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On the Trail of the Wild Rhinoceros

ON THE TRAIL OF THE WILD RHINOCEROS:
Chitwan National Park in Nepal
By Diana McLeod

Chitwan National Park is a wild jungle that holds a great deal of wildlife, even today. You can see tigers, rhinoceros and sloth bears. But all of those creatures can easily kill you.

I met a young couple in Kathmandu who had just been there. Here is their story, followed by my own.

“"We didn't have enough money to hire elephants" the tourists told me, “"So we went deep into the jungle on foot, with a single guide. He told us that, if we saw a rhinoceros, he would throw down his coat. The rhinoceros would stop to sniff at the coat, because their eyesight is not very good. If we ran very fast, we would have just enough time to climb trees before the rhinoceros charged.”"

“"We didn't really take the warning very seriously,”" the woman added. “"We actually thought the guy was just kidding, trying to scare us. But then, a rhino came charging out of the underbrush, straight at us! They can run so fast! Sure enough, the guide threw down his coat, and we took off, running for our lives. I've never climbed a tree so fast in my entire life!”"

"“Yeah,"” he said, “"He soon lost interest in the coat, and he came after us. My wife'’s butt was only about one foot away from that horn when she got into the tree."”

"“We had to hang around in that tree for about an hour, waiting until the beast went away!”"

It was then that I vowed that, if I ever visited Chitwan, I would do it only when I had enough money to hire elephants. With rhinoceros and sloth bears and tigers about, I wanted to be safe on an elephant'’s back. I booked a tour with an outfit that promised lots of jungle action with guaranteed elephants, and Trena and I went off for a jungle adventure. (Trena is our store manager -– the redheaded one.)

After our six hour bus ride halfway across Nepal, just as our minibus brought us up to the edge of the river, we saw a small group of farm animals grazing beside the road. I almost missed the fact that half of the “farm animals” were actually wild rhinos! They were grazing right beside a few domesticated water buffaloes. We were delighted! We hadn'’t even left the bus yet, and already we had seen big game.

They ferried us across the river on small boats. The guides brought us to our jungle bungalows (concrete, not bamboo, thank goodness), and then they took us out for our first jungle adventure. But we did not get elephants! Our group was overlapping with another tour, and they got the elephants! We went on foot, right into the jungle, just like those other tourists I said I would never imitate….

I have to say I was extremely nervous. The guides carried bamboo sticks, which would never stop a rhino or a sloth bear. I watched the underbrush carefully, and I always had a choice of likely looking trees picked out, just in case. I began to wonder how many tourists get gored every year. But we sighted nothing, only a few Siberian geese and other waterfowl in the river. After a good long tramp through the jungle, we returned to the camp for dinner. One of the park rangers gave us a talk about the park and the animals we might expect to see. We were strictly cautioned to stay on the designated walkways at night and to never go roaming around the jungle by ourselves. They told us that tigers occasionally visited our island at night (Our camp was on a small island between the river and another flowing stream).

As the sun set, silhouetting the trees on the other side of the river, we watched a monkey family settling down for the night in the branches. The littlest ones were still making mischief, chasing each other around the disgruntled adults. The older animals sat in groups of two or three, quietly grooming each other and socializing. The river was peaceful and still, and it was a lovely place to watch the last light fade as the stars came out. As the darkness came, we crowded around the outdoor riverside bar, listening to the inevitable strains of Bob Marley, played on a tired old CD for the millionth time. Beers were ordered and we struck up a conversation with our fellow travelers, most of whom were fresh out of college. We made friends with a couple from Quebec, and Trena got to know one of the Nepalese guides. It was a very pleasant scene. I thought again about the monkeys in the trees just across the river. Were they studying our social behavior, just as we had studied theirs?

As we left the bar area, I looked cautiously out across the path before proceeding to the bungalow. The night seemed quiet enough, but our bungalow was at the back of the settlement, within just a few feet of the trees. As a joke, we chanted “"Tigers and rhinos and bears, oh my!”" (The old line from the Wizard of Oz). That night, I was glad for the concrete walls of the bungalow.

The next morning, we took our first elephant ride. They had built a ten foot tall loading platform for the tourists. We all climbed up the stairs and they loaded us in groups of three or four, onto the little platforms on the elephants'’ backs. Each person took a side, and we sat back to back, with our legs dangling over the side of the platform. There was a low railing to prevent anyone from falling off.

