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Chitwan - rhinos and elephants

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October 5th Chitwan, Nepal

Half way through the night we woke up to find our bed was glowing. When we pulled back the covers we discovered a very pretty and very bright glow worm/ firefly! With a torch it didn’t look like much at all; a medium sized brownish beetle, but in the dark its rear glowed on and off a bright green-blue. The Lampyridae are a family of insects in the beetle order Coleoptera. They are winged soft-bodied beetles, commonly called fireflies or lightning bugs for their conspicuous use of bioluminescence. Fireflies produce a "cold light", with no infrared or ultraviolet frequencies. This chemically produced light from the lower abdomen may be yellow, green, or pale red, with wavelengths from 510 to 670 nanometers. Soon after we were woken by monkeys playing on our roof. Then we gave up, which was fine as we had to get up at 5ish for a 5;30 start to our jeep safari.
It was barely dawn as we set out in the jeep and we were easily the first jeep into the forest, which made it most surreal. The mist rose off the land and we were treated to a beautiful sunrise with grasses, rivers and wildlife around. The jeep took a winding path through the park, avoiding other jeep safaris (only 4 are allowed in at any time), through grasses taller than our jeep, over forded streams and open grasslands and down forested gullies. We came across several large herds of deer, co-existing with a peafowl muster (ie.group). These were spotted deer (chtial), and we saw several groups over the morning, including some very cute fawns, almost invisible in the dappled forest. We also saw quite a few sambar, muntjac and hyelaphus deer.
The Chital or Spotted deer, native in the Indian subcontinent is a moderate-sized deer, male chital reach nearly 90 cm and weigh 30–75 kg. The species is sexually dimorphic; males are larger than females, and antlers are present only on males. The upper parts are golden to rufous, completely covered in white spots. The abdomen, rump, throat, insides of legs, ears, and tail are all white. The antlers, three-pronged, are nearly 1 m long. The scientific name is Axis axis, the only member of the axis group. The vernacular chital is from the Hindi c!tal or from the Sanskrit citrala, both of which mean "variegated", ie spotted. Chital are active throughout the day. In the summer, time is spent in rest under shade, and the sun's glare is avoided if the temperature reaches 27 °C; activity peaks as dusk approaches. These deer typically move in a single file on specific tracks, with a distance of two to three times their width between them, when on a journey, typically in search of food and water sources. When cautiously inspecting its vicinity the chital stands motionless and listens with attention. As an antipredator measure, chital flee in groups (unlike the hog deer that disperse on alarm); sprints are followed by hiding in dense undergrowth.
The Sambar (Rusa unicolor) is a large deer native to the Indian subcontinent and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Individuals tend to be large, and females are smaller than males. Among all living cervid species, only the moose and the elk can attain larger sizes. The large, rugged antlers fork at the tip, so they have only three tines. They are typically up to 110 cm long. As with most deer, only the males have antlers. Adult males and pregnant/ lactating females possess an unusual hairless, blood-red spot located about half way down the underside of their throats. This sometimes oozes a white liquid, and is apparently glandular in nature. Sambar are nocturnal or crepuscular. The males live alone for much of the year, and the females live in small herds of up to 16 individuals. In some areas, the average herd consists of only 3-4, typically an adult female, her most recent young and a subordinate immature female. This is an unusual for deer, which more commonly live in larger groups. They often congregate near water, and are good swimmers. Like most deer, sambar are generally quiet, although adults can scream or make high pitched sounds when alarmed. However, they more commonly communicate with scent marking or foot stamping.
Hyelaphus or hog deer is a genus of relatively small Asian deer that are overall brown. The three pecies are all threatened. Originally considered a subgenus of Axis, genetic evidence indicates that Hyelaphus is closer to the genus Rusa than Axis. Consequently, Hyelaphus was elevated to genus status, leaving the chital as the only member of Axis.
The Indian muntjac (Munttiacus muntjak
k), or Southern red muntjac and barking deer, is a deer species native to Asia. It has soft brown-grey fur with creamy markings. It is among the smallest deer species. It is an omnivore, eating grass, fuit, shoots, seeds, bird eggs and small animals, and occasionally carrion. It has a barking call when frightened by a predator and hence the common name "barking deer". Males have canines, short antlers that usually branch just once near the base, and a large postorbital scent gland used to mark territories. Females have tufts of fur and small bony knobs instead of antlers. These deer are highly alert. When in a stressful situation or if a predator is sensed, muntjacs begin making a bark like sound. Barking was originally thought of as a means of communication between the deer during mating season, as well as an alert. However, in more recent studies, it has been identified as a mechanism used solely to cause a predator to realise that it has been detected and move elsewhere or to reveal itself. The barking mechanism is used more frequently when visibility is reduced and can last for over an hour for just one incident.

