Love-hate relationship for rhino in Chitwan

Shristi Karki

“Did you take this gravel road to come to the office?”, asked a young lady from the Chitwan National Park head office in Kasara. “A rhino is often seen roaming around there, so we, all the park staff, avoid this road”, she said. I was perplexed to hear that. For a second, all the worst thoughts like what if I was chased by the rhino started to cripple my mind. Fortunately, nothing bad had happened to me. But, some communities in Chitwan for eg;  Madi aren’t fortunate like me. They cannot avoid it and have to walk with fear every time. The unexpected encounter with the rhino often results in deadly attacks.

I had been to the Chitwan National Park a few times before, however, this trip was different. I had traveled as a student before, but this time as a research assistant for the rhino conservation project. My senior Siddhanta, a fellow pangolin researcher accompanied me on this trip.

Brimmed with nervousness and excitement, we reached Chitwan in the early morning of February. For Siddhanta and me, the destination was the same – not the day. I was documenting development projects around the park and their environmental commitments and practices towards wildlife conservation. In particular, I was checking with a special focus on rhinos and their habitat,  whilst he was managing the upcoming Nepal Pangolin Roundtable at Madi.

Within a few minutes of landing at Bharatpur airport, anyone could easily sense, through multiple adverts and posters, the love and pride of local people towards rhinos. It is quite interesting to note that no other national parks, in Nepal, have benefited from wildlife tourism as much as the Chitwan National Park has. However, not everyone shares the same sentiment. There is another side to this as well. Rhinos and other wildlife bring revenue to those in the tourism industry but for others, it has been a source of conflict and nuisance, in particular to those residing in the buffer zones.

We stopped at a restaurant at a corner of the airport but we enjoyed discussing rhinos, and pangolins, and developing threats to them, more than breakfast. Later, we took a bike from there to head towards the park’s office. In Chitwan’s scorching heat, I saw construction workers everywhere on the road. In recent times, the roads have been the priority of local governments. And almost everywhere in Chitwan, construction activities are ongoing. These meandering roads circling the habitat of rhinos are massive threats to them. They not only fragment the rhino habitat but also possess a high risk of wildlife-vehicle collision.

The uncovered potholes, ditches, and drainages are another silent threat to rhinos, especially in buffer zone areas (areas adjacent to national parks) where they are often seen wandering around. Nepal government recently devised Wildlife Friendly Infrastructure Construction Directives, 2022, to ensure linear infrastructure construction activities are wildlife friendly to reduce wildlife accidents and causalities. Alas, the sheer negligence of authorities and contractors resulted in the death of a male rhino in  2022. Reason: uncovered ditch dug for the drainage system. Residing in a sensitive biodiverse area, all these infrastructures should be comprehensive and wildlife-friendly.

I decided to stay in the buffer area and Siddhanta in Madi, a human settlement area inside the park. Located in a village named Ghailaghari, my hotel was 20 min away from the park’s office. Surreal feeling! Shortly, I left the hotel and headed to the park’s office. This time, unlike others, I decided to walk, taking time to absorb nature during that short transit, keeping in mind to explore the village later in the evening. 

As I walked, two jeeps filled with enthusiastic tourists passed through the graveled earthen road. They were returning after the jungle safari and adventure in the park. For safari, a fixed number of people are allowed to enter the park and buffer zone either for a full day or half day depending upon the price they wish to pay. The sights of wildlife during the safari are a source of thrill for tourists while it’s a source of livelihood for the locals. One fine delicate yet rigid economic fabric woven by wildlife for the locals.

Rapti flowed silently that day. And two beautiful gharials were basking in the sun. The groups of captivating golden shimmery fishes captured my attention and I decided to stop for a while to enjoy their golden dance. After enjoying the aquatic gala, I stretched my eyes to the other edge of the river and saw a mud pool. Wallowing is the favorite activity of the rhinos. To cool off, rhinos cover themselves in mud and then let it dry. This provides protection from the sun as well as the parasites. To my disappointment, there were no rhinos in the mud pool.

Gazetted as Nepal’s first National Park in 1973, Chitwan National Park is an ancestral home to the magnificent greater one-horned rhinos, one of the rare and endangered species on the planet. Around 752 such giants are found across Nepal, among which roughly 694 are located in the Chitwan National Park alone. And true is that rhino conservation wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of locals, the army, and park officials. Though their ways may differ, the goal is conservation.

Today, rhinos are seen roaming around the streets of Sauraha and sometimes even in the agricultural fields, adjacent to the park. The strict enforcement against poaching did save these megaherbivores from extinction in the past but the growing infrastructural interference and human disturbances to their habitat is a new challenge.

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