Tracking Nepal’s endangered rhino

Finding the endangered, elusive Indian rhino isn’t always easy, even at Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. Even more challenging? Knowing what to do when the 2,000kg creature charges.

As the sunlight ebbed, we realised we were running out of time: for the past three hours, we had been hiking through southern Nepal’s impenetrable jungles and savannahs, searching for its elusive, endangered rhino. We had found not a single sign of wildlife activity – not even a print or piece of animal dung.

Our guide Baikuntha Simkhada, a Nepali with 14 years of experience tracking wildlife in the area, was having as much trouble as we were. Still, he remained optimistic.

“Don’t worry, they will appear,” he assured me. “They always do.”

We had come to Royal Chitwan National Park to see the Indian rhinoceros – better known as the greater one-horned rhino. Over the decades, hunting had reduced the once-thriving population to only 95 by 1970. To save the species, the Nepalese government established Royal Chitwan in 1973, introducing 130 armed rangers and 51 guard posts across the 932sqkm park. Some 500 Indian rhinos now are reported to live in the park.  

Rhinos are not the only creatures that reside here. Chitwan’s mosaic of marshy floodplains, tall grasslands and evergreen forests attracts some 500 animal species, including the endangered Bengal tiger, sloth bear, clouded leopard and striped hyena. But the Indian rhino is Chitwan’s main attraction: the park is one of the world’s sole places to see the creature, only 3,000 of which exist in the wild worldwide. Now we worried we would leave without spotting a single one.

Forced to give up for the night, we continued on our mission the next morning, setting off before dawn on a canoe ride along the Rapti River – one of the four water channels that border the national park.

The sky was tinged with a moody, purplish-pink glow; wispy clouds hung low. Black cormorants and giant egrets circled overhead while sneaky crocodiles lurked underwater, eager to snag their catch for the day.

Crossing the raging river, we cautiously made our way into the jungle’s depths, this time on a trusty, open-topped jeep, with Simkhada once again as our guide. As we drove through the woods, we glimpsed monkeys, snakes and lizards – but no rhinos.

Suddenly, Simkhada’s walkie-talkie crackled with the voice of a fellow wildlife guide. He shouted a command at the driver. We immediately launched down the jungle trail at top speed, leaving a stream of dust and mud behind us.

Barely five minutes later, we screeched to a halt next to a tangle of vine, branches and bush. I squinted through binoculars in the direction Simkhada was looking, but all I could see was a blur of grey through the dense foliage. Without saying a word, our guide leapt off the jeep, together with a few local rangers, and headed into the bush. I followed them cautiously, as is normal on safaris in Chitwan – when the guide says it is safe to do so, that is, as it seemed to be now. But my heart was pounding with each step.

In a clearing, I finally saw it: a prehistoric-looking creature almost 2m tall with a bulky grey body, armour-plated skin, robust legs and hooked horn. The rhino stood just 5m away, flaring its nostrils in the air to sniff us out.

And then it did what you never want a rhino to do: raised its horned head and stamped its front legs. Was the 2,000kg animal about to charge us? Shouts of panic ricocheted through the air. “Run, run, run!” Simkhada yelled.

I spun around and sprinted through the bush, running, perhaps literally, for my life. Siddhartha’s words echoed through my mind: “Rhinoceros have terrible eyesight,” he had told us on our first day in Chitwan. “If a rhino charges, climb a tree – it won’t be able to see you.”

Thankfully, there was no need for tree climbing. The rhino, it turns out, was as afraid as we were – and already had disappeared into the distance.

Piling back onto the jeep, we made our way back to the trail. In a clearing about 10 minutes later, another adult rhino wandered right into our path, munching peacefully on clusters of tall elephant grass.

Future generations may not be as lucky as we were; sadly, the animal’s survival remains a question mark. Chitwan is already struggling to supply the vegetation needed for the growing rhino population. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more rhinos are venturing out of the park’s protected area to feed in the surrounding villages – which has resulted in a few rhino-human clashes, and several deaths.

Poaching is another persistent problem. Although hunting was outlawed in 1970 and the trade of rhino horns has been banned since 1977, rhino horn trading remains rampant. Even though it’s not scientifically proven to have any health value, the horn is often used as a treatment for terminal diseases in traditional Asian medicine. In South Africa, 1,004 white rhinos were poached in 2013 alone – the highest number ever recorded and a 50% increase over 2012.

In Chitwan, though, there is some hope. In 2002, 37 rhinos were killed by poachers; in March of this year, the park announced that no rhinos had been poached over the previous 12 months. It marks the second time in the park’s history that there’s been at least a year between poaching. (In the same period, 368 poaching suspects were arrested across Nepal.)

As we watched the rhino before us in silence, Simkhada smiled. “I told you,” he said. “They always appear.”

An ideal time to visit Chitwan is between September and November, after the monsoon season. Tourist buses to the park run from Pokhara, Kathmandu and the Sonali border crossing, and take anywhere from five to eight hours. More about the bus fares and schedules can be found on the Chitwan Tourism website.

The main gateway town to Chitwan is Sauraha, which has a variety of lodges, restaurants and operators to suit different budgets. One affordable, comfortable place to stay is the Maruni Sanctuary Lodge, with air-conditioned cottage rooms and thatch-roofed long houses. The lodge also organises activities such as jeep safaris, canoe rides, jungle walks, elephant safaris and village visits.  

To explore the national park, visitors must travel with a licensed park guide. Hiring an official local guide not only ensures your safety but also helps contribute to the community.