“If rhino come you must climb tree! Only way to save life!”
This startling declaration from the guide would have been funny for its melodrama if it weren’t for the fact that it was clear that he was absolutely serious and absolutely sincere. It seems that rhinos will charge and trample people for reasons they chose to keep to themselves. This raised two questions for me:
The first was, “What trees?”. We were standing in the middle of a field of shoulder high grass. Trees were sparse and distant.
The second was, “Assuming we get closer to actual trees, how exactly am I supposed to climb one?” The trees we had seen thus far were absolutely smooth-trunked and only began to branch several meters above the ground. Alpine climbing gear or suction cups would be needed.
I hoped that adrenaline would do the trick if the time came. And indeed it did, but more on that later.
My wife Lorraine and I were in Chitwan National Park on Nepal’s southern border with India and home to 400 of the world’s 2400 remaining Indian rhinoceroses. If the thought of rhinos in Nepal conjures up incongruous mental images of sad grey animals trudging up icy mountain passes, pining for lush pastures, I should explain that the southern half of Nepal is in fact an utterly flat and quite marvelous rhino habitat.
After alarming everyone with his dramatic tree-climbing directive the guide returned to his previous gentle and smiling demeanor. He swished a machete about more for flair than actual practical effect as he pointed out various types of “rhino sign”.
“This footprint here is rhino sign. See, he put his foot here.”
We nodded and glanced about, I’m sure each one of us noting that the grass was easily high enough to conceal a rhino. A quiet sneaky rhino mind you, but who really understood the inner workings of the devious tourist-stomping rhino mind?
“This dung here is rhino sign. See, he put his dung here.”
And indeed he did. We stared at his dung in frank astonishment. It lay in a brooding heap at least a meter high and a couple meters across. I was about to comment on the scale of the rhino’s digestive apparatus when the guide explained that the rhino will return to the same pile again and again. Ah. He will also apparently kick at the heap to get dung on his hooves and allow him to leave a track of his own personal dung smell along his regular path. “His regular path.” Where we were. Ah.
After an hour of walking along his regular path with our pupils fully dilated the rhino failed to make an appearance. So with an odd mixture of relief and disappointment we returned to the trailhead where elephants were waiting to take us on a sunset ride. The elephants we had ridden in India had been equipped with howdahs – essentially strap-on chesterfields – but these were not. Here we were going to be riding elephants bareback. Riding horses bareback has an exciting and romantic image. In contrast I can attest that riding elephants bareback is singularly unexciting and unromantic. The protrusion of the elephant’s spine affords one the convincing illusion of riding a pointy granite outcropping, and a drunkenly swaying pointy granite outcropping at that.
It was nice, however, to be able to survey the rhino’s regular path from such a lordly (safe) height. But once again, the rhino was absent from his regular path.
We had just dismounted our elephants and dusk was thickening into night when one of our party began pogo-sticking up and down and urgently whispering “Rhino! Rhino!” while pointing across a meadow to a patch of grey in a bit of scrub perhaps thirty meters distant. Binoculars were fumbled with and sure enough, the patch of grey resolved itself into the rhino. He was facing the other way and we were downwind, so we felt safe in creeping a little closer for a better look. And then a little closer. And then a little closer still.
Then he moved.
What happened next is in dispute, but one way or another Lorraine found herself alone in the grass with the binoculars watching the rhino, unaware that the rest of us had panicked and had bolted like Olympic sprinters.
In the end the rhino was entirely peaceful and oblivious, but we did establish the principle that, “If rhino come you must (a) climb tree, or (b) just run faster than the people you are with.”