4-10 August 2017 #870

Gaida Sahib

Andrew Laurie, Chitwan’s Rhino Man, did pioneering research into the endangered animals
Lisa Choegyal
ANIMAL LOVE: Andrew Laurie pursued a passion for rhinos in Chitwan, and for Sancheri.

We thread our way between the thinning trees along an earthen trail back to Andrew Laurie’s research camp near Sauraha on the edge of Royal Chitwan National Park. Not more than a couple of tents and a wood hut, it's Andrew’s base for three years whilst studying the behaviour of the greater one-horned rhinoceroses for his Cambridge PhD.

Supported by renowned biologist George Schaller and the loan of a royal elephant, Andrew’s study will be hailed as ground-breaking research and the basis for decades of successful rhino management. Known throughout Chitwan as ‘Gaida Sahib’, his bare feet, solid ankles and pale hairy legs lead me with assured familiarity down the jungle track – I like following his musty smell and distinctive short-stride gait.

Birds call in the late afternoon and there are comforting scents of hot grass and animal urine, but my mind wanders as we trudge the distance. Andrew has confided that his Tharu friend, Sancheri, is recently pledged in an arranged village marriage by her family. That morning I had seen them together at his camp, a tall striking girl, but perhaps too lanky and defiant for local tastes. Together they speak Tharu, and Andrew has even learned her native coded dialects. Custom dictates that intimates never use each other’s given names, and I never heard Andrew utter hers.

“Quick,” he whispers, “get up that tree. A rhino is approaching.” I hear and smell nothing, but Gaida Sahib is assimilated into jungle rhythms and not one to be questioned. He helps me climb a strong sapling beside the path and sure enough, a large old male rhinoceros ambles around the corner. His body is marked with scars of ancient feuds, but to my relief he is interested only in his evening river drink – every year people are injured and even killed by rhinos. With a throaty laugh and shy smile, Andrew jumps down and leads me back to camp.

Accompanied by the rattle of the elephant’s chain and the clatter of night insects, we rest on his makeshift Sauraha veranda. Chitwan’s rhinos are labouriously recorded by name and distinguishing marks on index cards in those pre-computer days. Every blemished ear, damaged tail or nick in the crumpled grey skin is noted. He shows me details of the venerable individual that we have just encountered, and adds another sighting to the hand-written card.

Andrew reckons there are about 300 rhinos living in Chitwan in 1974, and he has discovered they feed on over 180 plant varieties but mainly on grass of which there are no less than 50 species. To combat threats of poaching and habitat loss, Andrew proposed the translocation of rhinos to other protected areas to spread their risk, a strategy that has successfully safeguarded Nepal’s population. With a team of Nepali colleagues, his work has underpinned today’s heralded rhino conservation status of almost-zero poaching.

We share a Khukri Rum and Coke and he explains how his Tharu love is doomed. “How can it ever work, Lisa? I have to be realistic. I must do what is best for her.” He sighs. “I don’t need to tell you how strongly I feel.” When Sancheri is married and has a baby, she is convinced that Andrew is part of the boy because of the large flecks of blue in his brown eyes. Andrew arranges help from visiting American doctors to treat the infant’s malformed hands, attributed by the villagers to a total eclipse of the moon.

One winter morning a year or so later we drink tea outside Tiger Tops lodge, gazing across the verdant mosaic of lawn, grasslands, hills and mountains. Andrew is packed, dressed and on his way home to write his thesis. “How did it go?” I turn to him. Reluctantly he admits his farewell was impossibly sad, their mutual longing unabated. “But I’m doing the right thing, aren’t I?”

Gaida Sahib divulged his difficulty adapting to Cambridge life after the Tarai jungle. For months he preferred sleeping on the floor, and had to remember to wear shoes and not pee by the roadside. Andrew Laurie was destined for a fine doctorate and a distinguished wildlife career that still takes him all over the world. But he has never come back to Nepal.

Read also:

Trespassing into nature, Bhrikuti Rai and Sunir Pandey

The one-horned Asiatic rhinoceros, P Ghimire

The 22 kg migrant, Andrew Nash

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