Shreeram, operation in charge of United Elephant Co-operative Ltd, Sauraha, invited me to have elephant safari with him into Baghmara Community Forest in search of rhino which is becoming elusive in the forest recently.
He informed me that rhino has not been sighted for almost 10 days in Baghmara Community Forest and adjoining Chitrasen Community Forest. But, it used to be seen commonly just a month ago. It is a worry for private elephant entrepreneurs who are organizing the elephant back safari for the visitors.
“Nowadays we are organizing the program in two shifts (morning and evening) daily with 44 elephants but we generally operate 5 shifts during the tourist season” informed Shreeram. One elephant roams in the forest for approximately two hours in one entry (one shift). Legacy of the forest is left on will of 44 elephants that march freely for 10 hours each day. I was wondering for potential consequences.
There were some 15 elephants alongside of our elephant in the forest. Few were returning back without luck in pursuit of seeing rhino. The forest has mainly been dominated by padke (Albizia lucida) and bilaune (Maesa chesia) trees. There are trails everywhere. Wherever mahute (elephant driver) commanded, elephants moved freely stampeding the undergrowth and grass. Behind the trees, spotted deer were feeding on foliage. A herd of sambar deer, surrounded by elephants, were grazing near the marshland but they did not flinch at our arrival. For me, the atmosphere is more like a zoo. Almost all part of forest is damp and wet because of monsoon rain. We crossed the Budi Rapti River and entered the Chistrasen Community Forest which is dominated by sal trees (Shorea robusta). Forest seems less disturbed than previous one. Spotted deer also scared and ran away when we trespassed their territory. Sadly, no single rhino was sighted during our 3 hours of journey.
Private elephants also go in Kumroj and Janakauli Community Forest for wildlife viewing. Since chances of seeing rhino is higher in Baghmara, hotel entrepreneurs prefer Baghmara than Kumroj and Janakauli. They have no choice now as the chance of seeing rhino in all community forests is getting slimmer.
Elephant back safari has been one of the attractive activities for the visitors of Chitwan National Park for its easy and relatively safe access to jungle for wildlife viewing in close proximity. Private elephants are mainly involved in providing services for large volume of visitors because park provides only few elephants and elephants of National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) are inconsistent as their priority is research. Data from United Elephant Co-operative Ltd. suggests that it provided the service to some 65000 visitors last year. Elephants of the government and NTNC are only allowed to enter in the park.
There should be many reasons for rhinos disappearing from community forests and one of them undoubtedly is over exploitation of the resources and enormous disturbance caused by the massive influx of elephants in small area. Other reason could be dampness of the forest. But, there should be proper study in the first place to find out the genuine reasons.
Private elephant entrepreneurs in Sauraha are seeking government approval to let their elephants to enter in Chitwan National Park for wildlife viewing. The concerned committee has already submitted the draft proposal to Ministry of Forest. Guidelines in the proposal suggest the entry of limited number of elephants and in different locations in order to reduce the impact to the park. Community forests are obviously against the proposal because it affects their revenue collection. Local people are also raising their voice that if private elephants are allowed to enter the park, their domestic cattle should also be allowed to enter the park. But the real issue is potential biological impact it will cause to the park.
Sal trees in Chitrasen Community Forest
Owing to the large expanse of area in the park, it would be difficult to view rhino in elephant safari because rhinos are generally not confined to particular area. Furthermore it might chases remaining rhinos away from Sauraha region. Animal sighting has already been getting slimmer lately.
Regular sighting of rhino is crucial for the tourism development. Rather than searching for rhino in other territories, we should find out why rhino disappears from the community forests where animals were common once. Surely it is because of over exploitation of the forest resources. To bring animals back, we have to establish and maintain the habitat suitable for them. History of tourism activities in Sauraha suggests that Baghmara, Chitrasen, Janakauli and Kumroj Community Forests are good for wildlife viewing through diverse activities: elephant ride, jungle walk, bird watching, canoeing and tower night program. In terms of time duration, these forests are easily accessible for elephants. Well being the community forests insures the protection of the park because these are instrumental for taking pressure off from the park. Park, in turn, secures the viable population of the wildlife.
We could allow limited number of elephants in the community forests in rotation such that there would not be excessive pressure upon one forest. Why we could not implement the guidelines suggested in aforementioned proposal in case of community forests?