Rhino Population On The Rebound In Nepal’s Chitwan National Park

Most people visit Nepal for the opportunity to go climbing and trekking in the High Himalaya, but the country isn’t comprised solely of snow-capped peaks. In fact, Nepal actually has a region of subtropical lowlands that feel like they are a world away from the mountains that have made the country so famous. One of the main attractions for travelers in these lowlands is the Chitwan National Park, a 360-square-mile preserve that is home to a diverse population of animals that includes tigers, leopards, crocodiles and the rare one-horned rhino, a species that looked to be headed toward extinction, but is now on the rebound.

Chitwan was first designated a national park back in 1973 and was named a World Heritage Site 11 years later. In those days, the park was well patrolled by Nepal’s army, which ensured that the preserve, and its wildlife, remained protected. That all changed in the late 1990s when the country became embroiled in a civil war, causing the government to divert troops and funds toward battling Maoist insurgents. The result was a severe drop in the number of military monitoring posts in the region and a surge in illegal poaching soon followed.

According to this story from the BBC, there were an estimated 612 rhinos living in Chitwan at the turn of the century. Just five years later that number had dropped to a mere 375, putting the animal within striking distance of extinction in Nepal. The rhino’s outlook for survival would have been quite grim if the government and the insurgents hadn’t signed peace accords in 2006. Since then a relative calm has returned to the country and important resources have been freed up to help protect the national park once again.
With the civil war now behind it, Nepal has turned its efforts toward once again protecting the one-horned rhino, and other species, from poachers. Through the use of redeployed troops, better intelligence and a more communal approach toward protecting the park, the country seems to have turned the tide against those who illegally hunt and kill the animals. The latest census numbers, taken in 2011, indicate that the rhino population is on the rebound and it is believed that there are now more than 500 of the creatures roaming inside Chitwan National Park.

The one-horned rhino remains one of the most endangered animals on the planet and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. But considering how regularly we hear awful stories about how a species is in rapid decline, often at the hands of poachers, it is good to hear about a success story for a change.

[Photo Credit: Government of Nepal]

Safari on a budget: Tracking tigers and rhinos in southern Nepal

The tigers lurked just out of sight. As we ambled through the dense Nepalese brush atop a lumbering elephant, we steadied our gaze for the minutiae of the jungle. We inspected the crevices of our visibility, focusing near and far, eager to catch glimpses of wild creatures doing wild things. Shifting left and right with each elephantine step, we clutched our splintery wooden seats perched precariously on the back of the world’s largest land mammal, looking for the world’s most elusive – the Royal Bengal Tiger.

We caught muddy rhinos bathing in shadowy watering holes. Peacocks strutted out and disappeared in a flash of color to the other side of our path. Monkeys swung above our heads. A Samba deer stopped to stare at us just feet from our shifting perch, skittishly retreating when our elephant grabbed a bundle of branches and effortlessly snapped them to the ground with his powerful trunk to clear our path. The tigers were illusory, hidden from our sight. Our mahout cackled, “It is okay if you no see tiger. But just remember tiger sees you.”


And indeed, one of the jungle’s most dangerous man-eaters probably peered out at us on that steamy afternoon. Either from deep in the elephant grass or from a dense undergrowth near the gray wrinkled foot of our beastly carriage, a tiger probably tracked us for a few minutes, sizing up the possibility of a hunt. It is said that a tiger is a thousand times more likely to see you than you to see him. This terrifying statistic is never far from the minds of the Nepalese that live and work in these tiger hunting grounds.

The Chitwan jungle of Nepal is one of the world’s largest havens for tigers, and the locals truly fear the man-eating feline. And for good reason, almost ten people are killed annually. Ten years ago, a single Bengal Tiger went on a rampage, killing six in just a weeks time. Also, in an unlikely tale seemed plucked from the annals of fiction, a single tiger called the Champawat Tigress killed 436 Nepalese and Indians in the early 20th century. The beast was eventually tracked and killed by big game hunter Jim Corbett. Appropriately, a divergences of opinions form over the predatory creature. To the excited traveler, a glimpse of the endangered feline is a paramount safari experience. The locals, justifiably, feel differently about it.

When we met our local guide, we asked the question, “Will we see tigers today?”

His buzzkill response — “hopefully no.”

