14: Stalking Tigers and Rhinos in [Bardia National Park, Nepal]

October 18th, 2019

It turns out that due to lack of sleep the night prior, I slept so hard, I literally missed a WILD ELEPHANT trampling down the road right outside of the tent that night. Welcome to Nepal! In addition to elephants, tigers occasionally come into the village at night, eating livestock and… people. Politically this creates some issues, since Nepal relies heavily on tourism for revenue and is home to so many unique wild areas filled with intriguing endangered species. But since their natural habitat is nowhere near the size it used to be, tigers are literally eating their children.

The solution in the Thakurdwara community was to allot a certain percentage (somewhere around 25-50%) of the revenue from Bardia National Park to go directly back to the communities. Though you can never buy back your loved one, this helps to cover medical expenses and crop damage from a 11,000 lb elephant tromping through.

Despite my disappointment of missing the elephant, I was soon to seek them out in the wild. At 6:30 that morning I was picked up by one of the guides at Bardia NP on a motorbike, and was brought to a guesthouse where they were preparing our lunch of fried-rice, hard-boiled egg, and mango juice. Once ready, I met the two other folks who would be exploring the jungle with us as our guide explained what to do and what not to do. The first thing he did was hand each of us a firm, blunt stick and advised, “this is your weapon. Use it carefully.”

He made tigers seem like big, shy scaredy cats, and made elephants out to be bigger, uninterested forest behemoths. Our greatest danger was actually the one-horned rhino, who is especially defensive when rearing their calf, and can run up to 34 mph.

I didn’t feel a drop of fear, for my guide’s confidence was contagous, and I knew that animals are far less likely to attack a decent group, and we were four-strong. The two other tourists were some friendly Brits who were also teachers. One was at least 6 feet tall, but our guide was closer to 5’ 2”. A tiger would barely even have to chew to gobble him down! Yet He said he’d been guiding groups for some 30 years and never been seriously injured. That just goes to show, your biggest enemy is your own fear when facing deadly animals. For if there were to be a confrontation, his main piece of advice was to stand your ground, make yourself as big and loud as possible, and don’t turn your back to run unless they’re already charging at you. In which case, drop your stick, throw your bag, and book it!

As our guide brought us into the park we lowered our voices and entered stealth mode. There was an eerie silence, interrupted occasionally by a squawking bird or quiet comment on a dead lizard hanging from a blade of grass. The first sizable living creatures we came across that morning were some security guards, each holding large assault rifles. Apparently poaching is a big problem, so for that reason (and safety concerns) nobody is allowed into the park without an official guide.

Within 20 minutes we found a huge hairball and some scratch marks on the ground. It was official – we were tracking tigers. A few hundred steps later we stumbled across the biggest pile of crap I’ve ever seen. Now we were officially tracking elephants, too. The open grasslands were fairly inactive, and as we continued into the jungle I found my favourite plant, Lantana (Lantana camara). It’s an invasive species which I had identified in Dharamshala and Rishikesh as well. My guide also taught me how to identify a curry tree (Murraya koenigii), which is edible raw and tasted exactly like if curry spice had turned into a leaf. Yum! Earthy!

Further down we found some psychedelic mushrooms growing out of a heap of rhino dung, in addition to a very fresh tiger scat. I’d never been so excited by poop in my whole life. To rest and listen for the tiger, we found a spot to sit and silently snack. Our guide heard a deer call meaning, “Beware! Tiger nearby!” and we crept in that direction. After some time, however, we found only monkeys, no tigers. Our hunt continued into the heat of noon… still nothing. I was still excited by animal tracking but I could tell that the British couple were becoming tired and discouraged. All we needed was a big animal to pick our spirits back up…

We started crossing a river, my eyes glued to my feet, making sure I didn’t step on any little critters. When I reached a small sandbar, the group told me, “Hans! Look up!” and lo and behold, off in the distance was the first wild rhino I’d ever seen.

It was gorgeous. Majestic. Gentle. Formidable. We took plenty of pictures as it drank and cooled off in the Girwa river, and with one significant wildlife sighting we were boosted on our way to tracking tigers. A few lookout towers provided some long, beautiful vistas, though still void of big cats. We all wanted to see a tiger jump out of the tall grass and chase after a herd of deer, who we could see off in the distance peacefully grazing beside the river. So we waited, and waited, until the sun was nearing the horizon, which indicated that we must leave in order to avoid issues with the rangers, and to avoid being eaten. Tigers are crepuscular animals, which means they are most active around dusk and dawn, and I wasn’t ready to become a chew toy just yet.

On the trail back, however, I came across the most dangerous creature I had seen the entire day: a scorpion. It was smack-dab in the middle of the trail, its tail and pinchers ready to attack. Though not 100% positive about the exact species, upon research, its appearance most closely resembled that of (no joke) then Deathstalker Scorpion (Leiurus Quinquestriatus). And yes, just one sting from this bad boy can kill you.

We carefully kept our distance as we took pictures while circumnavigating the fearsome arachnid, and returned to our lovely bird-chirping, colour-blooming, sun-setting walk towards the exit. Near the gate there was a dark room where a tiger was recovering in captivity, since it had been hit by a car, causing it to become blind. I glanced at it with sorrow, though thankful that I could finally lay eyes on a tiger.

Our guide walked us out of the park and back to the guesthouse where we had initially convened. I still had to pay, so the other guide who picked me up that morning drove me into town on his bike so I could withdraw some cash. Now, finally, I had an animal chasing after me! For there was a dog who apparently recognizes the sound of his motorbike, and every time he hears it he chases after him (and can keep up with the bike at its typical speed!) until he is fed something. Ah how backwards expectations turn out sometimes.

Money was exchanged and he drove me back to my guesthouse, where they were preparing fried rice. Since I had that for lunch I initially wasn’t thrilled, but this turned out to be some of the best fried rice I’d ever eaten in my whole life. The owner, being as hospitable as he was, saw my excitement about eating curry-leaf and at the last minute added some into the rice. With a side of chapati (or some thin bread akin to it), fresh vegetables, and a Tiger beer, it seemed my satisfaction had reached its pinnacle after such a long day of walking. But then, I took a supremely rejuvenating shower in the owner’s mom’s house. Satisfaction heightened. And to top it off, it was movie night, so they pulled out their projector, aimed it at a pull-down screen affixed outside to a concrete wall, made popcorn, and put on “Seven Years in Tibet.” This was easily one of the best days I’d yet experienced on my 40-day journey.

A tiger track and a hopper track inside an elephant track

Sure, seeing a wild tiger would have made it even better, but I had no disappointment. I knew from studying tracking at Alderleaf Wilderness College that one’s chances of actually spotting such an elusive animal, even if you’ve been tracking it for hours, are very rare. I was so grateful for all my new animal and plant sightings, for having such a kind and experienced guide, for being able to spend an entire day walking around in a jungle, for feeling safe during the whole journey, for being fed delicious food, for the incredible place I had to sleep that night, and for my life as a whole. I am so blessed to have experienced over a month in India, and still just be starting my month in Nepal. After only 2 days in the country, I loved Nepal in a very different way than India, and had an ineffable feeling about the days to come.

Coming up: Sleeping on the concrete at 4 AM in a very foreign place, and my third Workaway volunteer experience teaching english and painting for a super sweet, down-to-earth Nepali family.

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