A Walk in the Park

 

I forgot to share the events of my last week in Nepal. After spending a delightful couple of lazy days with Angela, Helen and Sarah in Pokhara, I met up with Jurriaan and we headed westward towards Bardia National Park, one of the last remaining refuges of pristine Nepalese biodiversity.

I started the day before the sun had risen. Over a quick breakfast of tea and toast, my guide explained the dos and don’ts of the jungle; which turned out to be a guide on ways to narrowly avoid a painful death in the event of unexpectedly encountering one of many dangerous animals in the park. Prim, my guide, explained, if you find a rhino, run diagonally as fast as you can, climb up two meters into a tree, and wait. If you find a tiger, back away slowly, look it in the eyes and if it still comes towards you, smash your walking stick into the brush to frighten it. If you stumble upon an elephant, pray. You can’t run faster than a sprinting elephant. You can’t scare it away. You can’t climb a tree large enough which can’t be toppled with ease. These are the big three; the rhinos, elephants and tigers which everyone flocks here in hopes of seeing; the most dangerous of the bunch, excluding the cobras, sloth bears, crocodiles and leopards. With these parting words of council from Prim, I started my walk into the park.

This is about the time when the seriousness of my little jaunt into the jungle began to sink in. This walk in the forest was potentially life-threatening. People do get killed by startled rhinos, raging elephants and territorial tigers. Not regularly, but it does happen. Case and point, it happened the day before I arrived at Bardia National Park. As it turns out, a woman had been cutting elephant grass to repair her thatched roof when she startled a mother rhino with its a baby. With maternal instincts ablaze, the rhino charged the woman and gored her, not with its horn as might be expected, but instead, with its front tusk-like teeth. It was pretty grizzly stuff. Reading about Bardia National Park on the internet made it sound so great. It was a novelty. I smiled while thinking a place where one could go with a guide only equipped with a stick to see wild animals, some of which are ferocious, in some of the last protected pieces of natural habitat left in south Asia. Now that I was here, I felt much more nervous about what I was about to get myself into. This particular morning was misty and cold. Prim wasn’t too happy about it. I figured it was because it was going to make animal-sighting more difficult. This was true, but really, he was more concerned about animals not being able to see us. Rhinos have notoriously bad vision at the best of times, and the worst thing to happen is catching one off guard. After hearing the tales of danger and death I felt rather alert. Every twig that snapped and every bird call in the distance gave me chills of cold fright. We saw ghostly languors perched in the trees, sounding alarms as we neared. We sighted countless spotted deer gliding across the scraggy brush and grass disappearing in the grey veil of mist. I saw whole troupes of macaques making river crossings where the water was the shallowest. Then we visited watering holes well-known to my guide and every animals looking for a quick drink, but there wasn’t a member of big three anywhere to be found. As the hours passed and time after time, the sources of the breaking branches and howls were nothing but harmless herbivores, I found myself becoming desensitized to the pending danger lurking behind each tree. Then turning a bend in the path, Prim would spot a steaming pile of elephant feces and the trail of prints leading away. This was when reality rushed back to me. Oh yeah. This was not a zoo. I was on high alert again.

We followed the well-trodden trails carved out from the undergrowth by the elephants and rhinos. We meandered through the labyrinth of causeways cut into the ten-foot walls of swaying elephant grass. Prim was worried taking us through these paths because if an animal is feeding in the grass neither it nor us will discover each other until it’s too late. We opted for walking the cobble-stoned riverside. After hours of hiking, we came to rest at an elbow in the river. We took our bags off and unwrapped our pack lunches. This place was perfect for seeing animals because it was between two shallow points in the rivers. Prim said our chances were best from here. We ate in near silence and waited for nature to appear. From this vantage point we watched kingfishers dive and dart into the water retrieving minnows in their bills. We watched sambar deer wading waist-deep into the dark pools. And suddenly, Prim perked up and pointed frantically upstream. An Indian rhino stumbled down the river bank, stopped mid-river, took a leisurely drink before continuing across. He then climbed up the opposite bank and disappeared into the bushes. As quickly as it had come it had gone from sight again. Those twenty seconds were what so many people pay to experience. It was such a fleeting glimpse at an animal whose future is full of uncertainty. While people like Prim have grown up with these animals, respect and fear them, choosing to be nature guides, tracking these animals to provide photo-opportunities for tourists such as myself, many people are not like Prim. Many are driven to hunt these prehistoric animals with guns. Their body parts are prized by a thriving black market for oriental medicine or ornament and they offer opportunity for villagers to make income otherwise impossible for simple farmers. Nepal is doing a great job in trying to protect and expand the parks it has, realizing the role these animals have for a bustling tourist industry, but at the end of the day, acts of conservation are often trumped by the desperations of poverty and the temptations of wealthy offered by trafficking exotic animal parts. I feel so fortunate having seen these animals in the wild and I hope they don’t become just curios of zoos, aging relics awaiting the last of their numbers to dwindle and die out. The odds are against the big three, but I have hope that we as a species can leave expanses of habitat free from our influence, where animals can exist how they always have.