In Search of the Sloth Bear: Ducks, Boars, a Tiger & Rhinosaurs

We left Sauraha early with our guides Bishnu and Krishna for the park (Sauraha is a town right across the river from Chitwan National Park, which is bordered on both sides by rivers). We crossed the Rapti on a long and narrow dugout canoe that sat so low in the water we were just above the surface. We had seen a large crocodile not far from our location the night before and I was half hoping to see it appear in the thick morning fog. Once across we entered the jungle after Bishnu’s safety talk: rhinos have poor eyesight so run in a zigzag or hide behind a thick tree; sloth bears must be fought off with a stick if you fail to scare them off with noise, and total avoidance was our only hope against a wild elephant.

Throughout the day we walked 20 km through grassland and jungle and we saw and learned so many things I should have been taking notes so as not to forget any of it. Small but still fascinating discoveries included sloth bear sign (scratches on trees, their scat – full of shiny termite heads that resembled seeds, and digs in the soil where they had searched for termites and roots), tiger sign (scratches on trees and on the ground to mark territory, tracks, and horrible smelling urine), huge rhino tracks and their orange-coloured urine, crocodiles, flocks of florescent green parakeets, 4 lesser adjutant storks on a nest and soaring above us, big ruddy shelled ducks, colourful common moorhens and dozens of other unique water and songbirds. Bishnu knew them all well and frequently pointed birds out for us, including two species of kingfisher, one a brilliant blue. We also saw a changeable hawk eagle (with a quail-like crown feather) and other snake-eating birds of prey, a honey buzzard, dragonvine (a spiky, medieval looking vine), strangler fig (a vine that chokes trees to death and thickly shades the canopy), rhino apple trees with smooth pinkish bark, herds of spotted deer, one big buck with enormous antlers in relation to his body size, a palm-sized spider on a web Bishnu saved me from walking through, hog deer, barking deer and many wild boars that would skirt across the trail ahead of us, exploding from their tunnels in the walls formed by the almost 20 foot tall elephant grass. In the forest leaves the size of dinner plates fell with the sound of fat raindrops.

For lunch we headed up a lookout tower which offered beautiful views over the grasslands and over to the Churia hills in the distance. Bishnu told us that after the grass has been burnt in the spring hordes of all kinds of species can be seen at once from the watchtowers. We had finished eating when we noticed a rhino in the towering grass close to the road we had walked on to reach the tower, but we never could have seen it from the ground. As we watched it grazing we noticed a calf close behind it, small enough that Bishnu figured it was less than a year old.

From there we started working our way towards a waterhole in hopes of spotting a sloth bear. On the waters edge we saw a turtle and a large, lazy crocodile basking in the sun, but no other critters. We paralleled the body of water until we heard a commotion in the nearby grass and a menacing snarl, followed by a splash in the water – we had spooked a tiger! Not a minute later we heard a greater commotion, more snarls and the surprised bellows of a rhino, spooked in turn by the tiger! Following a great crashing of the grass, many more bellows were heard as the first rhino ran into a second one! The grass was so tall these three beasts had been in close proximity to each other and not even been aware of it. On the other side of the wetland we excitedly crept back to an open area where we traced the rhino’s movements by the swaying swaths of giant grass. After much anticipation (and deliberation between Bishnu and Krishna on where we should be) we heard another splash and one rhino appeared on the edge of the water. He wasn’t really facing us but close enough to the same lazy crocodile (who hadn’t blinked an eye throughout the whole episode) to catch them both in the same picture. All of us, even the guides who are both veterans, were thrilled at what we had just witnessed.

Carrying on, we walked through various vegetation types and habitats narrated by Bishnu who made it all the more interesting with his jokes and stories. Walking down a wider trail through less dense forest, Krishna heard yet another rhino so we made our way through the trees towards it. Suddenly there were two right in front of us! We crept around for better views and Bishnu told us it was a female with an older, basically grown juvenile (about 5 years old) that she had allowed to remain with her. So that was a total of 5 rhinos in one day! Nearing sunset we reached a river where we waited for a man in another dugout canoe to come fetch us as it’s not allowed to overnight in the park. While we waited we watched a black and white checkered kingfisher diving into the water for fish. Once across we walked over hummocks made by rhinos and into a nearby village to a family run guesthouse. There was a small scorpion in my bedroom and Sean kindly took a hit to his karma to kill it for me. During a delicious supper Bishnu entertained us with a story of his daughter suffering from a large tick inside her ear, so needless to say I had a stressful night not being accustomed to such abundant creepy crawlies yet.

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