Once arriving by bus to Sauraha, we walked into town and found Nepal Dynamic Eco Tours, which had very good reviews online. There we met Raj and his sister Doma, who is a leader in conservation and one of the first Nepali women in the field. Newspaper articles on the walls mentioned that their mother had been killed by a rhino 7 years earlier. Raj was not at all a pushy salesman and took his time explaining our options to see the park (walking, jeep, canoe or elephant safaris). While Doma told me all about her recent encounter with a sloth bear while guiding a jeep tour, he took Sean to see a lodge we could stay in for the night. Once they returned we got settled in the lodge, rented bicycles and met back up with Raj for a guided visit to the elephant breeding centre which he didn’t even charge us for. I had never seen an Asian bicycle before and thought it didn’t have any brakes until Sean and Raj pointed them out, laughing at me dragging my feet in the dirt.
We rode through the village on a mix of gravel and asphalt, maneuvering around big elephant droppings. We passed grass-roofed huts made of bamboo and clay amongst big gardens and hand-worked mustard fields. Domestic buffalo, goats, chickens, ducks, dogs and kids were everywhere, while adults went about their day. We shared the road with tractors, horse-drawn carts, local kids piled onto shared bicycles and even elephants with their riders sitting right behind their big ears. When we got to a shallow river we left our bikes and walked over a bridge made of sandbags which has to be reconstructed every year following the monsoon. Raj had got a call from a friend about the whereabouts of a wild rhino currently in the area so we hurried past the breeding centre and into the forest where after 25 minutes we came across an army camp. We hadn’t even paid for this excursion but Raj had pointed out trees, birds and insects to us all the way and answered all our questions about the area. The soldiers directed us around the camp, where we spotted our first greater one-horned rhino right away (or rhinosaurus, as the Nepali guides referred to them).
We crept closer finding a good vantage point with some trees for protection. As we watched it munching leaves, Raj explained that rhinos have good smell and hearing but very poor eyesight, so we should run in a zigzagging pattern if it were to charge. The male rhino didn’t look too unlike a real dinosaur, with big plates of armour and a face that reminded me of a lizard. We were within 50 yards and got lots of good pictures. On the walk back we ran into a big heard of spotted deer, a bright orange wild chicken (yes they’re actually wild) and a very big peacock.
Upon return to the elephant breeding centre we saw about 5 mothers on very short chains, most with various sized offspring. It was sad to see them with so little room to move and some were rocking back and forth, which Raj told us was their way of asking for food while Sean was sure it was a sign of mental distress. The elephants are owned by the Nepali government and the females are used for safaris while the males are used for patrols against poaching. Raj told us a wild male named “Renaldo” frequents the area and has bred several of the captive females.