It was always going to be a trip to remember. Returning to a country I’d last visited as an adventure-seeking backpacker, but this time as part of a WWF team documenting Nepal’s greater one-horned rhino count. I couldn’t wait to join the count in Nepal’s famous Chitwan National Park – home to tigers, elephants and rhinos. It was an experience I’ll never forget – because of the dedicated people I met, the incredible wildlife I saw, and for more tragic reasons too…
I’ve been lucky enough to see black and white rhinos in Africa, but I’d never glimpsed a greater one-horned rhino before. So I was excited to be heading back to Nepal to help film and photograph these amazing animals.
After a long flight, an overnight stay in Kathmandu, and a nerve-jangling car journey through the foothills of Nepal, the film crew and I finally arrived at Chitwan National Park. We were thrilled to meet the team from WWF-Nepal and hear that the survey was going well. We also learned that the area we’d help survey the next day was among the most picturesque parts of the park and the best places to see rhinos.
How to count rhinos
We were up before the sun at 4.30am to check our kit, load the jeep and drive to the rendezvous point in the park. And as the sun rose we were greeted by an amazing sight – a long line of elephants and their handlers, known as mahouts, emerging from the forest and lumbering towards us.
Chitwan’s stunning habitat is a mixture of tall grassland, rivers, swamps and thick forest. Surveying the entire park would be too tough for the hardiest 4×4 vehicles, and it’s too dense for an aerial survey. So, the only way to spot rhinos in vegetation so tall it’s known as elephant grass is… to ride on nature’s biggest 4×4 – an elephant!
As we unpacked our kit, we were told how the survey worked. The whole park is divided into 19 blocks. Each day a line of up to 30 elephants, with a mahout and trained observer on each, walks a long transect across one of these blocks. When they see a rhino, the nearest team takes photos and makes a note of any distinguishing marks on its face, horn or ears. Then they nudge it behind the line to save double counting. The trick, we’re told, is to keep the line steady to ensure the whole block is covered and no rhinos are missed in the tall, thick grass. To do this, the teams rely on modern technology (GPS monitoring, mobile phone coordination) and a healthy dose of shouting by the mahouts. Data on the movement of the day’s line is recorded and so the team can load it onto an interactive Google map and review it back at the park headquarters that evening.
Amazing encounters with wildlife
At 6am, it was time to join the day’s count. I climbed onto the back of an Asian elephant with decidedly mixed feelings. It was amazing to see so many Asian elephants up close, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about riding one. However, if the crew and I were going to take part in the rhino count we had to join the line.
Trying to stay steady on such a magnificent beast as it traversed rivers, grasslands and thick forest wasn’t going to be easy. It’d be even trickier to hang on to any film equipment! Our survey area was 16km long and would take best part of 12 hours – this was shaping up to be quite some challenge. But the emerging sights and sounds of the park soon had us enthralled.
After just 40 minutes, we glimpsed our first rhinos – a mother and calf next to a small thicket of forest. A few minutes later the observer next to us spotted another rhino standing proud in the long grass. Suddenly he pointed near the spot and shouted: “Baag!” I must have looked bewildered, as he quickly switched language and translated: “Tiger, tiger!” Was I really going to see a tiger within the first hour of my visit to Chitwan? I managed to see a cat-like shape leap through the tall grass, and took a quick picture before it disappeared from view. I wanted to wait for another glimpse, but we were there to count rhinos. With hearts thumping, we rejoined the line and the survey.
Over the next 11 hours we were treated to the sight of displaying male peacocks, spotted and sambar deer, brightly-coloured rollers (kingfisher-like birds), eagles snatching snakes from the grass, and almost 30 rhinos. As we returned to our survey base, exhausted but exhilarated, we were told that an incredible 130 rhinos were counted that day. We left Chitwan a few days later, proud that we’d been part of such an important survey.
The day tragedy struck
On the day we were due to leave Nepal, the first of two massive earthquakes hit the country. We were at the airport when the ground began to shake. At first we didn’t realise what was happening, then we watched in horror as large dust clouds erupted from the city below, giving us our first indication of the devastation that had just occurred. We were the lucky ones, as after 48 hours we managed to get on flights and return home. Once back in the UK, we were relieved to hear that all WWF-Nepal staff and their families were safe, and heartened to hear that these incredibly dedicated individuals were now helping with rescue and recovery efforts.
A few weeks after the devastating earthquakes, news emerged that rhino numbers in Nepal have increased. The count recorded 645 rhinos, a 21% increase in the last five years. It’s a fantastic achievement for Nepal and its conservation efforts.
It was a real privilege to spend time in such a beautiful part of the world, with people dedicating their lives to the protection of Nepal’s National Parks and their endangered wildlife. I’ll never forget my time counting rhinos in Chitwan, and my thoughts are still very much with the people of Nepal.