Howard T. Owens, president of National Geographic Channels, took Billy Bush, an entertainment reporter afraid of bugs, put him in the jungle in Nepal with World Wildlife Fund and embedded him on the front line of rhino conversation.
Last spring, Owens traveled to Nepal, where he filmed and produced the documentary Chasing Rhinos with Billy Bush, which explores the war between poachers and conservationists in the Chitwan National Park. He’s sharing a first-hand account of his experience with PEOPLE as the documentary premieres Sunday on Nat Geo WILD at 9 p.m. (ET).
When you accompany the Nepalese military on a nighttime mission to track down poachers, the poachers themselves are the least of your worries. The jungle is pitch black, and even with tracking lights, it’s impossible to see more than a few feet in front of you. The primordial fear of wild animals returns as you hear them crashing and screeching in the vegetation that surrounds you, and you re never sure you won t step on a snake.
Last spring, I had the privilege to travel to Nepal with my Nat Geo WILD film crew as we documented the high-stakes war between poachers and conservationists. As president of the network, I ve been on my share of adventures. But nothing quite like this.
I remember before we left, my wife joked with me that my idea of roughing it was staying in a hotel without room service. As she and my two daughters left on spring break for Florida, I was packing to spend 9 days in the middle of the jungle with my good friend, Billy Bush, from Access Hollywood. Like me, Billy isn t exactly one with nature, but he took a week of vacation time to go on this trip with me because we both deeply believed in this mission. Along with our friends from the World Wildlife Fund, we wanted to tell the story of how poachers were slaughtering the endangered Asian one-horned rhino and what was being done to stop it.
Going wild in Nepal
When we landed, we actually had a day in Kathmandu, Nepal, before we headed to Chitwan National Park. We toured the city and quickly became immersed in the culture. We witnessed a funeral and participated in a blessing ceremony with the locals. Learning about life in this city helped further inspire us to make this trip not only a memorable experience, but one that would make a difference.
Once we arrived in Chitwan, the true adventure began. Tramping through the jungle is 180 degrees different from Billy’s day job of interviewing celebrities and covering red carpet events. The climax of our Nepal trip was to track one of these rare rhinos, anesthetize it, check its vital signs and mount it with a GPS collar. This enables scientists to monitor the creatures to better understand their habits and the resources needed to protect them.
This is no small endeavor.
To collar one rhino, we had to assemble a 30-person, 19-elephant caravan that could penetrate deep into Nepal s majestic Chitwan National Park. Even with today s modern technology, elephants are still the best way to navigate through the Park s high grasslands and treacherous jungle.
With the heat approaching 100 degrees and the bugs swirling around our heads, four of us sat uncomfortably in a wooden frame atop each pachyderm. We scoured the forest until our scouts identified a rhino.
Coming upon the rhino, we encircled him so he couldn’t escape. The circle tightened until our expert marksman got close enough to shoot a tranquilizer dart. Once the rhino was down, Billy and our team had just 15 minutes to conduct a complete medical diagnosis and attach the GPS collar.
What seemed like just a few minutes into the collaring process, the park’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Kamal Prasad Gaire, suddenly yelled that the rhino’s respiration had fallen dangerously low, and we needed to bring him out of the unconscious state as soon as possible. The frantic effort to finish all the tasks redoubled as Dr. Gaire yelled at everyone to get back to their elephants.
As the team scrambled to safety atop the elephants, Dr. Gaire applied the antidote while we all held our breath. To our relief, the rhino slowly showed signs of consciousness and staggered groggily to his feet. We all were breathing a sigh of relief as he ambled away, seemingly unaware that his every movement would now be tracked by conservationists around the world.
It had been a week of rock-hard mattresses, intermittent showers, bugs, bad food and little sleep. But as we watched the rhino disappear into the distance, both Billy Bush and I felt a profound connection to the chain of life and agreed that this had been a life-changing experience for both of us.