Chasing Rhinos tracks entertainment reporter Billy Bush’s journey with WWF in an awe-inspiring adventure as he takes time off from his day job to fight illegal poaching of greater one-horned rhinos in the jungles of Nepal. The special documents Bush as he accompanies poaching patrols, flies an unmanned aerial drone, and participates in a race-against-time effort to catch, collar, and release a wild adult rhino. The following is a behind-the-scenes account of this year-long journey by Lee D. Poston, Director of Media Relations, World Wildlife Fund:
As my plane cleared the Churia Hills and descended into the Kathmandu Valley, I had a familiar feeling of quiet calm and inner-joy that comes with returning to a place and people I’ve come to love. I’d come back to Nepal to help Nat Geo Wild, Market Road Films, and Billy Bush produce Chasing Rhinos, an ambitious hour-long documentary that was as challenging as anything I had ever done. Our goal was to document the capture of a 2-ton Greater One-Horned Rhino and place a tracking collar around its neck that would allow scientists to monitor it. Billy’s main objective was to tell the world about the challenges of saving rhinos and other endangered species in a place most people associate with towering mountains and snow leopards, not tropical grasslands and rhinos.
But first we had to get out of the Kathmandu Valley. During a chaotic airport scene, we filmed Billy’s arrival following 26 hours of flying from Los Angeles and then took him on a quick tour of Kathmandu’s bustling streets, temples, and markets. All of us, Billy included, wanted the full immersion experience if we were to make a convincing film. This was as much about Billy being out of his element in a truly alien environment as it was about saving rhinos. We wanted the viewers to feel the same anxieties and emotions that he did.
It didn’t take long. The uncomfortable look on his face as he viewed bodies being cremated on a dusty riverbank at Kathmandu’s oldest and most sacred Hindu temple said it all. But it was balanced by the look of calm and even joy as Sadhu Holy Men serenaded him and applied red Tikka dye to his forehead – a rite of passage for any newbie in Nepal.
The next day we took a small plane to Southern Nepal’s Terai region and the real beginning of our adventure. Over the next few days, Billy got a rare and sobering look at a “Wildlife Genocide Museum,” patrolled for poachers via foot, elephant, and boat, launched an unmanned aerial vehicle to help keep track of rhinos, and placed a thermometer in the business end of a sedated, armor-plated herbivore. Along the way, there was a lot of laughter, moments of high drama, and a few tears shed as we saw the true impact of poaching on Nepal’s spectacular wildlife.
Watching Director Tony Gerber and his supremely talented team at work was an inspiration. The Canadian power trio of cameramen Ian Kerr and Aaron Haesler and soundman Simon Doucet produced breathtaking footage and sound, much of it from elephant back. Whether it was GoPros on poles (including one attached to the sedated rhino’s collar), a Steadycam that made Kerr look like the RoboCop, or complex camera mounts on vehicles and elephants, they each deserved an honorary engineering degree. Nobody is sure if they slept during the trip – long days (and evenings) of filming turned into long nights of logging footage and prepping for the next day’s adventures.
It was a long, hard year’s-worth of work to produce Chasing Rhinos and for everyone involved it was a labor of love. We all came away changed and with a new appreciation for the massive challenges facing the wildlife protectors in Nepal. I’ll never forget how deeply affected everyone was by the scenes of carnage as we walked among countless items confiscated from poachers at Tikauli: skins, bones, teeth, horns, gall-bladders of endangered species, some with flesh still attached. Nobody was more deeply affected than Janet Han Vissering, Nat Geo Wild SVP and Executive Producer of Chasing Rhinos. But she kept everybody’s eyes on the prize and the production on schedule despite a multitude of roadblocks and scheduling changes.
As sobering as that experience was, the good news is that rhinos are on the rebound in Chitwan thanks to concerted conservation efforts. They once numbered fewer than 60 in Nepal due primarily to relocation of communities into their habitat and poaching for their horn, which is erroneously thought to hold powers to cure everything from cancer to hangovers. The numbers increased dramatically in the 90s, but were seriously impacted by severe political instability that has since ended. And while poaching is still a problem, there is hope for the future. The Government of Nepal, WWF, The National Trust for Nature Conservation, and other partners work with local communities to share tourist revenues and develop incentives for people to protect the wildlife and their habitats.
At the moment, rhino conservation is seen as a conservation success story in Nepal, but as Billy saw, this is no time to let down our guard. We all must remain eternally vigilant as demand for their horns from other Asian countries is on the increase.
Billy’s rhino will likely have a new home in the coming years. Plans are underway to translocate rhinos halfway across the country to set up new breeding groups in other Nepali parks as a buffer against disease, poaching outbreaks, and other threats. Since Billy’s rhino already has a tracking collar attached that makes him a prime candidate. Hopefully he’ll send a change of address postcard to L.A.
Chasing Rhinos premieres Sunday, October 13th at 9P on Nat Geo WILD.
WWF is the world’s leading conservation organization, working in 100 countries for nearly half a century. With the support of almost 5 million members worldwide, WWF is dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth, halt the degradation of the environment and combat climate change.
Visit worldwildlife.org/chasingrhinos to learn more about their involvement in this project.