Death is inevitable. However, it is painful to face the reality when a life is lost prematurely. Bharat Pandey, 42, an assistant guide, lost his life in a rhino attack, in Chitwan National Park while he was guiding six foreign visitors along with his fellow guides, Sukram Mahato (guide) and Prem Kumal (assistant guide). The fatal incident took place on September 13 near the Bhalu Khola on their way towards Crocodile Breeding Center, located at Kasara, the park's headquarters. Two rhinos (female rhino with her adult baby) emerged from bush and attacked the team, but Bharat happened to receive the blow and got knocked down.
The other assistant guide Prem helped guests retreat to the safe place, whilst Sukram tried to save Bharat making loud noise and hitting rhino with a stick. But his desperate attempt was not enough to budge the rhino; she backed off only after inflicting serious injuries on the victim. Later, medical examination revealed that rhino had stampeded Bharat on his chest.
Bharat, a freelance guide, was hired by Royal Park Hotel for a whole day jungle walk program in the park for its guests.
Unsafe Jungle Walk
Jungle walk is one of the exciting activities in the park. In this excursion, the local guides lead visitors inside the park on foot for sighting wildlife and enjoy the jungle environment. The duration of the walk ranges from half a day to five days. A long wooden stick is the only weapon for guides to defend themselves and their guests from wild beasts. As people are not allowed to stay overnight in the park, they come out of the park before sunset and enter the park next morning after sunrise if they involve in jungle walk program for more than a day.
Casualties are obvious when you are trespassing the territory of wild animals without much protection and security. Before this incidence, three guides- Badri Pandey, Basu Chaudhary and Binod Adhikari- had been killed by rhino and some ten guides have been seriously injured in the rhino attacks during the jungle walks. Majority of the guides had the apparent threat from animals experiencing near death situation. Not only guides, guests also met with casualties as the threat looms over them as well.
Casualties have taken place due to other animals like sloth bear, tiger and gaur (bison), but rhino is the major threat and it is the animal behind the majority of the fatal incidents. The potential danger also depends upon the temperament of animal and existing situation when animal is sighted. Generally animals are aggressive when they are with their babies, when they are mating, or when in fight with each other. Understanding the behavior of each animal is helpful for sensing the danger ahead.
Risk, Livelihood and Safety Measures
Rhino has bad eye sight but has good sense of hearing and smelling. Rhino attacks not only human but also other animals. However, human casualty is more because of the threat they impose upon the animal. Harkaman Lama, senior wildlife technician at National Trust of Nature Conservation, says, "After attacking people, rhino backs off but comes back again if it hears sound from the victim."
Despite the danger involved in the profession, the local guides have not been able to find the other alternative to Jungle walking activity. The local guides have been depending on wildlife tourism for their livelihood ever since Chitwan became one of the major destinations for tourists. Anil Gurung, nature guide and vice-president of Nature Guide Association, says, "I have spent almost half of my life in this field. There is no way I could move to other field now."
There are some 250 active nature guides, either working at the local guide offices or at hotels in Sauraha, leading the jungle excursion. More than 400 assistant guides are working alongside the senior guides. Generally, one guide and one assistant guide are assigned in jungle walk program for a group of seven visitors. Some 60-70 guides enter the park every day during the season and some 30-40 guides go in the park during the off-season (monsoon). The service fee is not fixed as it depends on the number of visitors in a group, the number of walking days, and their specific interests. Normal price is NPR 1500-2000 per visitor for a whole day jungle walking.
Jungle walk program is popular among the visitors who like to have exciting jungle experience. Guides some time go to any extent to make their guests 'happy' by showing wild animals, mainly rhinos. Anil admits the prevalence of such mentality among many guides. He said, “main purpose of the walk is to observe wildlife, but then this should be done securely without jeopardizing your and guests' life".
Doma Paudel, a nature guide, believes that the risk is involved with every other works and jungle walk is certainly a very risky job. At the same time, it is also the most exciting and pleasurable experience one could have walking through the wilderness. However, she does not believe excitement comes only from animal sighting. She said, "I have seen many visitors who really enjoy nature and environment and haven't been disappointed not seeing animals." Visitors have specific interests on birds, butterfly, vegetation and culture that should be taken into account.
For the safety reason, the park authority should maintain proper and wide trails for jungle walking so that the animals are sighted safely from a distance. Ecologically speaking, jungle walking has less impact on environment than elephant safaris and jungle drives.
Hotels and resorts want their guests see animals during their jungle activities. First question they ask to their guests immediately after the jungle activity is: "Did you see rhino?" Narayan Bhattarai, president of Regional Hotel Association and a hotel entrepreneur, says that this kind of thinking was there few years back but now safety of guides and guests comes first. He says, "Big hotels have already excluded the jungle walk from the package program." He thinks that guide offices which deal with free individual tourists are more inclined to show animals than that of hotels which generally accommodate package guests; that some of the guide offices even assure the visitors to show desired animals to entice them.
Basu Bidari, a nature guide and a birder, was injured by rhino in 2004 near Bis Hazari Tal. He decided not to follow the profession as a jungle guide following the incident. He said, "I did not lead tourists for jungle for a year after I recovered from the injury. But I had to come back to this field again as I could not find other alternative. But, I do safe jungle activities now."
He said that bird watching could even be riskier when you are focusing on birds perching on tall trees and not being aware of wild animals lurking around. He thinks the tendency of showing animals at any cost is now changing. "Barring few, most guides now are willing to have in-depth knowledge on specific subject”, he said.
Park should be more responsible in maintaining walking trails and impose the strict rules to follow recommended trails only. For the safety of people, towers should be constructed along the trails. According to Doma, making earth mounds from where people could observe wildlife without risk would be good idea. She thinks that these trails could also be helpful for park's anti-poaching efforts.
Park and concerned authorities should also provide the upgraded training for the guides. Anil said that hotel sent the unskilled staffs (kitchen helper, room boy and gardener) as their candidates for the assistant guide training that was conducted last year. "You should have guts to be a guide", he said. According to him taking right decision at the right time without losing your heart is very crucial for safe jungle excursion.
National Park would not be held responsible for any casualties that occur in the park. Bisendra Subedi, assistant warden of Chitwan National Park, said, "Park rule clearly states that visitors themselves should be aware of their own safety." However, the victims, who suffered from park's wildlife within the park's buffer zone areas, receive compensation depending upon the nature of the casualties. He elaborates that nature conservation is the first priority among others. In collaboration of other intuitions, park has been providing nature guide training. Mr. Subedi says that trails and towers could be built with mutual cooperation among park and stakeholders.
Insurance of each guide should be prerequisite but they struggle to get the proper insurance from the companies as they provide only life insurance and not medical insurance. Guides took the initiatives themselves and have been raising funds from each registered guide every year through Nature Guide Association that works for the right of nature guides. So far they have accumulated some 600,000 NPR that has been used for welfare of the victim. "Guides, who would like to quit this job and want to involve in other works, will be provided some incentives. But proper guidelines to manage the fund effectively are still in the making", said Anil.
Most hotels have provided insurance for their guides; the freelance guides should get insured, personally or through guide association. Yet, the hotel should hire only those who are insured.