groups finally freed Rangila who was later released to the sanctuary.
- Gharial crocodile
Critically endangered gharials may reach a massive seven metres long but the world’s second-largest crocodile is really just a harmless fish eater, sunning itself on the banks of Chitwan’s Rapti River and ignoring the tourist canoes that paddle by.
When its numbers plunged in the 1970s, Nepal opened a captive breeding centre inside Chitwan National Park and, in the years since, has released gharials back into the wild to boost numbers. Most, however, washed down river into India, unable to work their way back upstream over human-made dams and catchments. In the latest 2016 census, just 166 gharials were recorded in Chitwan’s river system.
- Greater one-horned rhino
With poor eyesight but exceptional senses of smell and hearing, these rhinos know you’re around even if they can’t see you. Not to be underestimated, greater one-horned rhinos have a habit of running their 2700 kilos of rhino bulk right at intruders at speeds of up to 40km/h.
Like Asian elephants, greater one-horned rhinos live long in the wild — up to 45 years — and follow familiar jungle tracks which they mark with a scent gland located on the soles of their feet.
While greater one-horned rhino numbers are on the rise in Chitwan, they are still listed as vulnerable and all the world’s rhinos are at risk: the threatened white rhino, the critically endangered black and Sumatran rhinos and the near-extinct Javan rhino.
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