As we drove along our guide suddenly told the driver to stop the car. Two spotted deer, a male and female, stood stock still in front of us looking left. Suddenly we knew why, as a rhinoceros charged across the road not 2 metres away from us. Our first rhino!
One-horned rhino. The Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), also called the greater one-horned rhinoceros and great Indian rhinoceros, is a rhinoceros native to the Indian subcontinent. It is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, as populations are fragmented and restricted to less than 20,000 km2. Moreover, the extent and quality of the rhino's most important habitat, alluvial grassland and riverine forest, is considered to be in decline due to human and livestock encroachment. As of 2008, a total of 2,575 mature individuals were estimated to live in the wild. The Indian rhinoceros once ranged throughout the entire stretch of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, but excessive hunting and agricultural development reduced their range drastically to 11 sites in northern India and southern Nepal. In the early 1990s, between 1,870 and 1,895 rhinos were estimated to have been alive. Ancestral rhinoceroses first diverged from other perissodactyls in the Early Eocene. Mitochondrial DNA comparison suggests the ancestors of modern rhinos split from the ancestors of Equidae around 50 million years ago. The extant family, the Rhinocerotidae, first appeared in the Late Eocene in Eurasia, and the ancestors of the extant rhino species dispersed from Asia beginning in the Miocene. Fossils of R. unicornis appear in the Middle Pleistocene. The Indian and Javan rhinoceroses, the only members of the genus Rhinoceros, first appear in the fossil record in Asia around 1.6 million–3.3 million years ago. Although belonging to the genus, Indian and Javan rhinoceroses are not closely related to other rhino species. Different studies have hypothesized that they may be closely related to the extinct Gaindatherium or Punjabitherium. A detailed cladistic analysis of the Rhinocerotidae placed Rhinoceros and the extinct Punjabitherium in a clade with Dicerorhinus, the Sumatran rhinoceros. The Indian rhinoceros has a thick grey-brown skin with pinkish skin folds and a black horn. Its upper legs and shoulders are covered in wart-like bumps. It has very little body hair, aside from eyelashes, ear fringes and tail brush. Males have huge neck folds. Its skull is heavy with a basal length above 60 cm and an occiput above 19 cm. Its nasal horn is slightly back-curved with a base of about 18.5cm by 12 cm that rapidly narrows until a smooth, even stem part begins at about 55mm above the base. The rhino's single horn is present in both males and females. The black horn is pure keratin, like human fingernails, and starts to show after about six years. In most adults, the horn reaches a length of about 25 cm but has been recorded up to 36 cm in length and weight 3.051 kg. Among terrestrial land mammals native to Asia, the Indian rhinoceros is second in size only to the Asian elephant. It is also the second-largest living rhinoceros, behind only the white rhinoceros. Adult male Indian rhinos are usually solitary.
Groups consist of females with calves, or of up to six subadults. Such groups congregate at wallows and grazing areas. They are foremost active in early mornings, late afternoons and at night, but rest during hot days. They are excellent swimmers and can run at speeds of up to 55 km/h for short periods. They have excellent senses of hearing and smell, but relatively poor eyesight. Over 10 distinct vocalisations have been recorded. Males have home ranges of around 2 to 8 km2 that overlap each other. Dominant males tolerate males passing through their territories except when they are in mating season, when dangerous fights break out. Indian rhinos bathe regularly. The folds in their skin trap water and hold it even when they come back on land. Indian rhinos have few natural enemies, except for tigers, which sometimes kill unguarded calves, but adult rhinos are less vulnerable due to their size. Indian rhinoceros are grazers. Their diets consist almost entirely of grasses, but they also eat leaves, branches of shrubs and trees, fruits, and submerged and floating aquatic plants. They feed in the mornings and evenings. They use their semi-prehensile lips to grasp grass stems, bend the stem down, bite off the top, and then eat the grass. They tackle very tall grasses or saplings by walking over the plant, with legs on both sides and using the weight of their bodies to push the end of the plant down to the level of the mouth. Mothers also use this technique to make food edible for their calves. They drink for a minute or two at a time, often imbibing water filled with rhinoceros urine. In addition to noises, the rhino uses olfactory communication. Adult males urinate backwards, as far as 3–4 m behind them, often in response to being disturbed by observers. Like all rhinos, the Indian rhinoceros often defecates near other large dung piles. The Indian rhino has pedal scent glands which are used to mark their presence at these rhino latrines.