As soon as we were seated, each elephant lumbered off in a different direction. The guides planned to get as far apart as possible, so that each one of them could search for wildlife. They communicated with each other using a series of loud whistles. If one group spotted wildlife, other groups would turn and head in that direction. The guides could even flank a rhino, herding him straight towards other groups, so that they could also see the huge beast for themselves.

The island was surrounded by rivers and floodplains. The elephant crossed one small stream, and we wandered through grasslands, full of tall elephant grass -– prime tiger hunting territory. Our guide spotted an eagle, roosting in a nearby tree. Then we went back onto the island, and into the dense jungle. There were a wide variety of environments; –small thorny trees covered in vines and thick underbrush, dense forest canopy with sudden open meadows, grassy areas open to the sky, and a secret lily pond that was clearly a watering hole for all the local wild game. Our guide pointed out various animal tracks left in the mud that morning. Unfortunately, when we got there, it was deserted.

We did not see any big game on that ride. A few of the other groups did. We did a bit better on our river excursion. They took us out in dugout canoes. They were very thin canoes, just wide enough for our large tourist rears. We shared a canoe with an older couple, whose combined weight helped to push the sides of the canoe only inches from the waters. This was a bit unnerving, since Trena and I had already researched this area on line, and we knew that there were marsh mugger crocodiles in the waters around the park. (Marsh mugger crocodiles can grow up to sixteen feet long, and they can become man-eaters). I noticed that our guides did not mention the muggers to the tourists. I was even more surprised when they allowed one woman to stand up in her canoe and take pictures! She could easily have lost her balance and dumped the whole lot of them in the river. I wondered how fast she would have sat down if she had known about the muggers.

We were lucky enough to spot a Gharial, a critically endangered species of crocodile indigenous to India and Nepal. The Gharial has a very distinctively narrow snout, quite unlike a mugger. He was sunning himself on the riverbank, enjoying a warm bed of sand. This one was about eight to ten long, not quite big enough or imposing enough to persuade that silly tourist to sit down.

ON THE TRAIL OF THE WILD RHINOCEROS- PART TWO
SWIMMING WITH ELEPHANTS

That afternoon, we were invited to go down to the river when they went to wash the elephants. We were told that we could wear our bathing suits and go swimming with the elephants in the river.

I had a couple of concerns. First of all, fresh water in the tropics can have nasty small critters in it. Secondly, what about the Marsh Mugger crocodiles? Swimming in crocodile infested waters is not my idea of a good time. The rangers explained that the river branched in two sections, and the shallow branch had extremely tight spots where the flowing water was only about half a foot deep, both above and below the pool where the elephants bathed. No mugger could swim into the area, and none could lurk in the clear waters of the pool or lumber across the shallow spots without the elephants spotting him. The muggers, if there were any, were only likely to be found in the deep waters of the main river. The water in the small pool was very clean and clear, and straight off the Himalayas, so it was unlikely that it was full of microscopic nasties. Having ruled out the threat of crocodiles, Trena and I decided to go for a swim.

Trena was one of the first ones in. She rode into the water, bareback on the elephant, while I got out the video camera and filmed the whole thing. It was great! Four elephants got ready to take the plunge, each with a tourist on her back. The elephants got partway into the water, and turned to face the spectators (and the cameras) lining the bank. Then they lifted up their trunks and firehosed their foreign riders right in the face, while everyone else cheered and applauded. Trena got a fine shower. After that, it was a general melee, with each elephants shooting water at each other, and at the neighboring riders. There was a mad splashing contest, and then the real fun began. On the command of the mahouts, each elephant waded deeper into the river, and casually rolled onto their sides. One by one, the hapless tourists slid off, falling into the water. It was so much fun to watch! Hilarious! The tourists swam around and climbed back on, and the elephants did their best to knock them gently off again. I got the whole thing on video, although I had to duck when one elephant decided to firehose me! Luckily, I got the video camera out of the way, just in time.

My turn was next. It was a bit odd, feeling my bare legs against the scratchy bare back of the elephant. It didn'’t seem like the most stable perch, and I was glad that she was walking into the river, so that, if I fell off, I would at least fall into the water. Trena got on the bank with the camera, so that she could document the soaking and dunking that was about to take place.

