A walking safari in Nepal’s jungle

6 minute read.
When you walk through a jungle, remember four things:
If you’re charged by a rhino, climb the nearest tree. If there are no trees, run in a zig-zag pattern and drop your backpack or a piece of clothing; rhinos have poor eyesight and use their sense of smell when charging.If you encounter a sloth-bear, stay still and don’t startle it. Gather in a group and bang sticks on the ground.If you cross paths with a tiger, maintain eye contact and back away, slowly.If charged by a wild elephant, run and pray.
That’s the training we received before hiking into the jungle for three days, where we stayed in villages surrounded by fences to keep out wildlife. Nepal’s national parks are some of the few places in the world where you can go on a walking safari. It’s a rare opportunity to get up-close with endangered species in their natural environment.
During Nepal’s civil war, their army, which guards national parks, was pulled away to fight for ten years, allowing poachers to decimate already-endangered animals. National parks are vital to the future of endangered species; approximately 300 of the world’s remaining 3,000 one-horned rhinoceroses are protected in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park.
Getting there
This was part of a multi-month backpacking trip through Nepal and India, where I arrived in Kathmandu without plans, hiked across the Himalaya Mountains and explored the kingdom of Mustang. After resting a few days, I took a bus from the foothills of the Himalayas to the jungles of Nepal.
To be affordable, public buses in Nepal allow people to sit on each others’ laps, stand, or cram several people into seats designed for two people. Buses are small; I’m taller than average Nepali people, and I had to pull my knees towards my chest to fit into the seat. It’s uncomfortable, especially for a six-hour ride across bumpy mountain roads. To have fun, I let kids play with my camera. In poor areas of the world, people in tourists’ photos have rarely seen a photo of themselves or used a camera; many of the photos in my blog were taken by kids I met while backpacking.
Welcome to the jungle
The town near Chitwan National Park, Sauraha, is separated from the park by a river. The people of Sauraha use Elephants like people in the rural United States use tractors, working in fields and riding into town.

Shop owners share old produce with the elephants: their trunks can lift 750 lbs using 150,000 muscles, yet tickle your hand when they’re sniffing for an apple.

There are few roads or infrastructure in this part of Nepal, and villages inside the national park are isolated and rustic. There are few roads, and during the rainy season roads become impassable even to jeeps, but elephants live here naturally and can cross rivers that jeeps can not. They carry wood to cook food, and products to trade in town. And, they’re safer than walking: each year, people are killed by bears, tigers, rhinos, and wild-elephants.

The villages were sheltered from development because, until recently, there was malaria in the area. Then, the civil war kept development away. Now, the lack of roads, schools, and hospitals keeps the area isolated, except for tourists coming through with much-needed money. A popular activity is touring the jungle on the backs of elephants. They’re intelligent, social animals, known to show compassion and mourn their dead. They resist being chained and made to carry people, and the methods used to keep them domesticated is inhumane. So, as much as I enjoy them, we could not justify supporting a decadent use of elephants. We hiked into the jungle, enjoying elephants in a more natural setting.
Canoe & hike

We left town in a canoe, early in the morning when a thick fog blocked view of shore. We could hear monkeys howling in trees, birds singing from shore, and crocodiles splashing in the water. Over the next three days, we alternated between wading through rivers and hiring dugout canoes for deep sections where crocodiles may be unseen; the week before we arrived, a soldier disappeared while on patrol, presumably killed by a crocodile.

At night, we’d sleep in villages that were surrounded by rustic fences to keep out wildlife. Both guides were born in the area, became trained in conservation, and now earn their living preserving wildlife and wilderness. To make this a sustainable social business requires tourists willing to make the journey.

Most of our time was spent hiking to and from villages, observing wildlife along the way. We saw seven one-horned rhinos, which is a treat because there are only 3,000 remaining in the world today. They’re known to “Charge!” when startled, especially when protecting young rhinos. The rest of the time, they’re content sitting in water, eating and farting between naps.
To me, this sounds like a wonderful world: everyone eats, swims, farts, and naps; don’t be aggressive, except to protect your children from harm.

We had a scary experience with one rhino, after we startled one while hiking through high grass. This one photo was taken just before we all ran, including our guides, after ensuring we were safe.
Nepal requires two guides for walking safaris, one in the front and one in the read, watching all directions and keeping count of tourists. One of our guides had scars on his arm from a sloth bear attack.
Guides are usually from local villages, and are well-educated about animal conservation. They are there to help tourists have authentic experiences; we protect what we cherish, and we cherish what we experience positively.

Seeing tigers require being still. Each morning, we’d sit silently for four hours, observing trails that led to watering holes. Mostly, we only saw wild hogs, which are intelligent enough to realize that they’re cute and we’re mostly harmless.

Back in town
Over the three days, I had become friends with our guide. Back in town, I stayed with his family, in a hut overlooking the river. He insisted on buying beers: a Nepali beer is 350 Rupees ($3.50 U.S.), he earned $15/day as a tour guide, which required a year of school. His family and I grilled food, played music, and discussed what to do about balancing nature conservation with infrastructure development and people’s need for employment. He chooses to not take tourists on elephants, even though that’s more lucrative. He also knows that every road helps villages have access to modern health and education, but takes away land from wildlife; all threats to humans stem from us encroaching on land used by these animals for thousands of years before we started building roads there.
Ultimately, animals will be saved when humans preserve their land; we can’t expect rural people to preserve land at the expense of their own well-being, especially when faced by decadence in other areas of the world. The future of conservation may require sustainable tourism based on socially-responsible businesses, and democracies where people choose where tax funding goes.
Nepal is new to democracy. The civil war ended recently, and they had their second elections, which I witnessed when backpacking in the Himalayas. Everyone hopes for the same, and when we help them have equitable health and education they can help preserve nature for all of us.
We didn’t solve the world’s problems, but had fun and enjoyed cold beers while playing music and grilling food over an open fire. Alcohol is detrimental to inflammation in our bodies (I have chronic inflammation), and can become a problem for many people, but at that moment, sharing a beer was the best choice I could have made. The day before, I had been charged by a one-horned rhinoceros and saved by the guy buying me a beer.

I travel by backpack to get to know people who live drastically different lives than we do. I believe this allows me to better appreciate my home in San Diego, California, which makes me happy. When you’re happy, you want to share, which is I work towards equitable education and healthcare for others.
The future
Preserving these beautiful animals requires people like you and me making it financially feasible for villagers to earn a living sustaining their wilderness. We can do this through responsible tourism, supporting animal-welfare organizations, and encouraging global programs that assist local entrepreneurs in creating sustainable businesses.
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