Rhino before the morning tea

Features Issue 123 Feb, 2012
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: ECS Media

A big jeep appeared on the driveway of the resort. A man stepped out, and rushed towards the lobby where Sanjeev and I were waiting. He was the Warden of the Chitwan National Park and was there to take us into the jungle. Soon we were bounding along the graveled road towards the Chure Hills. Behind us, hazy in the dust and appearing as a chimera when seen from this lowland, were the magnificent mountains. On either side of the road were expanses of ripened wheat. Looming in the distance was the dense swathe of the jungle, running as far as the green hills in the distance.

Traveling through a scant sal forest, we arrived on the banks of the Narayani River. A bridge spanned the river. The bridge, being made of concrete, looked very odd in the middle of this large forest, as though it hadn’t been built across the river but had been dropped into position from above. A dilapidated bus grunted across the river, strained by its load of passengers, some of whom were on the roof. We crossed over into the park’s headquarters, where the Warden lived.

The next morning Sanjeev and I decided to go on a walk to the bridge. There was a wooden platform jutting out slightly over the river’s bank. It offered an excellent view of the big grassland across the river. We went onto the platform. As I ran my eyes through the grassland I spotted a dark gray bulk trundling up to the water opposite us. It was a rhino. Chewing in that classic indolent manner of rhinos, it entered the water and began to swim across. I suggested that we try and get closer to the rhino, without compromising safety, of course. We moved along the bank and found a place from where we could see the rhino emerge from the water. We must have moved too late, underestimating its swimming prowess, for when we got to our spot, the rhino was nowhere to be seen.

We headed for the bridge.

An eagle was busy building a nest on a tall sal tree. It was carrying twigs and adding it to its nest. The eagle had even stuck a colorful piece of cloth in the nest, an embellishment that would be the envy of all nesters. Nothing except the ubiquitous Ruddy Shelled Ducks and egrets were visible from the bridge, so we turned back toward the Warden’s quarters. On the way, suddenly, a black figure crossed the road about fifty meters in front of us. It was the same rhinoceros we had seen on the opposite bank an hour ago.

The Warden’s quarters and an adjoining army barracks were on a slightly high ground. Between this raised ground and the graveled road, on which we were standing, ran an area of sparse grass and shrubs. The rhino was breakfasting here. We quietly made our way to a track that branched off from the main gravel road and ran to the barracks. This track rose abruptly just before reaching the barracks. We hid behind a big tree. I told Sanjeev that if the rhino charged we would run up the steep track. My logic was based on the assumption that a rhino would have a hard time maintaining speed up the slope because of its bulky body, enabling us to outrun it.

Making great efforts in avoiding the brittle branches and dry leaves, we inched forward. With every step we took the rhino appeared bigger. We stood still after some time. The only sound was that of the undergrowth snapping under the heavy feet of the rhino as it moved around in search of the next morsel. Suddenly it looked up and saw us. Its ears sprang up like two radars. It was looking straight at us, its nostrils flaring a little. The face had turned slightly menacing. I could see it trying hard to scrutinize us, but the distance was too great for its poor eyesight to give a clear picture. I took a few photos and then we backed away, leaving him gazing in our direction for a while before he got down to feeding again.

Gently Smiling Jaws
After breakfast we walked to the Gharial Breeding Center. It was located in a clearing surrounded by large trees. Knobby snouts and thin, sharp teeth were glistening in the sun. Infant gharials were clustered together, as if a potter had just made them and kept them out in the sun to dry. The larger adults occupied different corners in their enclosures, idly soaking the sun. The reptiles were perfect hosts (although they were a bit indifferent), and remained passive largely due to lethargy but also to an extent, I believe, out of courtesy. And they grinned throughout the visit. Lewis Carroll’s lines captured their mien accurately:

How cheerfully he [the crocodile] seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fish in,
With gently smiling jaws!

Although these lines, which were painted on a notice board, were written in ode of the Nile crocodile, our crocodiles of the Narayani flashed equally cheerful grins, bearing all their teeth. That is about as much as one will get from them on a chilly early spring morning.
The Warden was talking to a worried-looking man inside the circular, thatched outhouse, which was the place where meals were taken, the fate of petty violators of park laws decided and all the official work of the park administration conducted. We quietly slid into the plastic chairs. Soon we learned that a tiger had entered a community-owned forest nearby, and had already killed a couple of goats. The man with the worried look turned out to be the park official who was incharge of the post in that community. He had fled the post after the locals had locked it and issued threats. Now he had come seeking the Warden’s help. The Warden wasn’t impressed. He chided the man for what he thought was a show of weakness. “I understand, but you shouldn’t have fled,” said the Warden, after listening to the man’s reasons for fleeing.

