A better rhino spotting elephant safari in Nepal?

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ September 24th, 2012. Updated on February 8th, 2016. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal.
One-horned rhino coming out of the jungle in Chitwan

One-horned rhino coming out of the jungle in Chitwan

Seeing wild one-horn rhinos from atop an elephant in Chitwan

The secret to a real elephant safari is about being close to nature and melting into the background

Following on from my first Elephant jungle safari and learning how not to get cheated: Our route this time was far deeper in the jungle. All the elephants spread out into the dense undergrowth. My new-found Indian friends silently clapped as our elephant broke away from a noisy bunch of westerners on their elephant. The husband wanted photos just like me. We all wanted to hear the sounds of the jungle and from our elephant as it gently yet with near unstoppable force pushed through the undergrowth.

Tourists riding elephants deep in the Chitwan jungle

Breaking away from the other tourists the best part of the elephant jungle safari … until our elephant got lonely!

The mahout raised his hands and the elephant froze. A hand pointed to a deer in the undergrowth. Then we walked on slowly before again we froze to the spot as a peacock emerged. We were rhino watching but the mahout was showing us everything. A finger to the lips and we stopped to hear an Indian Cuckoo make it’s wonderful call.

Being on top of an elephant means most other wildlife are not disturbed by you. It’s almost as if they think you are a part of the elephant. However if you were to get off the elephant and walk at their eye level they’d run away. Or in the case of a one-horned rhinoceros possibly see you as a threat and charge.

Being on top of an elephant was like being an invisible spectator in the jungle.

Then out of nowhere our elephant roared!

Tourists deep in the chitwan jungle on an elephant

Fear hath no fury like an elephant charging through a jungle just to be with his best friend.

Elephants charging

If you’ve never heard an elephant roar then you’ll know it’s much akin to deep belly growl than the trumpeting sound you might think (though they make that too). An elephant roar causes its whole body to shudder. An unusual experience if sitting up top of one.

Our elephant was agitated. Another deep roar. Then we took off at a charge through the undergrowth of jungle with his mahout powerless only to yell and hit his horrible metal pole against the elephants head.

We stopped. More strange twitching and vibrations from the elephants body and it make deep guttural growling sounds. What just happened? Was it a tiger? A rhino? The Indian man said something in Hindi to the mahout. He couldn’t quite translate the reply. Then the elephant was charging again. Branches snapped at our faces as we crashed through the jungle with an unrelenting power beneath us pushing forward.

This time the elephant charged right up to another elephant on the safari. Right up close to its head. The two elephants grunted, touched trunks and their bodies vibrated.

Finally a translation came through.

The elephants were best friends and didn’t like to be apart.

A chorus of “Ahhh’s” rang out from the tourists as the first elephants mahout urged it forward. This was quickly followed by squeals of terror from the tourists as our elephant growled loudly and charged after them to keep up with his friend!

Rhino spotting in Chitwan on elephants

Tourists on elephants crashing through the Chitwan Jungle

A mass of tourists on elephants crashing through the Chitwan Jungle – no wonder the rhinos are retreating!

Again the beauty of being on an elephant rather than on the ground when rhino spotting is that the rhinos don’t see you as a threat. They see that the elephants are bigger and will not attack anything that size.

If a person was to get off the elephant things would be different. But on an elephant you can get really close to a rhino. As in walk up right beside them close.

The problem is when there are too many elephants with tourists crashing through the jungle it all begins to feel a bit like modern day big game hunting; albeit with cameras rather than rifles, but with similar end game results.

We came across two rhinos grazing and were coming up close when all of a sudden one of the other mahouts called out and within a minute the entire paddock was being invaded with mahouts trying to get their passengers as close to the rhinos as possible.

The result? Well, the rhinos who were having a quiet evening snack saw ten elephants crashing around with noisy tourists yelping and decided to take off for quieter pastures deeper into the jungle.

