Pachyderm-perched perspective

27 Jun

The elephants lumber down the main drag of Sauraha.  On their way to work – on their way home from work – on their way to a refreshing river bath.  Their job?  Schlepping tourists around the Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal’s Terai Arc region.

“Traffic” in Sauraha

I was pretty torn about the idea of an elephant safari.  It seems inherently exploitative.  On the one hand, I’d read of some harsh treatment of the packing pachyderms.  But on the other hand, I’ve heard that being on elephant back is actually a less stressful way to sneak up on the other wildlife being safaried.  What to do?  Well, in the end I was lured by the potential for rhinoceros sightings.  So I climbed up.

In all I was a bit nonplused by my time atop an elephant.  From the animal rights perspective, it was pretty mellow.  I can’t see where it would be any more objectionable than riding a horse – the stirrups were of course much bigger.  But from a naturalists’ perspective the safari was a bit lacking.  We saddled up and took off in a caravan of about 10 other elephants – all packed with a variety of giggling, talking, shouting, cell-phone-talking tourists.  (My lucky elephant even included one very loud belcher – and, no, it wasn’t me!)  The pachyderm parade proceeded down the well-worn appointed path into the jungle.

A herd of elephants schleps a herd of tourists into the jungle

The mahouts drive the elephant – they don’t guide the tourists.  Once again likening to horse-culture, mahouts have the unfortunate social status on par with a stable hand.  They are seldom educated and are unlikely to speak English.  So we rode in silence through an amazing landscape about which we had no information.  Hoping for an amazing wildlife adventure.  Mostly just plodding along ten feet off the forest floor.  But then….

Nothing quite like seeing a young rhino in the wild!

Just as we were ready to resign to grumpiness about an early morning for a bumpy ride – there he was – the rhino we’d been waiting for.  It’s amazing how quickly a wild rhino can turn the whole morning around – this elephant safari was now amazing!  We got to spend several minutes just watching a young rhino graze in the underbrush, until eventually an audience of elephants inspired him to graze more secluded pastures.

So coy

After a long morning of tourist-toting, the elephants were treated with handfuls of sweet ripe bananas.

A good snack after a long ride – open up for a banana!

And even baths in the river.

Both elephants and mahouts enjoy a good bath after work

Other wildlife adventures in Chitwan started even earlier – were even mellower – and yet still a great time.  In a town where touring agencies out number tourists, you can quickly feel like their feasting on your blood as they drain your wallet, promise you the world, and routinely concoct schedules with no bearing on the actual progression of time.  Just as we were getting frustrated by over-priced offers for poorly-led jungle hikes – we found it – the Chitwan Bird Education Center!  Run by volunteers!  Priced by donation!  The world over bird nerds rule – friendly folks who just wanna share some appreciation of nature with you – oh yeah, and share their need to wake up before dawn!  We saw some great birds along the river with our super-knowledge and very guide, Ramesh.

Asian Paradise Flycatcher on the nest

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