As we drove around we started to see more birds, including the ubiquitous treepies, as well as some more interesting Blue-tailed bee-eaters and Nuthatches. We saw more monkeys in the trees, and suddenly I spotted a wild boar which quickly dived into the undergrowth.
Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) DNA studies indicate that the wild boar originated from islands in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia, and subsequently spread onto mainland Eurasia and North Africa. The earliest fossil finds come from both Europe and Asia, and date back to the Early Pleistocene. By the late Villafranchian, S. scrofa largely displaced the related S. strozzii, a large, possibly swamp-adapted suid ancestral to the modern S. verrucosus throughout the Eurasian mainland.
The Blue-tailed bee-eater (Merops philippinus) is a near passerine bird in the bee-eater family Meropidae. It breeds in southeastern Asia. It is strongly migratory, seen in much of peninsular India. This species is sometimes considered to be conspecific with the blue-cheeked bee-eater. Like other bee- eaters, is a richly coloured, slender bird, predominantly green; its face has a narrow blue patch with a black eye stripe, and a yellow and brown throat; the tail is blue and the beak is black. It can reach a length of 23–26 cm, including the two elongated central tail feathers. Sexes are alike. This bird breeds in sub-tropical open country, such as parks or ricefields. It is most often seen near large water bodies. Like other bee-eaters it predominantly eats insects, especially bees, wasps and hornets, which are caught in the air by sorties from an open perch. It probably takes bees and dragonflies in roughly equal numbers. The insects that are caught are beaten on the perch to kill and break the exoskeleton, a habit is seen in many other members of the coraciiformes order. These bee-eaters are gregarious, nesting colonially in sandy banks or open flat areas. They make a relatively long tunnel in which the 5 to 7 spherical white eggs are laid. Both the male and the female take care of the eggs. These birds also feed and roost communally.
As we neared the river once more, we stopped as our guide spotted a large rhino half submerged by the opposite bank. After a while we drove on so other groups could observe it, stopping at a central point to buy a drink. As we headed back out we saw more spotted deer, and then a lucky find, the endangered Indian Grey Mongoose, a mother with three babies!
The Indian grey mongoose or common grey mongoose (Herpestes edwardsi) is a mongoose species mainly found in West Asia and on the Indian subcontinent. In North Indian languages (Hindi/Punjabi) it is called Nevlaa. The grey mongoose is commonly found in open forests, scrublands and cultivated fields, in burrows, hedgerows and thickets, among groves of trees, and takes shelter under rocks or bushes and even in drains. It is very bold and inquisitive but wary, seldom venturing far from cover. It climbs very well. Usually found singly or in pairs, it preys on rodents, snakes, birds’ eggs and hatchlings, lizards and variety of invertebrates. It occasionally feeds on gharial eggs. It breeds throughout the year.The Indian grey mongoose is omnivorous, though most of its diet is made up from live prey it catches from being an opportunistic hunter, with mice, rats, lizards, snakes, and beetles making up the bulk. Also eaten are ground birds, their eggs, grasshoppers, scorpions, centipedes, frogs, crabs, fish, and parts of plants: fruits, berries, and roots, as well as larger prey including hares and egrets. It kills prey by delivering a bite to the neck or head. This species is known for its ability to combat venomous snakes. It primarily achieves this through tiring the snake out, by enticing it to make multiple strikes which it acrobatically avoids. Secondary protection against the venomous bite includes the stiff rigid hair, which is excited at such times, the thick loose skin and specialised acetylcholine receptors render it resistant or immune to snake venom. When dealing with scorpions, no measures are taken to disable the sting, and they are picked up in any manner. The Indian grey mongoose typically opens eggs by holding them between the paws and biting a hole in the little end. Smaller mongooses typically open eggs by throwing them between their legs against a hard object.

Heading back to the lodge we saw the working elephants replete with their cargo of wood. Finally, our breakfast at all of 9am! After a brief rest until 10.30, when we walked to the elephant bathing area. Great fun!
The Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) is one of three subspecies of the Asian elephant. Since 1986, the Asian elephant has been listed as Endangered as the wild population has declined by at least 50%. The Asian elephant is threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants and have the highest body point on the head. The tip of their trunk has one finger-like process. Their back is convex or level. Indian elephants reach 2-3.5 m, weigh 2,000-5,000 kg, and have 19 pairs of ribs. Their skin is lighter with small patches of depigmentation. Females are usually smaller than males, and have short or no tusks. Indian elephants have smaller ears, but relatively broader skulls and larger trunks than African elephants. Toes are large and broad. The Indian elephant is native to mainland Asia: India, Nepal, Bhutan, down to Cambodia, and Vietnam. It inhabits grasslands, dry deciduous, moist deciduous, evergreen and semi-evergreen forests. Elephant corridors have been established across Nepal-India-Bhutan. Elephants are classified as megaherbivores and consume up to 150 kg of plant matter per day. They are generalist feeders, both grazing and browsing, feeding on 100+ different plant species, most commonly legume, palm, sedge and true grass families.
We really enjoyed this, even down to feeding the elephants with whole bananas (they LOVED this). Then we went back to the lodge and decided to have a stroll into the town-village, which was not even 10 minutes down the road. After a pleasant retail trip (not much to buy- just a T-shirt, but REALLY friendly people and children), we had a big ice-cream and strolled back for lunch and a bit of down time.

