At first I thought it was a robot. Standing almost completely still among the green foliage, its grey folds of skin arranged in perfect symmetry as though armoured panels of sheet metal. At either end its short, stubby legs protruded straight and unmoving. The only thing that betrayed it as non-mechanical were its rounded ears, which flicked back and forth randomly in a series of ticks. As I strained to look closer I stood on a branch - its crack loud and jarring amid the gentle hum of a dawn jungle soundtrack. It swung its oblong head over its shoulder to see the source of such a rude interruption, all at once showing off its pyramidal horn on the end of its nose. Unchecked, I felt myself gasp at this, my first rhino sighting in Chitwan National Park.
Think Nepal and most of us think mountains and trekking. So when I heard that not only was the country home to an impressive array of wildlife, but that said wildlife was actually bucking the global trend and increasing in numbers, I had to find out more.
The species doing the best was the greater one-horned rhino. Ask a zoologist about the state of rhino populations worldwide and they paint a bleak picture. With falling numbers and some subspecies near extinct, it can leave even the most optimistic of us in despair. That is until you ask about the kind I was watching now, in Nepal's protected forest on the India border, 160km south-west of the capital city of Kathmandu. Here, their native species of the Asiatic one-horned variety is not only bucking the trend and rising, but actually thriving.
Winning the numbers game
As I looked on, safely tucked in between the trunks of two broadleaf trees, watching the rhino as flocks of jungle and common myna birds landed on its back, I was in awe. Even here, now, having seen plenty of photos and TV footage of them before, something about it didn't seem real - like it belonged in a different time. And in a way it did. Having evolved over the last 50 million years, surviving giant predators and ice ages, prehistoric rhino were once the largest mammals to walk the earth – though the very existence of the modern-day rhino is impressive due to hunting and, in the last 150 years, poaching.
"Since the military re-engaged with anti-poaching patrols the numbers in Nepal have increased – our 2016 count exceeded the total number we had in 2000, before serious poaching commenced," said Ram Chandra Kandel, chief warden at Chitwan NP, as we sat in his office at the park's HQ the day before. A little fan whirred in the background, causing the poster above his head that boasted of 1,000 days of no poaching to flap noisily every few seconds.
It's a stat backed up by Save the Rhino who say that pre-2010 the numbers had shrunk to just 408, but now are a much healthier 752. Sat inside the bug-netted shelter with Ram Chandra, the numbers, though impressive, meant little. It wasn't until I headed into the forest the following morning and was treated to my first sighting of one of these one-horned beauties – a young male – followed almost immediately by a mother and calf a few steps further on – that I realised what a difference to wildlife sightings these bolstered numbers had made.
Things that go ‘trump’ in the night…
In terms of the odds of seeing rhino, Chitwan has a high success rate, yet few people come here – and even less since the 2015 earthquake decimated traveller numbers, despite the country making a speedy recovery and the area around the park seeing no damage at all.
"We lost one parasol by the pool," said Dhan Bahadur 'DB' Chaudhary when I quizzed him about it on arrival to Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge, my accommodation for the next few days. It's something of an institution in the Chitwan area, having been established over 50 years ago – ironically for hunting parties at first, before it became the beacon of conservation it is now. One of its founders is even credited for inventing the first 'camera trap' used to photograph a Bengal tiger.
We sat on the edge of a pretty pool eating the local dal bhat curry, its blend of rice and spices exploding gloriously on my tongue. The whitewashed walls of the clay, wood and thatch lodge – inspired by the local Tharu-style houses – glowed in the pinkish evening light, but it wasn't where I would be sleeping. For I had opted to bed down a little closer to the wildlife.
"You'll hear them as it goes dark, but don't worry, it's quite safe," Marie Jensen explained as she showed me to my tent within their newly established elephant camp. I say tent, but with a fully furnished double bed, own bathroom (with hot water) and carpeted floor, it was more akin to a mosquito-net-walled bedroom. Its introduction proves that, here in Nepal, it's not only rhinos for whom things are looking up. For decades wildlife-watching in Nepal has been done via elephant-back safaris. But Tiger Tops is the first to do things a new way – ending the practice and offering an immersive experience where travellers get to walk with them instead, prepare their food and – as I was about to experience – camp among them by night.
"For years, we'd been eager to stop people riding the elephants, get rid of chains and ban the use of bull hooks and sticks," said Marie, who was key to working with the mahouts and Elephant Aid International founder Carol Buckley to make the change. "After the earthquake the thinking was, 'We've lost visitors anyway, now the timing is right'."
The first step was to remove the chains from the elephants' ankles and create large paddocks where they could wander free. My tent was alongside two of these. That evening, I fell to sleep listening not only to the jungle sounds of cicadas humming and bushes swaying in the breeze, but also to the glorious occasional soft grunt of an elephant, or the rustling of leaves as they wrestled to grab a branch hanging overhead.
I woke early – for in elephant camp you are on the pachyderm's schedule – and headed out at dawn to take them into the forest to feed. The national park itself is out of bounds for captive elephants (although Tiger Tops would love to release theirs, after years in captivity it is sadly not a feasible option), but there is an allowed buffer zone where, if accompanied by people, they are allowed to enter and feed. It was good to know that my presence was not only welcome but necessary to their diet.
A thin veil of mist hung in the air as we made our way along the river that led into the jungle. Locals were busy collecting grass for their cattle, while women in brightly coloured saris washed clothes at the water's edge. The air smelt damp and earthy.
You're forced to go slow when you walk with an elephant. They set the pace, which is a wonderful cross between a gentle stroll and a forthright swagger. Every now and again one of the two I was walking with would stop to reach up to the trees and pluck a hearty-looking branch then strip it of leaves. To my surprise it was the wood, rather than the vegetation, that they were so keen to taste.
