Walking Across Chitwan National Park
Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
351Trip End Ongoing
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The sound of two bull rhinos fighting will stay implanted in my mind for a long time. Not just the sound--loud roaring, grunting, and clashing bodies--but also the closeness, a few dozen yards away. We were surrounded by thick, twenty foot tall elephant grasses in the middle of the jungle so could not see if the rhinos were coming our way; we could only listen as they fought, horn to horn.
At the time, shivers ran through Basu's spine, I was sure, although he wouldn't let me know until later. He was an excellent guide, along with Ram, who carried a big stick, which wouldn't do much against the rare One-horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) of Chitwan National Park.
"I was conducting a bird survey in 20,000 lakes when villagers were throwing stones at a rhino. The rhino and her baby were too close to them as they worked. So they threw stones. The rhino was mad and charged at me, as I was closest. I ran. The rhino bit me, broke my arm, then ran to her baby."
Basu showed me the scars from the rhino's huge teeth, usually reserved just for chewing grass.
"Then the rhino attacked again, biting me. It tried to step on me and kill me but I grabbed my backpack with my broken arm, held it with my left arm, and shoved it into the mouth of the rhino."
The rhino chewed for a while and returned to her baby. Basu ran, taking off his bloody tee shirt and hiding behind a tree, yelling at the locals that he'd been attacked. The rhino returned but smelled the shirt and tore it to shreds. The locals threw more rocks and the rhino left. Basu was almost dead and in shock, having lost so much blood.
While at the hospital, someone said: "it's funny how you were almost killed by a rhino yet your shirt said 'SAVE THE RHINOS'. Do you still feel that way?"
Only a few hundred One-horned Rhinos remain at Chitwan National Park, one of the strongholds for this endangered species. The park, formerly a game reserve for the king, was established to protect this species as well as tigers, croccodiles, and an amazing diversity of birds.
Today, Chitwan National Park is an island of wildlife in a sea of people. Once, rhinos, tigers, and a wide diversity of species thrived throughout the Gangetic Plain, fed by the Himalayan rivers, and flowing into the mangrove swamps of Bangladesh. This vast ecosystem of wetlands, rivers, and Sal forests is now one of the most densely populated areas in the world and many animals such as the rhinos and crocs can be counted in the hundreds.
As testament to the sad state of affairs, having a "healthy population" of several hundred rhinos is considered a "success story".
For six days, I hiked and biked in and around Chitwan National Park with Basu and Ram, two guides and naturalists from the Bird Education Society and Mowgli's Eco-Adventure Tours. The Bird Education Society has created an Ecological Farmers Forum and works with farmers for "the human wellbeing with a healthy environment by safeguarding the biological diversity."
The park requires two guides when traveling through the park, primarily for safety reasons. Nevertheless, problems with wildlife are few unless they are unwisely approached or poorly treated.
We began early in the morning, crossing the misty morning Rapti River by dugout canoe and entering the park on a trail with elephant grass growing on either side. The trails were muddy and leech infested, evidence of a night of rain. The trail continued through Sal (Shorea robusta) forests, savannas, and grasslands. Fire was a major transformer of this landscape, regenerating the landscape mainly during the dry winter monsoon period. Burn scars and charcoal-encrusted tree snags were evidence of historical fires.
Along the human trails and the criss-crossing, brush-breaking wild animal trails were tracks of the rhinos, tigers, deer, and many other animals. Tracks were everywhere--large tiger paw prints, the immense three toes of the rhino, the even bigger and deep ovals of elephant prints, human-like Sloth Bear tracks, even more human-like Langur and Macaque hand prints, smaller cat tracks, fox tracks, large deer hooves, small deer hooves. Even if I didn't see the wildlife behind the veil of the elephant grass, I knew this park was rich in wildlife.
But we did see, hear, and smell wildlife. There was so many signs of wildlife everywhere, my senses were overloaded. Below were dozens of deer tracks; to the left was a rhino run cutting through the elephant grass; above were three species of birds flying to the right, feeding on dragonflies, and hiding in the canopy leaves. "That's the smell of langurs," Basu said, as a musky smell permeated the thick, hot, and humid jungle air.
At another scale were trails of ants, termite mounds, bees, parasitoid wasps, caterpillars, long-horned beetles, dung beetles, fish in the rivers, lizards scurrying away, snakes slithering--hidden pythons.
At night the bats flew, chasing moths. Fireflies twinkled through the trees: dot...dot...dash. Geckos emerged around lights to eat flying insects. Mosquitoes emerged to eat me.
