Last week I had the great privilege of travelling into the rich, green jungle of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, and seeing two animals I’d never seen before: the rhino and gharial. I say privileged because it is a great opportunity to actually be in a preserved forest, and see over a dozen endangered one-horned rhinos and two gharials, some as close as 15 feet away.
Every forest I’ve ever been in has been completely different from another. The jungles I’m most familiar with are those of the Western Ghats, close to my home in Mumbai though I’ve been to others, in the Himalayas, in the Adirondacks of North America, in Indonesian Borneo. In Chitwan the forest was distinct. It starts with grassland, a word that I was fooled by until now. What exists here is grass like I’ve never seen before. Elephant grass that can grow upto 20 feet tall, making it possible to camouflage anything from tigers to the rhino, or even an elephant. As we moved from the grassland to the riverine forest, the temperature dropped at least eight degrees. A silence fell over me as the safari vehicle moved deeper into the woods.
Forests have a way on enveloping you in their serenity. Each jungle I’ve ever been in offers a distinctive experience, but there is one commonality. They draw you in, force your senses to become more alert and tuned-in to the rhythms of the natural world. Driving through Chitwan, I felt my heart rate reduce, my mood lift, quietude settle my mind.
Forests hide all kinds of life, big and small, dangerous and harmless. But as our wilderness areas shrink, the habitat for wildlife dwindles, and more and more animals disappear. The rhino for instance is an animal from a primeval world that has probably existed on earth for 50 million years, and yet in the last 100 years we have pushed it to the brink of extinction.
On the safari, I watched with happiness a mother and calf grazing in their domain. They were greybrown beasts with thick, armour-like skin folds and yet easily bothered by insects. The rhino mama watched us too. Her immense ear twitched and moved to face us and keep alert in our direction. When we moved, her ear moved to keep track of us, like a periscope. This enormous vegetarian beast weighs between 1.5 and 3.5 tonnes and can charge and run faster than a human being. Luckily for us, they don’t have great eyesight, so they can’t see us with cameras stuck to our faces, clicking away like maniacs. After this first encounter I settled my camera into the empty seat next to me and tried to click less and enjoy the ride: the cool air, the refreshing ambience of the wild.
Meeting an animal, however small or large, in the wild is an experience that lasts a lifetime. While hiking through a Western Ghats forest a few years ago I recall a fascinating moment though it lasted all of two seconds. As I turned a corner around a boulder on a path, a mouse deer and I totally surprised each other. It charged, ran over my feet, and scrambled into the brush. To this day so many years later, I cherish that chance encounter.
Chitwan is a conservation success story. Yet, I feel somewhat sad when we are reduced to celebrating two years of no poaching. Unfortunately that’s what our world has come to. But increasingly I believe that one way to contribute to the success of preserving forests and the amazing wildlife within them is to engage in responsible wildlife tourism. Quite simply that means visiting a jungle without harming it or its inhabitants. While tourism does cause some animals to get habituated to seeing humans, for me that’s a better proposition than death and extinction— which is where numerous species including this one-horned rhino were headed until recently. In India much wildlife tourism is targeted at seeing tigers and that has similarly helped conserve the tiger’s habitat and increase its numbers.
But spotting wildlife aside, for me, going into a jungle is an elevating experience of its own. It allows me to switch off from the all-encompassing, hyperconnected world I live in and enjoy the stillness of life. I take in the peace it offers and come back feeling refreshed and energised, imbued with an overall sense of wellbeing. If you haven’t ever been in a jungle before, now is as good a time as any other.
Appeared in the May 2016 issue as “Songs From The Woods”.
Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through the wilderness or the by-lanes of a city. She is obsessive about family holidays and has already instilled in her young daughter wanderlust and a love for the outdoors. She is the former Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.