By NLRC Staff

Maya woke up in the morning to the crowing of the roosters in the nearby village. The chirping of the birds in the park reminded her that she was not at her home but in Bardiya National Park. The beautiful landscape of the park greeted her as she looked out the window. When she had arrived at the park the previous day, she had not been able to see much as it had already been dark. But it was no longer the case, she could enjoy the magnificent view under the clear blue sky and the morning sun. The park stretched over a large area from the southern plains to the northern mountains. The greenery with lush vegetation, the southern and western horizons and the high northern mountains were breathtaking.

As she wondered what she would see during the patrol, she heard Muna calling her from the kitchen, "Maya, breakfast is ready." As Maya walked to the kitchen, Muna joked, "somebody must have been very tired."

"Yes, but," Maya played along with Muna's joke, "somebody's guest room was very comfy too."

Both laughed as Muna set the table in the back porch. Muna had prepared hard boiled eggs, puffed rice, milk tea and fresh fruits for breakfast; the morning calmness around the park and the warm morning sun added more to the taste.

Soon after the breakfast, Muna and her colleagues got ready for the patrol, and together with Maya, they were soon on their way. A barbed-wire fence separated the park and the nearby village. Muna explained to Maya that the fence, to some extent, reduced the number of wild animals going to the village.

"Oh, the animals often go to the village?" Maya was curious.

"Yes, it does happen sometimes," Muna said. "On the western side of the park, it is not a problem, because the big Karnali River marks the western boundary of the park and the animals rarely cross it. However, the park boundaries on the other sides sit next to the villages, Muna continued, "Finding a balance between how close to the park the villagers are allowed to live is always tricky."

The villagers were farmers, so they would have livestock and crops growing throughout the year. On rare occasions, tigers had taken some of their young cattle, but on relatively frequent occasions, rhinos would enter the villages to graze on the crops. Even though the rhinos were herbivores, they could attack villagers if they were confronted. "You know, Maya, because of the rhinos, villagers take turns to stay awake at night," Muna explained, "The person who is scheduled to stay awake at night, climbs up to a machan, a platform erected in a tree, and if he spots a rhino, he tries to scare the rhino away, or wake other villagers for help, to save the crops."

"I can now understand what the villagers have to go through," Maya said.

"On the other hand," Muna tried to add more to the phenomenon, "the poachers also disturb the animals, which when disturbed try to run away from the park into the villages. Once the animals go to the villages, the crops and the easy prey lure them back. So, our army unit tries to tackle both problems. First, we try to stop the poachers by actively monitoring the park from our armed patrol and second, sometimes we need to go to the villages to help the villagers. We recently had to tranquilize a rhino that had gotten into the nearby village, and bring it back and release it somewhere in the middle of the park so that it would not find its way back to the village."

"Muna, you guys are doing such a great service to the national park and to the villagers," Maya expressed her appreciation.

A group of peafowls flew away as they saw the patrol team. "Maya, look one peacock with the long bright blue and green tail, and two peahens," Muna alerted Maya.

"So pretty," Maya said as they continued on a trail that took them deep inside the park. The sun had risen high up in the sky but the tall trees around them meant that the trail was mostly under the shade and it was pleasant to walk. As they moved into the dense forest, Maya's attention was caught by a group of deers running away.

"Maya, you know, during our regular patrols, these deers never run away, but today they all are running from us. Do you know why?" Muna asked Maya.

"Oh, they did not use to run away before and today they are running away!" Maya got curious, "No, I do not know why. No clue. Tell me why."

"Okay, this is the reason why - when we come in our regular patrols, we have our combat fatigues on. They recognize us with that outfit. And since they know we don't harm them, they don't run away," Muna tried to explain.

"But you have your fatigues on today as well, so, why are the deers scared?" Maya could not wait longer to find out the reason.

"This is because you are wearing a bright red jacket," Muna revealed the secret, "When they saw you on that bright red jacket, the deers figured out that something was not right and they are trying to run away."