"Look at their droppings," said the naturalist (in my experience always the first person to get excited about animal poo). "See how dry and fibrous they are? Well, that's why!" Walking off the main track we cut through the trees. I was surprised how silently such a large creature could manoeuvre through dense clusters of branches. Swaying through the foliage with a graceful elegance, their large padded feet made less noise on the dry leaves than my walking boots.
The shriek of a muntjac deer caused me and my guiding elephant – Gulab Kali – to stop in our tracks. We listened for more, but all was silent. We walked on and entered a clearing. The slender white tails of paradise flycatcher birds flitted into the forest as we emerged. Just then Gulab Kali began to flap her ears. She stamped her foot and raised her trunk to the air, letting out a deafening trumpet that reverberated in my chest.
I looked to the naturalist – he gestured to keep quiet. Peering around the side of the elephant's rump I spotted it: the large male rhino resembling a robotic invention, which I proceeded to rudely interrupt by standing on a twig.
When he turned the myna birds around him flapped their wings revealing flashes of black and white like chorus girls fanning his entrance. My second elephant guide – Sita Kali – moved protectively alongside me and started to flap her ears too.
The rhino began to move quickly towards us, looking at me dead on, the shoots of grass he'd been chewing still protruding from the corner of his lips as he gained speed. A surge of adrenaline shot through my body; I was unsure whether to stand my ground or run into the trees. Then both elephants began slapping their trunks hard on the ground, trumpeting and stamping their feet more persistently. It was enough to put off the rhino. He turned at the last minute and sauntered away, offering us a cursory glance back, to which Gulab Kali trumpeted again in defiance.
It was one of the most thrilling wildlife encounters I'd ever experienced – and one of the closest. And seeing it at ground level, standing with my elephant brethren, I felt protected and part of the environment I was walking in, rather than a mere observer. "It's why we really think the elephant camp programme works," explained Marie once we had got back to the paddocks and began making 'elephant sandwiches' for the herd. As they can't walk freely in the forest, the mahouts need to prepare specially-balanced meals for their lunch made from molasses, rice, chickpeas and salt, all wrapped up strategically in straw. My first attempt resulted in an embarrassing pouch that resembled a badly drawn sack. But by the time I made my fifth I was at least getting the contents to stay inside – although glancing over to the mahout, I was mortified to note he was already on sandwich number 40.
After feeding ourselves, DB told me about his Vulture Restaurant in the nearby village, another success for Nepalese conservation. About a decade before he'd noticed numbers of the scavenging birds were at an all-time low – just 72 birds at a time feeding on carcasses. Locals didn't care; vultures are regarded as 'unclean' to them, as they feed on the dead. But he did. Researching the problem he found that the painkiller given to cows (which cannot be killed due to Hindu beliefs), which vultures fed on once they died, were lethal to them.
So he took action, tapped into conservation funds and set up a cow hospice where he would pay locals for their ageing herd and look after the cattle giving them a vulture-friendly drug until they died. Then he would offer tourists the chance to sit in purpose-built hides to watch the vultures feed on the body – a mesmerising spectacle, which brought money into the community and boosted vulture numbers.
Eager to see more wildlife, I signed up the following day for a jeep and boat safari. In the morning, I caught a little wooden boat down the river where I spotted a narrow-snouted and endangered gharial crocodile sunning itself on the muddy banks – another conservation success in the face of diminishing habitats and egg poaching. Thanks to a crocodile-breeding centre, their eggs are now collected, incubated and hatched safely, and numbers increased from 124 in 2013 to 198 in 2016's census.
By the afternoon my jeep bounded through the national park and wildlife sightings came thick and fast – from sambar and muntjac deer, to crab-eating mongoose, wild boar, langur monkeys, a python and even the tell-tale scratching on a tree from an elusive Bengal tiger.
But for me the true highlight came on my final night when I walked with the entire herd of elephants down to the river for bathing (them) and sundowners (me). In the past, guests would ride them here and sit on their backs while they washed. But now we kept a respectful distance, watching them roll in the water, squirt spray from their noses and splash each other playfully.
As I gazed at the sunset I saw something stir on the other side of the water. Like a mirage in the distance a single rhino emerged from the jungle and stood looking over at me. He no longer looked robotic, more fantastical. I could only imagine what the first human to encounter an Asiatic one-horned rhino must have thought. Though with the Latin name Rhinoceros unicornis, they too must have believed they'd encountered something from a fairy tale.
Before coming back to Nepal on this visit I wondered if rhinos would indeed be relegated to a myth, driven to extinction by poachers. But having met the countless volunteers, conservationists, naturalists and military that work tirelessly to protect them, I too was filled with hope. Rather than being a creature of the past, rhinos are definitely part of Nepal's future and - like the sunset glowing behind the one I was staring at now – it was looking brighter with every passing moment.
The author travelled with Steppes Travel. It offers a 13-day itinerary to Nepal, which includes two days in Chitwan National Park.
The author flew with Turkish Airlines. The airline flies from London Heathrow to Kathmandu via Istanbul in about 14 hours. There are no direct flights from the UK to Nepal.
In the centre of Kathmandu the best way to get around is on foot or by taxis, which are affordable. Negotiate the price before you get in. To get to Chitwan National Park, take an internal flight to Bharatpur, from where it's a 30-45min drive. The author flew with Yeti Airlines, flight times roughly 30 minutes. Flights are notorious for cancellations or delays (due to the changeable weather in the mountains) though lodges know this and monitor arrival and departure times. There are luggage weight limits: 10kg (hold) and 5kg (hand). Another option is by road. Air conditioned tourist buses are much cheaper though they take about 7 hours.