I got a particularly playful elephant. She firehosed me, first in my face, and then from above. Then she got partway into the water and shrugged me off. I swam around and climbed back on again, only to have her gently grab me by the foot and tug me off the other way. The third time was a little bit scary for a minute, because she rolled onto her side, intending to toss me off her back, but I slid the wrong way, and wound up between her legs as she struggled to right herself. I got the heck out of there as fast as I could swim. I wouldn'’t want to get kicked by those massive legs! But the mahout, who was with her the whole time, giving her commands, wasn'’t concerned at all. He trusted her to be gentle, no matter what.

I was struck by how much the elephants obviously enjoyed themselves. They weren'’t simply obeying orders, instead, they were improvising and playing their own games with us, interacting with us in an intelligent way. This was obviously the high point of their day. Besides, I think that they relished a little bit of playful revenge for having to ferry the tourists around the hot jungle, with those uncomfortable howdahs strapped on their backs.

After the swimming was over, it was back to business for our pachyderm friends. The guides strapped the howdahs back on and took us on one more ride for the day. Trena and I got our very own elephant. Unfortunately for us, this one wasn'’t one of the mild mannered ones that they had used for the swimming party. This one was obviously at odds with her mahout, and he was just as cross at her. They weren’'t getting along very well, and I suspected that most of it was his fault. He was pretty brusque with her at times.

We went deeper into the jungle, fairly far away from the camp, and into a fairly dense forest environment. The whole time, Trena and I kept peering into the underbrush, searching for a glimpse of a wild rhinoceros, but we saw nothing, only some roosting egrets in the trees.

At one point, we came into a clearing, and our elephant began to pull out thick clumps of tall grass, beating them on the ground with her trunk to get rid of the topsoil that was clinging to the roots. She stuffed the grass in her mouth and went hunting for more. The mahout wanted her to continue her journey, but she really wanted to stop and graze. The mahout’s commands grew louder, and she ignored him, even when he thumped his knees behind her ears. He tried thumping her on the forehead, and she rumbled her discontent. He thumped again, and she got very angry. She reared up and trumpeted, and started thrashing back and forth. One more attempt at discipline, and she just lost it. The next thing we knew, she was running madly through the jungle, with us bouncing crazily on her back.

You’v'e probably heard the phrase “"an elephant running amok?"” Well, this was it. The mahout just yelled at us to hang on, because he couldn'’t stop her now. She blazed through the jungle at a full gallop. (Yes, they can gallop!) Trena and I were at serious risk of being severely injured by low lying tree branches. We weren'’t going to fall off, because the howdah had ropes around the sides, but the tree limbs were snapping us in our faces and threatening to decapitate us. We ducked and shoved branches out of the way as best we could.

And what were we doing while this was happening? Screaming? Crying? Nope. For some reason that neither of us can explain, this impossible and dangerous situation struck us both as being hilarious. I don'’t think I'’ve ever laughed harder in my entire life. Dangerous as it was, there was an element of comedy to it that had us both in stitches the whole way. Tears were streaming down both our faces as we repeatedly cracked each other up. Hysterical laughter? Perhaps, but I still can'’t remember it without smiling.

And where, you may ask, did we wind up? Were we hopelessly lost in the jungle? No, our elephant had been denied her snack, so our peevish pachyderm went straight to dinner. We took a “shortcut” straight home, where her meal was already waiting for her. She even let us get off before heading for the main course.

WHEN RHINOS ATTACK!
ON THE TRAIL OF THE WILD RHINOCEROS - PART THREE

That night, after we spent a respectable amount of time socializing with fellow travelers and swilling Nepalese beers at the bar, I decided to call it quits for the night. Trena, on the other hand, wanted to party on. She had gotten to know one of the Nepalese guides, and he had promised to take her out into the jungle to watch the elephants sleeping. I did my motherly best to remind her that the jungle was full of dangers at night, and that "“jungle boy"” was armed only with a bamboo stick to defend her against wild beasts (including tigers). My warnings went unheeded, (of course). They disappeared into the darkness, while I chided myself for being paranoid. I walked cautiously back to our concrete shack and went to bed.

Several hours later, I got up to use the toilet. I was sitting in there, when I heard a sound outside the window that froze my blood. I heard a tiger “cough.” It'’s not a roar, but a quiet sound they make when they'’re hunting. I had never heard that sound before, but I had read of it, and there was no doubt in my mind that I had just heard the real thing.