Chitwan National Park Elephant Safari: conclusion

I wrote about tourism’s effect on Chitwan and Sauraha previously. And yes since being here I too am apart of it. But first let me answer the immediate question if an Elephant safari is really all that good in Chitwan or not?

Who you go with on an elephant is really important. Getting stuck with an obnoxious child or shirtless youth still hungover from the night before can easily spoil it. If you’ve never been on an elephant. In a  jungle. Or seen a wild rhino maybe this wouldn’t matter so much. Though I’d be hard pressed to think it wouldn’t.

My second elephant safari was a joy primarily because of the lovely Indian couple who were on the same elephant. They wanted to experience the jungle, the silence and the expectation as much as I did. That made the real difference.

Don’t go in expecting to see tigers. Don’t go in expecting to see rhinos. Do go in with no expectations and some silent optimism.

Lastly make sure you get your full 1.5 hours or however long your elephant safari is meant to be. Again, like in many tour services, people do sometimes take shortcuts. Don’t let them.

Travel Tip:

Want to know more about elephant safaris or jungle trekking in Chitwan? Check out my guide to taking an elephant safari in Chitwan National Park & jungle treks in Chitwan. Both guides includes types of safari, best time to go,  prices, tips and much more …

Two one-horned rhinos walking through the Chitwan jungle

Two one-horned rhinos walking through the Chitwan jungle

The future of elephant safaris and rhino spotting in Chitwan

Chitwan’s elephant safari in the jungle is becoming quite staged. I feared that coming here and can now confirm this to be true. It can still be a great experience if everything falls into place. Though the odds are that it seems to get harder for that to occur every year so long as there is profit to be made.

Meanwhile the rhinos like the tigers before them are slowly disappearing deeper into the jungle to avoid this intruding type of human contact. I honestly don’t blame them.

Yet at the same time I’m grateful at having had the opportunity to witness these magnificent creatures up close in person.

Much like the endangered Tarsier in the Philippines or when I came face to face with orangutans in Borneo I’m not sure what the answer is.

Should we ban the tourists whose money is saving wildlife from poachers and deforestation? Or should we continue on and hope that mother nature has a solution to all this?


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Coming Soon:

No more tours: The elephant breeding park to see a baby elephant

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15 Great responses to A better rhino spotting elephant safari in Nepal?

  1. yee says:

    Nice post and what a lovely rhinos photo…

    There will never be a right answer about banning the tourists or not, but I’m sure mother nature will find its own solution… sometimes with huge price, however life goes on…

  2. Camp Moremi says:

    The government’s top priority should be conserving the habitat of these rhinos. Even if it means banning tourist interaction with these creatures.

  3. Anna's World says:

    This is a very hard question to answer. I don’t like the circus but I do like safari parks. But if the safari turns into a circus. Then it’s not the same.

  4. Mark Chivers says:

    Awesome photos. There’s a sad touch here. We’ve gone from full on conservation back to side shows again. At least that’s my take on it. Good to see you met some like minded people at last!

  5. Ivy says:

    Mother nature will always find a solution to her problems. it’s not the animals or nature who has to be afraid … but the humans. They are causing a lot of unpleasant things on earth and that’s always for profit. Some people do what they can to help animals, humans and nature the best they can but if the same groups of people continue to choose for money, than it’ll always be to difficult for us. Because money rules the world ! Everybody knows this
    Thanks Dave :)

  6. Jan says:

    We live in times when profit wins over preservation. I dread to know what happens when we’ve used up all the resources. Perhaps that’s why we have invented cloning.

  7. Susanna says:

    Wow rhino up close like that, such a thrill. Love your site by the way. So very refreshing to read such honesty. Keep going!

  8. Joe says:

    New reader and loving this site. Great story above. Tragic about the rhinos. I hate zoo’s. safaris I thought would be better. Evidently they too have gone down this route.

    Keep up the great work Dave, really enjoying your slice of life.