It is about 9am on the third of April 2017.
I am in Chitwan, Nepal’s first national park, home to 605 of the country’s 645 rhinos.
By the end of the day, it is up to my 100+ member team to track and collar a one-horned rhino ready for translocation to Shuklaphanta, Nepal’s youngest national park.
We can take as many as three rhinos at a time.
But today my focus is on only one, starting slowly but surely, as we gain the confidence and stealth to move a total of five rhinos between the two national parks.
If we succeed, it will be the first time in 17 years that a rhino has made such a trek to Shuklaphanta.
The days are getting warmer in Nepal’s terai (lower foothills of the Himalayas), and that is but one of the elements we are working against.
The last time I was here exactly a year ago in a similar expedition, it was not till the end of the day that we were able to track and collar a rhino for translocation to Bardia National Park.
I hope the wait will not be as long this time around. I probably echo the thoughts of my technical team as we negotiate our way through the forests with the help of 30 elephants in search of our first rhino.
A few minutes in, we spot one. My excitement runs high until we see it is a female with a new born calf. It would not be in the interests of both to be moved.
Our search continues.
Another few minutes in, and I receive a radio message.
“We’ve spotted a solitary rhino in the grasslands, probably a male.”
This is our chance, I think to myself, as we quickly line up the elephants to guide the rhino towards the direction of the darter.
Before heading out to the forest in the morning, the veterinary team had the sedative for the rhino loaded on to the dart gun.
The sedative is so strong that even a drop of it on human skin can prove fatal.
As the elephants make their formation, two darters make their way up a tree, choosing two separate vantage points from where to dart the rhino. Each gets only one shot, preferably on the rump of the animal.
A miss, and we start all over again!
The elephant line-up seems to be working as the rhino trudges through the grass getting near one of the darters, only to move away again. The darter stands patiently with a foothold on the branches waiting for the perfect moment. And then, unaware of his surroundings, the rhino gets close enough for the darter to fire.
The darter takes aim and shoots, and the dart finds its target.
It is a perfect shot.
Within minutes, the rhino lies down. But we let a few more minutes pass to let the sedative take complete effect. It is then time to get off our elephants and begin our next big task – the collaring.
It is 11.15am and the temperatures are rising quickly.
We have about an hour to collar and move the rhino to its enclosure, which will then be loaded on a truck to take it to Shuklaphanta. A looming risk is the rhino waking up before that!
We move quickly.
While some of the technical team take measurements of the animal, I bring out the collar for the rhino – an adult male about 12 years of age. The satellite-GPS collar will help the government and WWF track his movements once released in Shuklaphanta, and also provide important information on his health and behavior.
The task is complete in about 20 minutes, but our work is still not done.
Once collared, and still sedated, the rhino will now need to be put on to a wooden ramp, which is then tugged towards the enclosure using an excavator.
The catch is loading it on the ramp first, not with a machine but with human hands, and we’re talking of a two-ton rhino here.
The team takes position in front of the rhino and – one-two-three – with a single push, the rhino is positioned on the ramp.
Luckily, since the rhino had been darted close to the truck, it takes just a few minutes to pull it towards the enclosure, which is specially built for the long drive to Shuklaphanta.
The entire site is abuzz now. Like different parts of machinery, the human intellect is at work here, with every person in the team playing it by ear.
Fastened with steel ropes connected to the excavator, the ramp is slowly pulled into the enclosure. Utmost care is taken to ensure that no harm comes to the rhino during the entire process.
The ramp gets a final pull into the enclosure.
As all the people move back, the vet gives the antidote to the rhino while the door is almost simultaneously slid down, locked and bolted.
The rhino now comes to its senses, apparently quite disoriented and very angry. He shows his distaste by ramming his horn on the roof of the enclosure several times.
The enclosure is, of course, built to withstand such opposition!
With the rhino up, the enclosure is given the final push on to the truck. There is rejoicing in the air, accomplishment on our faces, and a total disregard for our clothes soaked in the sweat of our labor.
It is 12.30pm and just in time for lunch.
The truck will not leave for Shuklaphanta just yet and will wait till the day is over to make the overnight drive.
The truck finally leaves Chitwan National Park at 7.30pm just as night settles in and there is a welcome coolness in the air.
Over the 600 kilometers that the truck and rhino will travel, there will be stoppages only for dinner, feeding the rhino, and the occasional toilet run.
Two drivers are tasked with this responsibility so that they take turns on the wheel in this journey of about 16 hours.
It is about 1pm on 4 April when the truck finally arrives at the release site in Shuklaphanta National Park.
The site is near a wetland and grassland to provide the most suitable habitat as soon as the rhino makes its way into its new home.
The truck is positioned for the rhino release while the team pours water on the rhino to cool it from the afternoon sun.
When the signal is given by the park authorities, the door to the enclosure is slowly lifted.
Now usually once this happens, the rhino backs out of the truck and darts into the forest, quite oblivious of its surroundings and happy to be back in the wild.
This one, however, decides to stay inside his enclosure just a little while longer. And that is nearly about 10 minutes.
When he finally does decide to walk out of the truck, he apparently does not seem quite happy.
Probably very tired and at the same time disoriented, the rhino, instead of heading out into the forest, decides to say a last farewell to his carriage – banging his horn a couple of times on the front and rear ends of the truck.
Finally, he heads out into the forest leaving a trail of fine dust over his tracks.
This, indeed, is a moment of boisterous accomplishment. And an expedition that lasted nearly 24 hours meets with further success as this male pachyderm is joined by an additional four from Chitwan National Park in the next few days.
Together with the existing 10 rhinos in Shuklaphanta, they might just form the next source population of rhinos in this western complex of the Terai Arc Landscape.
This is also my moment, my sense of purpose with WWF. I have spent a great part of my years in the forests of Nepal, being at one with the wild I seek to better understand and help protect.
And with each passing experience, I see hope and a belief in the future when rhino numbers will once again rise to the 800 that once walked Nepal’s forests.
Kanchan Thapa is the wildlife lead and conservation biologist at WWF Nepal. His expertise is in carnivore ecology and research focusing on population estimation and dynamics, occupancy modeling and conservation genetics. He also supports design, planning and implementation of wildlife projects in Nepal’s priority landscapes.