The situation was grave but the Warden was unnaturally calm. Why is he so relaxed? Why isn’t he taking action to fix the problem? I thought. Perhaps it was his decades spent in the jungle that had inured him to such problems. “The tiger is probably wounded. It is only in the forest to recuperate. I will mobilize a team to look into the matter soon,” he assured. His sub-ordinate was becoming increasingly irritated. “When will your team go there, after a man’s been killed?” he snapped.

Hesitantly, and only because of his officer’s endless pleas, the Warden picked up the phone set, and called the chairman of the committee that looked after the forest where the tiger was hiding. The conversation started normally. But the man on the other end suddenly requested the Warden to send a team to kill the tiger. At this the benign face of the Warden trembled with anger. Unable to hold his anger, he said, “Kill a tiger? How dare you say that? Do you know how many tigers there are left in the wild? You’re the chairman and you say such a thing!” The Warden’s soft voice had turned into a roar. He banged down the receiver into the holder.

Had the Warden been a man of lesser equanimity, the benches installed for visitors would have had a salesman for telephone sets squeezed between the dozens of people who come to the park headquarters to claim and complain. For some years now, Chitwan National Park has been ravaged by an alien creeper plant species that smothers everything, eventually killing it. Its rapacious spread over the jungle is reported in papers frequently. But seeing the Warden, a man who had given his youth to the cause of protecting Nature and its creations, a man who couldn’t stand the idea of a tiger dying even when it was accused of killing, and listening to his stories of how high-level politicians have called him to influence his decisions, I began to see that politics and greed had smothered this richest of Nepal’s national parks long before the creeper had entwined itself around the first branch. The Warden looked like a man spent when he said to us, “Now, it is you who have to do something to save our wildlife.”
We decided it was time to move out of the pressure-cooker room that the outhouse had turned into. Only the evening before, it was the place where we had chatted and bantered and heard the Warden’s jungle anecdotes. Only yesterday the Warden was so affable. One of the toughest jobs in Nepal must be that of the Warden of the Chitwan National Park. Its tigers and rhinos are ill at ease. But the man responsible for their protection fares even worse.

Orphans of the Wild
A few yards from the outhouse was the wildlife museum, which according to the Warden, was the first RCC (reinforced cement concrete) building of Nepal. It was built for a viceregal hunting trip. Behind it are a couple of wooden houses that are used for detaining violators of park rules. That same site could easily have been the stables for the elephants on which the Viceroy and the rulers of Nepal would ride during hunts that sometimes claimed a dozen tigers and rhinos in a day.

The wildlife museum’s doors were opened just for us, much like decades ago someone would have opened the doors of the house to the Viceroy. Stuffed tigers, the skull of an elephant, horns of various kinds and creatures in jars occupied the two rooms. A wildlife museum in the middle of the jungle that has the country’s most tigers does not hold one’s attention like a city museum. We walked out. I noticed a colorful notice board on the wall beside the door. On it was a poem, written in the form of a plea by the fauna:

Let me live and I perpetuate Creation
Kill me and I am but one meal
Alive I attract visitors, draw millions of dollars
I am going extinct—who is going to save me?
It’s time to think, humans
Or you shall forever regret.

When we came out of the museum, we noticed that two rhino calves were grazing nearby. These were the orphans that were now in the park’s care. We had visited them in the morning, and had seen them guzzle milk from large containers. One of them, older than the other by a month and taller by an inch, had been floating in the Narayani when she was rescued. She had thus been named Narayani. The other calf, a male, had been orphaned by poachers. He had been found by a patrol team. These were amazing survival stories—one floating in a river beside which crocodiles were sprawled like vacationers on a beach; the other to have encountered the right kind of humans in an area of 932 square kilometers that is full of creatures that could easily have made a meal out of him. But their survival could have been more than just mere luck. “Consideration for the weak,” the renowned hunter Jim Corbett had observed in one of his books, “…is the established law of the jungles.”
After rubbing their snouts for a while, which gave them immense pleasure, we returned to the Warden’s outhouse. The Warden asked us about our plans for the evening. We told him that we intended to go to Sauraha. He asked us to stay for another day, but we told him we couldn’t. He gave in and said that he would himself drop us off at Sauraha. After tea we set off in the Warden’s big jeep. We took the shortcut that ran through the park. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a sloth bear. Numerous other, commoner, creatures also made an appearance and we joked that they had come out to greet their boss, the Warden.

Beautiful When Asleep
When we arrived in Sauraha the tables beside the river were brimming with tourists. The sun was slowly setting. Boatmen were languidly poling crossing the river. I noticed Sauraha had protruded more with its stone-and-wire levees into the water from a year ago. To the Warden’s chagrin and mine, someone with a sharp eye for business but a myopic eye for animal welfare had started a camel ride business at Sauraha.

