At one time, rhinoceros flourished in southern Nepal, but almost went extinct in the 1970s. Now, thanks to conservation efforts, there are now 500 rhinos in Chitwan National Park, but they're still extremely vulnerable to poachers who sell their horns on the black market for bogus medicinal purposes at a hefty price. The government is cracking down on the illegal activity, but the poaching persists. To raise awareness of the problem, “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush traveled to Nepal and joined a group of scientists on a mission to find, capture, sedate, and collar a rhino with GPS device so its movements could be tracked. Nat Geo Wild filmed the expedition for the special “Chasing Rhinos,” premiering Oct. 13, its cameras following Bush to bear witness to shocking evidence of the poaching trade. “If I can be part of saving the life of one rhino,” he says, “the effort will be worth it.”
MNN: How did you become aware of the rhino situation in Nepal?
Billy Bush: My very close friend is the president of National Geographic Channels Howard T. Owens; he approached me with the project. Nat Geo WILD was partnering with World Wildlife Fund on a program about the illegal poaching of the Asian one-horned rhino in Nepal. They wanted to raise awareness about the topic, and bring a “fish out of water” element to the documentary … they got me! I’m about as far out of the water as you can get.
How long did it take to organize the trip?
From when I agreed to do the project until we took off for Nepal, it seemed to be about three months.
What do you hope to accomplish?
I’m hoping to open as many eyeballs as possible to the illegal poaching of one-horned rhinos in Nepal, and teach the importance of keeping rhinos well-populated around the world. My mother is a conservationist; she’s on the board of the Nature Conservancy. And so I’ve always believed in life that if nature’s out of balance, the world is out of balance.
Were there any scary moments on the expedition?
I was sitting on the back of a truck, 10 feet away from a rhino that was 15 feet long and probably weighed three tons. Knowing that if this living, breathing Army tank decided to ram the truck, it would easily knock us over, was pretty scary. Patrolling the Chitwan National Park at night — even with military — was also intense. Knowing that armed poachers could be out there and ready to defend themselves was truly frightening.
Seeing the footage of a contraband warehouse was chilling and tragic. You said it was like “a genocide museum for endangered wildlife.” How did you feel experiencing that first-hand?
It was hard to see, and even worse to smell. Tiger pelts were hanging from the rafters in order to dry out the meat attached to them. It was heartbreaking to know that these creatures were not killed for survival; they were killed for their pelts. Many of them were babies. Our head of production, Janet Han Vissering from Nat Geo WILD, was a mess. She had to walk out. She just couldn’t look at it.
Did the trip put your job as a Hollywood correspondent in perspective?
The journey put my whole life in perspective. One of the great treats for me was driving through these little villages with thatched roofs, women walking with bundles of sticks on their heads and kids playing in the streets with nothing more than two sticks and a rock — it was incredible. It moved me deeply because I realized, my child is playing with an iPad right now, and maybe not having as much fun.
What ways are you green at home?
Around the house? I’m a stickler about recycling. And with two teenage girls at home, I’m always yelling “lights!” I’m constantly on them to turn the lights off after leaving a room.
What do you want viewers to take away? What do you hope it prompts them to do?
I hope viewers walk away from “Chasing Rhinos” with a greater understanding of the poaching war going on in Nepal. The biggest threat to rhinos is the misbelief that their horns can cure cancer or hangovers. When in fact, their horns are made of keratin, just like our fingernails. It’s not necessarily that these poachers are evil; they’ve just been raised to believe a rhino horn can cure many things. And the fact of the matter is, a single horn can bring in $30,000 on the black market. After watching “Chasing Rhinos” on Nat Geo WILD, I hope viewers will go to worldwildlife.org/chasingrhinos to learn what they can do to help.