At 16.30 we met up with a friendly Dutch couple to walk into the town and down to the river for sunset. On our way our guide took us into the Tharu part of the village where we met a local family living fairly traditionally, and learnt a bit more about their culture.
Some Tharu live in longhouses, which may hold up to 150 people. The longhouses are built of mud with lattice walls. They grow barley, wheat, maize, and rice, as well as raise animals such as chickens, ducks, pigs, and goats. In the big rivers, they use large nets to fish. Most Tharu households own a statue of a traditional god. Family members often offer animal's blood sacrifices to appease the god. Animals such as pigeons and chickens are used for sacrificial purposes. Milk and silk cloth are also used. Many Tharu would also use the blood of one of the male members in the family for such rituals. Such rituals are conducted through ceremonies, and superficial cuts are made forehead, arms, throat, legs, and/or chest. Because the Tharu lived in isolation in malarial swamps until the recent use of DDT, they developed a style of decorating the walls, rice containers and other objects in their environment. The Tharu women transform outer walls and verandahs of their homes into colorful paintings said to be dedicated to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity and fertility. Genetic resistance to malaria suggests that Tharu were already living in the Terai before Indo-Europeans arrived, raising the question what they may have been speaking at the time. Nevertheless if any linguistic features survive from that era, they have not been documented. Traditional Tharu worship various gods in the form of animals such as dogs, crow, ox and cows. Such gods are seen in Hinduism. Every village has their own deity, commonly known as Bhuinyar. Tharu in East Nepal call their deity Gor- raja. The gods are believed to have the ability to heal diseases and sickness. According to traditional legend, gods are given a bhakal, a promise of something, on condition that the sickness is cured, in any events of misfortunes, plagues and horror dreams. A relative's death is an event of great significance among Tharu, and rituals conducted varies in accordance to regions.
Then on to the river. We spotted yet more gharial (if you lived here you would have no idea they were critically endangered), a few more crocos and lots of roosting birds, including the famous hornbills. After a pleasant riverbank walk we ended at a cafe on the riverbank where we grabbed some beers and enjoyed watching the sunset. We strolled back under our own resources for dinner at 19.00.
The hornbills (Bucerotidae) are a family of birds in tropical/ subtropical Africa and Asia, characterised by a long, down-curved bill, frequently brightly coloured and sometimes with a casque on the upper mandible. Both the English and scientific name refer to the shape of the bill, buceros is cow horn in Greek. Hornbills have a two-lobed kidney. They are the only birds in which the 1st and 2nd neck vertebrae are fused together, to make a stable platform for carrying the bill. They are omnivorous, feeding on fruit and small animals. They nest in natural cavities in trees and sometimes cliffs. Hornbills show considerable variation in size, ranging from the black dwarf hornbill at 102g and 30cm long, to the great hornbill at up to 4kg and 1.2m long. The most distinctive feature of the hornbills is the heavy bill. The large bill assists in fighting, preening, nest construction, and catching prey. A feature unique to the hornbills is the casque, a hollow structure that runs along the upper mandible. In some species it is barely perceptible and appears to serve no function beyond reinforcing the bill. In other it is quite large, reinforced with bone, and has openings between the hollow centre, allowing it to serve as a resonator for calls. Aerial casque-butting has also been reported in the great hornbill. The plumage of hornbills is typically black, grey, white, or brown, frequently offset by bright colours on the bill. Hornbills bills intrude on their visual field. This allows them to see their own bill tip and aids in precision handling of food. The eyes are protected by large eyelashes which act as a sunshade. When a female is ready to lay eggs, the nest entrance is just large enough for her to enter, and then is almost sealed shut with one narrow aperture, big enough for the male to transfer food to the mother and chicks. This is apparently related to protecting the nesting site from rival hornbills.


Posted by PetersF 14:56 Archived in Nepal Tagged elephant nepal rhino chitwan mongoose

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