It was close! So close that I soon began to realize he was practically right outside my concrete shack! I could hear him sniffing around outside. Then it occurred to me:– was he hunting me? Had he heard me? Was he checking me out? I sat frozen, barely breathing, hoping he would go away. The bathroom “"window"” was a few latticed holes in the concrete; not even enough for him to even see through, let alone break into, but the simple mosquito screen over it left no doubt that he could at least smell me. The walls were secure enough; I supposed that even a determined full grown tiger would not try to peel back the tin roof?

Eventually I returned to the bedroom. I wanted to wake Trena and tell her that there was a tiger right outside our hut. I then discovered, to my horror, that her bed wasn'’t slept in yet! Trena was still out there - with a hungry tiger on the loose!! My stomach hit the floor! Was I about to hear screams? It was nearly midnight! At any moment, she could come traipsing blithely down the path, unaware of the danger! There was no way of warning her!

Worse than that, I was, after all, the responsible party. What was I going to tell her parents? "“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Isley, I'’m afraid to tell you that your daughter, while on a business trip with me, was attacked and eaten by a tiger? And I swear, it wasn'’t my fault!"” If anything ever happened to her, I would never, ever be able to forgive myself for my role in the tragedy. I began to look around the room for something, anything, that I could use as a weapon. Failing that, I thought that maybe I could distract him. A piece of clothing on a string, perhaps, that I could tease him with, giving her a chance to run. Just like a great big kitty cat, right? I got out my nylon laundry line, and was busy trying to construct the biggest cat toy in history, when, suddenly, the door opened, and there she was! I was never so glad to see anybody in all my life!!

For about two seconds, I wanted to wrap my arms around my prodigal "daughter" and squeeze her in relief. That was when the rage set in.

“"What the (expletive) were you doing out in the (expletive) jungle all (expletive) night!!!” Don’t you know there is an (expletive) tiger out there? Are you insane? You could have been killed!!”"

"Don't be such a worry wart," she replied, "We were all sitting at the bar, when we all heard him. The guides were all excited! It was soooo cool!"”

"Well this is the last time I leave you out in the jungle all by yourself at night! Seriously??”"

"”Honest to God, it was no big deal”."

No big deal? It was a good thing that we were leaving at noon the next day. If we had been planning another night in the jungle, I swear to God I would have chained her to the bed!

Suddenly, I felt a surge of gratitude to whatever or whoever runs the universe, for never having blessed (cursed) me with children of my own…. I would never have survived the anxieties of parenting.

The next morning, we got up early. I had finally shaken off my night terrors and I was eager to head out on elephant back again. After all, we had been in the park for three days, and we still had not seen a rhinoceros in the wild, except from the bus, which, honestly, does NOT count! We were in fairly dense jungle when it finally happened. A very large and aggressive male rhinoceros came bombing out of the underbrush, charging straight at our elephant! I had just enough time to hang on for dear life as the elephant trumpeted and reared up onto her hind legs, and I still managed to hit the “record” button on the video camera. He came galloping at us so fast! If we had been on foot, we never would have escaped being gored or trampled!

He stopped just short of our elephant'’s trunk. Her front feet kicked the air above his head, which made him stop to reconsider. His piggy little nearsighted eyes looked up in confusion, and then he backed off, loathe to attack an elephant. But he couldn'’t just surrender without at least demonstrating his prowess. He backed up in front of a large tree and began to spray, marking his territory just like a cat! Gallons of urine shot out of his rear like a firehose. Then he posed for pictures, just as proud as could be. Our elephant driver whistled frantically, letting the other mahouts know that he had spotted a rhino. Two other groups of tourists were able to make the scene before he finally disappeared into the underbrush.

We returned to the camp in triumph. It was the perfect ending to our stay in Chitwan National Park in Nepal. At least, as we headed down the “highway” back to Kathmandu, I thought our dangerous adventures were over. As it turned out, I was wrong, because the road was collapsing. One sandy lane had already fallen into the river, two hundred feet below, and the second lane looked as though it might follow suit. At least it wouldn't be entirely my fault if the road collapsed under us.… Needless to say, our bus made it past the dangerous point, or I wouldn't be here to write this. After our adventures in the jungle, the perils of the road didn'’t seem like that big a deal.