"Oh my god! You gotta be kidding," Maya could not find the right words to express her surprise. May be I should have worn the fatigues too," Maya quipped.

"You in fatigues? May be I should talk to my unit director about finding you a job here," Muna joked.

The trail took them to a dirt path just wide enough for a small vehicle to pass through. That was the route the jungle safari vehicle would take. The dirt on the temporary-looking path was so loose that the tracks where the wheels touched the ground looked like small canals separated by an elevated loose dirt area made smooth by the underside of the vehicles. Rather than on the loose middle part, they walked along those somewhat packed tracks. It looked like they were escorting someone in the middle or making space in the middle for someone important to go through.

Maya was walking on the right track with Muna behind her, when she suddenly said, "Muna, the footprints. Look at those big and wide footprints right ahead of me on the track."

"Oh ya, those are the rhino footprints," Muna explained, "The freshness and clarity of the footprints means it has not been long since a rhino passed this area. It must not be that far."

"What?" Maya could not hide her fear.

"That's normal. No need to worry. We see this all the time." Muna said calmly.

"Alright, I'll trust your words," Maya tried to gather herself as they walked along the track. The footprints would continue to be seen on the track for a long time. "The rhino must have found the track much easier to walk on as well," Maya said. The footprint finally stopped at a point and the broken twigs and fresh scratches on the tree trunks to the right probably meant that the rhino entered the thick bushes to the right side of the track.

Maya kept on wondering about where the rhino might have gone as she continued ahead. However, the peaceful and quiet moment suddenly turned into a panic mode. As Maya looked behind to the abrupt hustle and bustle of the officers, she noticed that all the officers had lain down on the ground and taken positions. "Maya, lie down, lie down," Muna ordered in a whisper.

Not knowing what was going on, Maya lay down on the ground close to Muna. "We hear some noise," Muna whispered, "it might be the poachers; possibly armed as well. We will encircle them and catch them."

"Oh," Maya was glad to know what was going on, and, still not recovered from the adrenaline rush, asked "what should I do?"

"Nothing, just lie down here until we figure out what's going on," Muna explained, "If they are armed poachers, they usually surrender when we encircle them. But the noise may also be coming from the wild animals, in which case, we will have to be really quiet and hide from them, so that they would not notice us. If they do notice us and come after us, we may have to use force, which, as I explained yesterday, would be the last thing we'd like to do."

"Okay, got it, I will just lie down and wait to hear what to do next," Maya felt little relieved to hear Muna's confident tone. While all the officers took positions with their guns pointed towards the direction the noise was coming from, one of the officers slowly crawled to an area from where he could get a better view of that direction. Everyone else watched him for his signal as he crawled past a bush.

Soon he looked back at the officers and waved at them; gesturing them to turn back quietly. "Maya, the officer is implying that it is a wild animal and that we all should retreat back away from the animal and try not to get noticed." Muna decoded the officer's gesture.

All of them crawled quietly back towards the way they came from. Maya did the same. Only after they were in a safe distance, they stood up and started walking away from the area. "So, what was it?" Maya asked the officer who had seen the animal.

"A group of nilgai," the officer said referring to the large antelope found in the Indian subcontinent.

"Bardiya National Park is home to a large number of nilgai, Maya," Muna added, "these large antelopes are usually harmless, but we try not to disturb them."

"At least it was not a tiger," Maya said.

"Yes, not a tiger this time but Bardiya National Park is known for tigers too and there are many of them." Muna mentioned about the other animal the park was famous for.

Maya could not keep track of the time amidst all the excitement and adventure. Soon, the patrol team started to head back. Maya noticed many animals on her way back as well but she felt like an experienced person who knew about the ins and outs of the park.

When they arrived at Muna's apartment, the chef had already prepared a hot lunch for everyone. As they all sat by the back porch, Maya thanked Muna and the officers for the letting her join them on their patrol. The chef brought everyone a special homemade lemonade. As she took the first sip of that cold fresh-squeezed lemonade, Maya thought, after all that long afternoon walk, that was the best lemonade she ever had.

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