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24 Hours In a City Being Invaded By Rhinos

Nepal’s rhino conservation efforts have been, if anything, too successful.

An Asian rhino.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Ganesh Paudel packs a wad of chewing tobacco as he talks about the rhinoceros attack. “When the rhino charged, we were in a boat,” he tells me. “The rhino was sitting in the water, then it hit me and broke my knee, broke the hand of another guide and gored a tourist” — he points — “through an eye.”

As we chat, another rhino wades in a stream just a short way away. Paudel works as a nature guide, but we’re not in nature today — we’re standing under a bridge that connects to a busy highway in Chitwan, a district of about a million people situated on the outskirts of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. A school bus passes and a few locals stop their scooters to whip out phones and film. But most keep moving without looking twice.

Rhinos once roamed from Pakistan to Bangladesh, but their numbers plummeted in the 20th century. Many cultures throughout Asia believe rhino horns have medicinal properties, making the creatures they’re attached to vulnerable to poaching. Rajas and royals prized rhinos as trophy kills. Farmers, also, retaliated with violence against rhinos that pillaged their crops. By 1970 there were just 95 rhinos in the national park, a wilderness bigger than New York City.

Eventually, however, the government realized that wildlife protection attracts dollars. For decades now, the United States Agency for International Development and non-governmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund have supported Nepal’s efforts to boost conservation and lessen human wildlife conflict. Between 2011 and 2020 alone, $57 million of USAID funding went to programs aimed at protecting biodiversity here. Soldiers now patrol the park to stifle poaching.

But while the rhino population has rebounded to nearly 700 in Chitwan, the animals themselves are hardly thriving. As temperatures rise, there's been less rain during monsoon season. Warming temperatures have fueled invasive species like American creeper vines that have taken over rhino habitat and grow three inches daily. Climate change has also dried up staple rhino foods like elephant grass and aquatic plants. Now, there are too many rhinos and not enough forest, which forces the animals out of the park and into the city. (The same goes for tigers.)

The particular rhino wading near us is named Meghauli. Each morning, like clockwork, he comes out of the forest and into town. Meghauli is a bona fide social media star. When he thuds down the road traffic stops and a parade of hypnotized Nepalis and foreigners snap selfies and touch his leathery hide.

Meghauli was hand-raised by park staff after he was found alone, wounded from a tiger attack. Fed on 18 liters of buffalo milk a day, he grew big and strong — and also lost his fear of humans. Four years later he was released, but he kept returning because it’s easier to find food in town than in the increasingly dry and crowded jungle.

Rhinos are everywhere in the populated regions around the park — wading in streams, but also painted in murals, memorialized in hotel names, and depicted in statues. The uncomfortable truth is that the rhinos’ plight has also created a lucrative tourist opportunity. Rajendra Dhami, who runs a tea shop in front of Meghauli’s main crossing point, a shallow river with basking crocodiles and waiting tourists, tells me the rhinos have become a big attraction. “People come to see rhinos since we have them,” he says. “That means more money for us.”

A pair of young Brits and an Indian family of nine are currently gathered, waiting for Meghauli, but Dhami insists that for the most part, it doesn’t matter which rhino shows up. “We have lots of problems in Nepal,” he tells me, “but we share with wildlife.”

It’s true visitors often choose hotels and shops near wildlife. But a recent 20-year study found that nature-based tourism rarely impacts locals, in part because hotel bookings are often made online with fancy tour operators who act as middlemen and skim off revenue much the same way food delivery sites take from restaurants. Meanwhile, just six of the 93 hotels here are owned or managed by indigenous people, according to the Regional Hotel Association Chitwan. For most Nepalis, especially in poor indigenous communities who rely on farming here, rhinos running around is bad for bottom lines — and bellies.

“Cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes, rhinos like it all very much” says Narayan Rijal, who has worked as a park guide for 15 years. ”That’s the problem.”

But people, also, are hungry. Many here are in such need of food that they’re invading rhino habitat to find fruits, honey, and meat. Impoverished communities illegally enter the park to gather firewood, a cycle that increases deforestation, shrinks habitat, and risks deadly rhino, elephant, and tiger attacks.

Tulsi Magar, a guide at the local Sanctuary hotel, says many attacks are because farmers are so desperate to protect their own food that they stand their ground and light fires to try and scare off hungry rhinos. When Magar was 12, he also fought this way, sleeping in a shed and narrowly avoiding losing his life to protect the family’s radish harvest.

“It didn’t work,’ he remembers. “The rhinos won.”

Soldiers try their best to manage the rhinos, trailing them as they leave the park to forage in farmers’ fields. Once they reach town, soldiers often have to hit them with sticks or their rifle butts to get them to return to the forest.

“They‘re not small animals,” an assistant warden says as a rooster crows outside his office. “We try to push rhinos back into the core area. With Meghauli no need for stick, we just push. We do our best.”

Meghauli has a lookalike named Madi, another rescue. Unlike Meghauli, Madi is angry, park staff say, asking me to avoid using their names for fear of speaking openly. “Madi even charged a few taxis by the airport,” they admit. “He’s very aggressive.”

Rhinos have killed 55 people since 1998, including a 2019 attack on safari-going tourists. Last year alone, rhinos killed five. “They’re more dangerous than tigers,” notes Isswari Chapagain who has climbed trees to avoid charges.

Rhinos aren’t just a threat to locals, he says. They’re also a threat to each other. Wild rhinos go nuts and attack orphans like Meghauli and Madi if they smell people on them — another reason they keep coming back to town.

As the park has become famous and rhinos have rebounded, human activities like road expansion have been linked to a string of strange deaths: 165 rhinos killed from falling into roadside ditches and septic tanks, shocks from electric fences, disease (likely from proximity to livestock), and at least six killed by poachers. In 2022 alone, 36 rhinos died from territorial fights, which are also connected to warming temperatures and habitat loss. Construction on Chitwan’s three main rivers changes their flow, shrinks space, increases food competition and pushes rhinos into fields.

Rhinos are protected even if they attack or leave the park boundaries, but people aren’t. If they’re attacked in the park, Nepalis can claim government compensation (although guides cannot). If they’re at home protecting their farms and a rhino mauls them, they get nothing, another reason researchers accuse the government of continuing to prioritize wildlife over people.

Back under the bridge, I watch Meghauli blow bubbles under the water, just like a kid.

When he rises, I see his massive body in full for the first time. He seems gentle but it wouldn’t take much — a jerk of his head or a kick from a leg — for him to kill someone. He exits the water and trudges up the riverbank, then pauses to scan the highway. He faces me and sniffs the air, then turns toward a potato field. It’s lunchtime.


Adam Popescu

Adam Popescu is a journalist who specializes in narratives on power, culture, wildlife, climate, and the dark side of big tech. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and a BA in creative writing from Pitzer College. He is a first generation American. Read More

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