They boasted of how many tigers they bagged in the last hunt. Or rhinos and leopards,that were second choices. The highlight of a visiting dignitary’s tour of Nepal was invariably a hunt in the tarai jungles of Nepal. Official records show astounding figures of wild animals killed during a single hunting trip such as the 1939 hunting party of Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India: 120 tigers, 38 rhinos and 27 leopards lay dead at the end of their hunt. But all that is history. Today, the Royal Bengal tiger and the One Horned rhinoceros are listed as endangered species and the forests of Bardia and Chitwan are national parks that protect not only wildlife but also their habitat.
Before the Bardia forest came under conservation and an area of 386 sq. km. was designated the Royal Karnali Wildlife Reserve in 1976, it was the royal hunting reserve of the Ranas who ruled Nepal from 1846 to 1950. Shooting down dozens of tigers, leopards and rhinos during a single hunt was nothing unusual for the well-organized hunting parties of old. Guests of honor had the privilege of going on a hunt on elephant back in the dense jungles of the tarai where game was trapped between long sheets of white cloth strung across trees. The forests were teeming with wildlife that could easily be shot down. But the drive for conservation has transformed large tracts of land into national parks and reserves where hunting is banned. The Karnali Wildlife Reserve was upgraded to a national park in 1988 and became the Royal Bardia National Park (now Bardia National Park) bringing 986 sq. km. of land under its protection. No more hunting, except by poachers who now and then do down a few tigers and rhinos for their bones and horns respectively.
Years ago, I visited the park but arrived so early, it was still dark and had to wait until daybreak before I could call Tiger Tops (now Karnali Lodge & Camp) and ask them to pick me up. “Where are you?” asked a friendly voice on the phone. When I told him I was out on the highway he added, “Hang on there; we’ll send you a jeep.” Driving through a pristine forest was a thrill I hadn’t had since childhood and watching a flock of majestic peacocks glide over the sandy banks was heavenly. This was how the earth was meant to be; the way the creator had envisioned life on earth. I spent the first day at the Karnali Lodge which sits just outside the national park. Over the years, many lodges have come up, but are still few and far between in comparison to Chitwan. We took nature walks under the guidance of an experienced naturalist and watched as spotted deer sprinted away startled by our sudden intrusion. In the evening, we relaxed in the large Gol Ghar and enjoyed a slide show that enlightens one on the flora and fauna as well as the culture of the indigenous Tharu people of the tarai.
Early next morning was the elephant ride around 6 am. In the chilly winter morning, we took off into the heart of the jungle on the back of a jumbo that gave us a viewpoint otherwise reserved for passengers on a double-decker bus. In the silence, the elephant crashed through vegetation we would never have been able to pass through. It carried us across rivers and through the tall elephant grass which effectively hide the wildlife. Rhinos lurk behind them and tigers are well camouflaged among the yellow vegetation. Searching around in silence, we came across grazing rhinos and herds of spotted deer. Somewhere along the way, wild boar crashed through the bushes. They don’t hang around to see who is coming.
In the late afternoon, we drove over to a superb spot within the national park where the Karnali Tented Camp is perched overlooking the majestic Karnali river. The camp brings the guests up close to nature and the great outdoors. The constant roar of the Karnali, the distinct bird calls and the buzz of insects make the perfect backdrop for camping out in the wild. From this high vantage point we could gaze down for hours, keeping the binoculars glued to our eyes. We watched Ruddy Shelduck, Adjutant storks, cormorants, pratincoles, Pied Kingfishers and ospreys all searching for a meal along the long stretch of the river. We were a long way from the dusty, crowded, chaotic streets of Kathmandu and the camp was amazingly peaceful.
The Karnali river attracts a large number of birds and that’s just a start, as also residing in the river are the Gharial crocodile, Marsh muggers and turtles. The rare and endangered species, the Gangetic dolphins (a.k.a. fresh water dolphins) roam freely in the waters here and are seen splashing out of the water now and then. More than 30 species of mammals and above 400 species of birds thrive within the forests of Bardia. On one of those fascinating elephant rides you get to see endangered species like the One horned rhinoceros and occasionally, the Royal Bengal. The latter gets to keep its regal title. Other species you are likely to encounter here are the Blue bull a.k.a. Nilgai, wild boar, sloth bear, wild elephants, leopards, hyenas, porcupines and many more.
On a boat trip down the Karnali, we spotted a herd of wild elephants entering the water further downstream. The boatman hesitated, wary of an encounter with the mighty beasts in midstream. However, the other boatman shouted, “By the time we reach there, they’ll have swum across.” Thus we floated slowly towards the spot where the pachyderms were crossing. I had never watched elephants swimming and this was an enchanting sight. Displacing a fairly large amount of water, the giant animals bobbed up and down the gushing waters of the Karnali and crossed over with relative ease. I was left speechless by the spectacular sight.
The afternoon’s jeep drive brought us closer to the habitat of Langur monkeys who jump from tree to tree and watch from their vantage point way above the forest floor. They also send warning signals to everyone down below if predators are around. We came across hornbills and graceful peacocks in their full regalia. The evening was spent in the Gol Ghar where everyone gathered for drinks and dinner, exchanging stories of adventure in the jungles. I met a guy named Guy who was a river expert. “Nepal has great rivers for rafting,” he said, “Definitely the best in the world.” A river guide of vast experiences, Guy loved to move around the camp barefooted and make his own special ‘Ilam tea’. Next morning it was Guy’s Ilam tea and more bird watching.
Karnali is a great holiday destination. Head out to the pristine jungles of Bardia if you need a break and have time to kill. And remember, that’s about the only thing you can kill while you’re there.