What is Chitwan?
While most travelers’ conception of Nepal involves treacherous snow-capped peaks and friendly Sherpas, Nepal’s southern region provides a range of low altitude outdoor activities such as cycling, rafting, and embarking on safari. At the heart of the southern Nepal experience is Chitwan National Park – the original Nepalese national park and home to a wide range of birds, mammals, and reptiles.

The term Chitwan means “heart of the forest,” and the Chitwan National Park lives up to this billing. Established as a world heritage site in 1984, the jungles of Chitwan are straight out of Kipling’s Jungle Book – stocked with tigers, monkeys, sloth bears, leopards, and lots of rhinos. The park originally served as a gaming reserve for Nepal’s feudal elite. The ruling class would camp out in the reserve during the winter months, sniping the bounty of the forest. As sensibilities shifted in the 20th century, the park was re-purposed as a nature preserve.

Safari Options and Experiences
While the tiger is in the back of everyone’s mind in Chitwan, the elephant is front and center in many activities. On safari, it is possible to climb onto the back of a pachyderm, providing better nature viewing opportunities from the vantage point atop the towering giant. Searching for tigers and other wildlife on elephant is perfect for a number of reasons: the other animals do not feel threatened by the elephant’s presence, the height allows views over the tall grass of the Chitwan plains, and the elephant can make its own path by breaking branches and powerfully forging ahead through dense jungle. Also, riding elephants — very cool.

Elephant safaris cost around $17 per person, and the Chitwan park permit costs about $5 per day. Afterward, pay just $6 for the opportunity to hand-wash a hard working elephant with scrubbing stones in the cool river outside of Sapana lodge. It is an unbelievably resonant experience that costs about the same as a morning matinee in the states.

For brave jungle travelers, a nature walk is an exciting way to spend a day. A local guide provides direction, information about plants and animals, as well as “defense.” The “defense” is a very meager stick that will cease to inspire any legitimate feelings of safety. The possibility of being charged at by rhinos or trampled by wild bull elephants will not be quieted by the guide’s stick, but plenty of trees provide an ample measure of safety in retreat, provided you can climb well. During our stay, a young American couple angered a male rhinoceros and he charged at them, forcing them to climb a nearby tree and stay put until he tired of the endeavor. A nature walk costs around $23 for a full day of trekking. Expect to see a few rhinos, wild elephants, gharials, crocodiles, monkeys, and birds – lots of birds.

For around $14, travelers can also take a dugout canoe down the Rapti River, observing wildlife such as marsh muggers and kingfishers along the banks en route to the Sauraha elephant breeding center. The elephant breeding center is filled with elephants of all ages, and if you are lucky, maybe a baby elephant will be present. The elephants are all owned by the government of Nepal.

Several other awesome activities exist, check here for details and pricing.

While African safaris easily scale into the five digit range, a safari in Nepal can be done with budgetary finesse. Lodging can be found for just $25 – $40 per night at mindful and relaxing resorts such as Sapana Lodge. Local park fees are just $5 per day. Meals should never cost more than a few dollars. Sapana Lodge is a great choice in Chitwan because it is affordable, and they assist the local Tharu community with micro-finance initiatives and employment. Sapana encourages their guests to explore the cultural aspect of Chitwan by visiting villages and interacting with the indigenous Tharu settlers of southern Nepal. Living in these wetlands for a very long time, the Tharu have built up a scientifically baffling resistance to malaria.

There are several lodges within the Chitwan National Park boundaries as well, such as Chitwan Jungle Lodge.

Tigers and company
Chitwan is home to a number of large mammals, including tigers, clouded leopards, binturongs, elephants, rhinos, and even honey badgers. When visiting the park, it is all but guaranteed that travelers will witness wild rhinos and other animals, but tigers are tough to track down. With that said, tiger sightings occur often enough, and the odds of viewing one are better than in other tiger hot spots such as Laos or Sumatra. The best time to search for tigers is in the Spring months when the elephant grass has been cut short by villagers.

Unfortunately, during my summer expedition, no tigers were seen over a three day period. The day before my arrival, a Singaporean couple were creeping through the jungle in the early morning light on the back of an elephant. As the elephant crashed through an especially dense thicket, a tiger slowly stalked across their path. I returned to this story for hope throughout my stay, and now its gravity tugs me towards the subcontinent to track tigers again.

How to get there
Chitwan National Park is located just four hours south from Kathmandu in the Terai region. From Kathmandu, it is a thrilling ride, as all commutes in Nepal tend to be, and provides stunning vistas around nearly every bend in the road. Reaching Chitwan by tourist bus from Nepal’s capital costs around $6, and an A/C private car will cost at minimum $80.