Sauraha looked bearable at twilight: the sun’s light hadn’t completely gone and the artificial lights weren’t yet as bright as they can be. To me, a romantic who would rather have a few Tharu huts beside the river than the resorts, the only other time when Sauraha looks good is when the morning sun hasn’t gotten the better of the mist. Then the mist from the river swaddles Sauraha in innocence, its blaring music from the previous evening forgotten. At those moments it is Nature’s Sauraha. In the morning Sauraha seems to me like a petulant and boisterous child asleep. It looks unspoiled and calm—but only while it sleeps. You take a good look around, listen to the oar lapping at the water and the sonorous honks of the ducks, and then you should cross over to the jungles or leave, before the first loud speaker comes alive with a throbbing number.

We crossed the river that morning with two local bird watching guides. Our first sighting of the day was the ungainly Woolly-necked Stork. For the next fifteen minutes we saw a lot of the riverside dwellers and feeders: Black Ibis, darters, a variety of kingfishers and sand pipers. Then, we entered the forest, where spotting birds was immensely difficult but equally gratifying. The most difficult were the grassland birds. “It’s too hot now for them to come out in the open. They’ve gone under to escape the sun,” said Krishna, our guide, as he tried to mimic the bird calls in an attempt to draw the curious ones out of hiding and, failing, resorted to flushing them out with cries.

Birds of prey are the staple of bird watchers with little patience: they’re big and thus conspicuous, and they like high perches and open places. Our guide spotted a Peregrine Falcon hovering over a silk cotton tree in the distance. When we raised our binoculars to get a better look, we saw that the falcon was engaged in an aerial battle with a Crested Serpent Eagle, a foe several times the falcon’s size. It was evident from the falcon’s bravado that in breeding season size matters little and that the size of the fight soars in every bird.

After a tiring walk made more difficult by the mid-day sun, we arrived at Ajingar Tal. The lake had once been a village. Now, it was a haven for birds. Our first sighting, according to Krishna, was a miracle: a Hodgson’s Bushchat. As we got nearer to the water, we saw Purple Herons, Black Storks and Purple Moor Hens. Further into the secluded lake were relaxing, feeding and preening Asian Open-billed Stork, common moorhens, and the rare Black Bittern. On the far side of the small lake, a Lesser Adjutant, called adjutant due to ‘its measured martial gait’, was pacing along the water’s edge, engrossed in thought as if devising a battle plan.
Our bird watching trip was unusually productive, capped by sightings of species that ornithologists waiting in hideouts or amateurs roving for days don’t see. An elephant ride had been arranged for us in the evening. We were waiting atop a machan for our ride to arrive when we saw a young elephant, too young and short to produce the majesty and thrill of riding an elephant, come bounding towards us. Perched on it was an adolescent boy, the mahout or driver. There was no saddle on the elephant; the seat was a couple of jute sacks strapped on by a jute rope, a thoroughly organic seat. It was also frighteningly slippery and painful. “Don’t be scared. Nothing will happen if you don’t think about falling off,” the boy assured.

We crossed a river and climbed up the steep bank. In the distance a crowd had gathered. I had been in the area a year ago, so I knew that where the people had gathered was the evening haunt of an old rhino bull. When we got to the spot, the old rhino was immersed in the river, its horn jutting out of the water like a piece of wet wood. Then we spotted another rhino a little further in the grassland. This one turned out to be an adolescent bull, an acquaintance of the mahout and his elephant (though I doubt he was on friendly terms with either), both of whom were in their adolescent years as well. I felt rather old.

There was the humming of conversations and clinking of bottles as we settled down before the setting sun. Every once in a while a flash from someone’s camera would light up the darkening river. But as darkness descended the world across the river was lost and the lights of Sauraha intensified. There was nothing left to look at. You could either talk or listen. But even if you strained to listen to the sounds of Nature, you couldn’t. All you could hear was the music from the speakers. For all its loudness the songs were after all music, but a day in the jungle drastically changes one’s taste of music and heightens the illegitimacy of Sauraha’s takeover of Nature. Once the sights and sounds on the other side of the river have been experienced, Sauraha’s artificiality becomes more prominent. Sauraha is a magical location, but it seems to be losing its charm with each passing year, chiefly due to the fact that the people running businesses there are forgetting that visitors come to Sauraha to go across the river and into the jungle. I look at Sauraha, and I hope I am not alone in looking at it in this way, as a gateway to the wilderness. More and more of us, however, are now realizing that it has been turned into a trapdoor that takes you to that which you had come to escape. It was therefore a small compensation and a quaint pleasure to leave this blessed but disappointingly transformed place in a tonga.