Living with rhinos (no. 9 in Birding in Asia series)

by Jeff Durbin

THE HIMALAYAS GIVE Nepal some of the highest mountain terrain in the world, which is like saying the Grand Canyon gives Arizona a really deep river valley. The surprise about Nepal is the amazing stairstep terrain: from above-the-death-zone peaks on the Tibet border to the hilly central region to a tropical plain on the India border.

The tropical Terai plain—28,500 feet lower than Mount Everest—is now agricultural but was once a vast sweep of grassland and forest. Today this Terai landscape is best seen in Chitwan National Park. Chitwan, originally set aside as a royal hunting reserve, is critical habitat for endangered Indian rhinos and Bengal tigers. Mosquitos also thrive there. Fortunately my guesthouse in Sauhara, just outside the park, featured excellent netting around the bed.

To enter the park, you must hire two guides. Mine were local Tharu guys who translated their outdoor abilities into making a living. Ram was a licensed senior guide at 22 years old, no small accomplishment as the standards are exacting. He carried a water-damaged pair of Nikon binoculars. Som, the other guide, carried nothing. It didn’t matter. Not only did they identify everything that moved, they identified things that didn’t move, saw tracks, found all the signs.

From the park boundary at the Rapti River, Ram, Som, and I walked in on a dusty jeep road. Animal signs were plentiful, including rhino and tiger. We—by that I mean Ram and Som—found apparently hours-old tiger scat containing deer bones and grass—the grass for digestive purposes. We also saw signs of spotted, barking, and sambar deer, gaur (largest species of wild cattle), fishing cat, and civet. Termite nests, sometimes person-high, were scattered through the forest. Sloth bears dug around these, and dug holes and scratched trees everywhere.

Birds are everywhere in Chitwan. At the Rapti River I saw a beautiful array of kingfishers, including the pied, common, and white-throated. If you’re into bright, colorful birds, Chitwan is the place. Even the names convey vivid color: blue-tailed bee-eaters (green and blue trimmed with red, yellow, and black), scarlet minivets, rose-ringed and blossom-headed parakeets, Indian rollers.

Two of my two favorite birds—favorite for looking out of place while in their rightful places—were the red junglefowl and peafowl. My impression of peafowls (peacocks and peahens) is an ornamental parkbird, a beautiful and exotic decoration, when in fact they belong to tropical south Asia. The junglefowl is known to us through our domestic chickens. Around the world are some 50 common poultry breeds. The wild original of these breeds is the red junglefowl of south Asia, including Chitwan.

The jeep road took us past an army camp located in the park. Army outposts are scattered throughout Nepal to keep Maoist guerrillas in check—the Maoists control much of the country outside cities and towns. (After a 2006 cease-fire, the Nepalese government and Maoists agreed in 2007 to share political power.) We stopped at the camp to check in, then Ram and Som played against off-duty soldiers in raucous games of carrom, a popular south-Asian version of billiards (shots are executed with fingers instead of cues). Ram and Som were excellent players and the soldiers welcomed them as friendly rivals.

Overnight we stayed in a guesthouse in a village on the Rapti River, downstream from our crossing that morning. The next day we walked back into the park, arriving around 10 in the morning at a lake with an observation tower. There were some nice birds on the water below: paddybird, red-wattled lapwing, whistling duck, open-bill stork, lesser adjutant stork. After a short cacophony of alarm calls, the storks and ducks scattered from the far bank. Moments later, everything—everything—cleared away fast.

Ten seconds later, Ram, fittingly, was the first to see the intruder. It was a tiger. He glided through the elephant grass, then vanished from view. Ten minutes later we heard it, barking 12 or 15 times to call the (typically) three or four female tigers in its territory. This was tremendous luck. Tigers are nocturnal except when forced by hunger to hunt in the daytime, and they do not make themselves easy to see. We were the first foot party of the year to see a tiger.

Returned from the two-day walk, I spent the next day riding a bike to a village inside the park boundary with another guide. There we played soccer (no better way to make friends) and met his family. Most of the guides are Tharus, as are many employees at the elephant stables, home to the elephants that take tourists into Chitwan. Immigrants from Nepal’s hill country are also pouring into the area for jobs.

The villagers are crucial to the success of Chitwan. They are not well off, and need grass from the park for house materials and to graze their buffalo. Some get it illegally, although these days the park is open 10 days a year for grass-cutting. Other villagers may cut timber in the park. High prices for rhino horn and tiger bone in Asia attract poachers, even with more than 4,000 Nepalese army troops stationed in the park.

The naturalist George Schaller, who has spent his career in Asia, wrote in Stones of Silence that “There is a tendency to think of ecological problems as scientific and technological when they are actually social and cultural.” Finding valuable habitat or rare wildlife to save, then blocking off the land, is unrealistic in most of the world. Perhaps only in the United States, with its vast federal lands, underpopulated wild areas, and tradition of law, can nature reserves be established so easily. We have our share of political battles over potential parkland, but basic subsistance needs of people aren’t an issue.

Asia has many national parks—Nepal, for example, has set aside 14 percent of the country for parks or conservation—but many exist more on paper than in reality. At first, typically, villages lie inside park boundaries. Then as park managers become more powerful and the park brings in tourist money, the villages are relocated outside the park. In the case of Chitwan, such plans are in place: the relocated villagers will get electricity with the move and still be able to cut grass annually.

If villagers have no stake in the success of the park, it will fail. If the rhinos (which cross the Rapti River at night to get their fill of corn, and trample people during grass-cutting season) are regarded as nuisances that bring hardship, if the people are so poor they must cut firewood and grass in the park illegally, if the farmers see none of the tourist revenue—then the park is doomed. Though an adjoining reserve, Parsa, may be added, Chitwan is a small island of 1,000 square kilometers. To survive it must get along with its neighbors.