To reach Nepal, one must first land in the capital city of Kathmandu. Flying to Kathmandu is cheap from locations such as Dubai and New Delhi on Fly Dubai and Air India respectively. Also, flights from Bangkok exist on Thai Airways, though they are not as budget conscious.

All photography by Justin Delaney

Nepal declares 2011 year of tourism

The tiny Himalayan country of Nepal is making a major push to attract visitors this year, as they’ve kicked off the 2011 Tourism Year campaign hoping to lure travelers with their vast natural wonders, that include the tallest mountain in the world in Mt. Everest.

The overall goal of the program is to raise awareness in countries across the globe of everything that Nepal has to offer. The country is famous for its fantastic trekking and climbing throughout the Himalaya Mountains of course, but also offers plenty of cultural immersion, complete with a heavy Buddhist influence. For those looking to for something other than a mountain experience, there is also the Chitwan region, which offers a tropical rainforest setting and plenty of wildlife to view as well.

While Nepal has set a goal of luring more than 1 million visitors from around the world into it’s borders in 2011, the Tourism Year program is squarely aimed at neighboring India. Officials hope to draw more than 300,000 travelers from that country alone, and an organized marketing campaign is already underway in ten cities along the border between the two nations.

Nepal’s economy is highly dependent on the tourism trade, and these efforts show just how important it is to the government there. If they hope to bring in more visitors however, that government is going to have to remain stable. One of the challenges of traveling in the Himalayan country is the political unrest has, at times, made some regions unsafe, and general strikes in Kathmandu can bring that city to a halt, with travel in and out at a stand still.

Still, those issues aside, travelers who do make the journey are in for a treat. Adventure travelers will especially love hiking in the mountains and those looking for a healthy dose of culture won’t be disappointed either. Kathmandu can be noisy and chaotic, but head out into the countryside and you’ll find quaint villages, beautiful temples, and friendly people who love to welcome visitors from abroad.

Nepali festival features elephant football

The annual Chitwan Elephant Festival in Nepal always brings large crowds to honor South Asia’s favorite animal. This year, as this funny video shows, visitors were treated to a football match between two teams of elephants.

That’s football in the Nepali sense, meaning soccer, not American football. Thankfully the elephants weren’t tackling each other.

The festival has been going on for six years now and is sponsored by the government as a way of promoting tourism. Nope, it’s not an age-old cultural treasure like Kumbh Mela, but it’s still pretty fun. Chitwan is in southern Nepal and its main tourist attraction is Royal Chitwan National Park, home to many elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife, as you can see in this photo.

Other events included a race, with local champions beating rivals from as far away as Slovakia. Here’s a video of that event.

Adventure destination: Chitwan National Park, Nepal

When travelers think about Nepal, the first thing that comes to mind is the towering peaks of the Himalaya and some of the best trekking on the planet. The tiny mountain kingdom is the home of Mt. Everest and the Annapurna Circuit, but many visitors are surprised to find that the country has a subtropical lowland area, and that there is an amazing national park there.

Chitwan National Park is found in the south central portion of Nepal and covers approximately 930 square kilometers of classic jungle. The park was founded in 1974 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site a decade later, thanks to its rich flora and fauna, much of which can no longer be found anywhere else on the planet. The park has large tracts of elephant grass broken up by a variety of deciduous trees that line the the Rapti, Reu and the Narayani Rivers all of which run through the region.
The big draw for visitors to Chitwan is the animal life however, and there are some amazing species on display. More than 40 types of mammals call the park home, with another 45 species of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 450 types of birds. Elephants, Indian rhinos, and sloth bears are amongst the favorites amongst the visitors, while predators such as tigers, leopards, and march crocs wander the jungle.

There are a number of unique ways to explore Chitwan. The most popular is an elephant safari, on which visitors explore the park on the back of a pachyderm. But with three fairly large rivers in crossing through the area, traversing Chitwan by canoe has also become one of the best ways to view the wildlife and the landscapes.

Most adventure travelers going to Nepal fly into Kathmandu and spend a few days exploring that ecclectic city before heading out on their treks or climbs. But anyone visiting the country should do themselves a favor and take a day trip to Chitwan for a safari experience that is as enjoyable as it is unexpected.