Then there was the human equation as thousands of people now encircled the park. The key part of this equation involved mosquitoes, carriers of malaria. Earlier, lowland areas of Nepal were only inhabited by the native Tharu peoples, malaria-resistent people supposedly descended from an Indian princess and her servants. She was sent with her servants to the Chitwan area to escape the invading Moghul armies; she never returned home, creating a new culture--the Tharu people--with her progeny.
In the 1960s, however, under a U.S. project, the Chitwan and entire lowland plains--the Terai--were sprayed with DDT. Several species were extirpated from the area. After the spraying, thousands of land-hungry people from the hills moved to Chitwan, surrounding the park and immediately creating conflicts with the remaining wildlife.
The animals now enjoy eating from the villagers' rice fields, destroying crops, vandalizing buildings, chasing humans, and sometimes eating them, although I hear they don't taste so good.
The humans, who are also animals, enjoy killing their wilder, cousin animals so they can ship their dried horns to China for love-sick Chinese men. They also like wearing their skins and dancing in celebration of their killings. At the same time, silly-looking people come from other places to stare at them through binoculars, for one reason or another.
I am one of those silly-looking people, although in no way do I associate myself with those who sniff rhino horn powder to improve their chances at love.
I'm sure the animals were guffawing while we picked leeches off our pants or when a few honey bees found their way into my pants or when we were slipping on the muddy trails. We could laugh at the deer too, as their tracks showed a lack of adroitness in the slippery sections.
But when I saw the Spotted Deer in person, I was struck by their beauty as they crossed a forested trail in front of us. Along the way, we also witnessed four species of kingfisher splashing into oxbow lakes after fish, Crested Tree Swifts flying with their long forked tails, nine species of woodpeckers each feeding in different niches of trees, Changeable Hawk Eagles battling Asian Open-bill Storks to snatch their young from their colony, and bee-eaters chasing dragonflies.
All in all, we watched tens of baker's dozens of birds performing their daily duties--mundane to them, new and amazing to me: how the Pond Herons, white while flying, would turn brown and camouflaged when at rest and how the globally-threatened Lesser Adjutant Stork would sound like Darth Vader's Tie Fighter as it flew overhead, parting the air.
We crossed the entire park over four days, each day staying outside the park, according to regulations, after a long hike. On the way, we passed army checkpoints, some complete with land mines and bunkers. The army guards the park and protects the wildlife from poachers, but they also have to worry about Maoist rebels and have banned phones from many of the buffer zone villages. The poachers are mainly outsiders looking to sell their "products" in China, although they need the help of locals to find the wildlife and avoid checkpoints.
For two nights we stayed at a guesthouse run by a British man and Nepali woman, now married. The man, once a crane operator, had left the "dreary land of England" behind.
"Why would I want to return there anyway?" he asked rhetorically.
The sun set behind the Rapti River, and a couple of rhinos fought in the distance. A mosquito bit me, just to make sure I wasn't dreaming: why would he want to return there, yep.
After a southerly hike across the park under a steamy sun, and crossing the seasonal Reu River by oxcart, we reached the village of Maardi, a Maoist-controlled area with neither power nor phones. In this large buffer zone, 60,000 people live in scattered settlements, where rice fields cover the lowlands. The Churia Hills rise to the south--India. Another park in India protects more land.
Basu felt strongly: "Eighty percent of the Maardi people own land outside of the buffer zone. They are only here so they can grow more rice in the rich soils, despite the conflicts with wildlife. If this area was parkland, wildlife would be much better protected." He felt that moving the people out and compensating them fairly would solve many problems now facing the park.
Earlier, 19,000 people were vacated from the park to make room for wildlife. Where they were moved, however, was not a good location, so there are problems such as a lack of clean water. Nevertheless, wildlife are now doing much better in the park, despite a recent bout of rhino poaching.
We left Maardi, walking across streams and through rice fields and villages. We entered the park, a sharp boundary between forest and rice field and crossed the Someshwar Hills, home of large hornbills and a wide diversity of forest birds. Thirty kilometers later, we exited the park at Meghauli: the jungle hike was over.
I was covered in bug bites and stings from a wide diversity of invertebrates--leeches, bees, spiders, ants, mosquitoes, bed bugs, chiggers. Though I am still itching now, days later, the itches serve as a reminder of a difficult yet rewarding trip through Chitwan National Park.