Back to the Jungle: Chitwan Jungle Adventure

Features Issue 65 Jul, 2010
Text by Don Messerschmidt / Photo: Sanu Raja Bajracharya

Tigers, rhinos, leopards, monkeys, deer, crocodiles, pythons, wild boar, and colorful birds..., with glimpses of the snow-capped Himals in the background. All this and more are the promises of a Chitwan National Park adventure. “Chitwan” means “heart of the jungle”, and the park is just that—a fabulous jungle heartland open to visitors keen on spotting wildlife and enjoying a jungle resort adventure

Comments such as “Excellent experience”, “Unusual”, “The best”, “Amazing”, “Fantastic”
appear regularly in Chitwan resort guest-books, on postcards and in website testimonials. For good reason. Chitwan is Nepal’s (and some say the world’s) premier jungle wildlife and bird sanctuary. It features some of the best riverine wetlands and lowland forest ecosystems in South Asia. Situated in a river valley basin (or dun) along the flood plains of the Narayani and Rapti rivers, Chitwan boasts some of the best wildlife adventure tourism there is. And all this is only 140km. southwest of Kathmandu.

I have visited Chitwan sixteen times since 1963. My first few visits were well before the park was created. In those days there were no lodges or resort facilities; only the government’s elephant camp where rides could be arranged for rhino spotting. For overnight stays we slept in a machan, a platform on poles raised safely above the jungle floor.

In those days Chitwan was a challenge for Nepalis and expatriates alike. The park encompasses, or about a third of Chitwan District. The rest is mostly agricultural land, settled in the late 1950s and ’60s by farmers from the hills following the suppression of malaria in the valley under a government project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The valley was previously inhabited by indigenous Tharu, Darai and Bote ethnic people who have a natural immunity to malaria and who relied on jungle resources for their livelihood. At first, their cultures remained largely intact, but that soon changed as the migrants flooded in. Today, the settlers far outnumber the indigenous people, who have made great changes to their lifestyles and culture. Where before they wore traditional dress and pursued rich cultural traditions and economic lifestyles adapted to hunting and gathering in the forest, most indigenes are now virtually indistinguishable from the rest of Chitwan’s population. You are more likely to see Tharu boys in soccer uniforms in place of the loincloths and vest of the past, and girls in standard saris rather than skirts and bodices. Some vestiges of traditional culture remain, however, such as the Bote fishing camps often seen along the rivers, and the unique and  rhythmic Tharu stick dances that are a part of some resort’s guest programs.

On my last visit, I visited Temple Tiger Jungle Lodge in the west of the park. Previously, I have stayed at Tiger Tops, Machan Wildlife Resort, and others across the park. Each visit was a unique jungle escape experience. Several top of the line resorts combine luxury lodge facilities with a tented camp experience, popular among expatriates and Nepali visitors, alike. Lodge staff cater to your comfort, safety and interests, with exotic outings on elephant back, on foot and by jeep through the jungle, and by canoe or boat along the rivers. Over the years, I have seen almost everything the park has to offer—except a tiger. Many visitors are far luckier and often see tigers on their first visit. On the other hand, I’ve been pleased to add over 160 species of Chitwan birds to my life list.

Some guests in the park become so enamored with Chitwan that they return time and again. Take Reg Brown, a civil engineer from the U.K., for example. I met Reg and his wife Beryl at Temple Tiger a few weeks ago, and learned right off that they are seasoned travelers, with prior visits to China, Malaysia and Japan. Nepal, however, is their favorite. So far they’ve made 13 trips to Chitwan, 12 of them to Temple Tiger. They first came for 5 days in 1995, then every year thereafter for up to 10 days each time. (Most visitors opt for a shorter stay.) The Browns have seen tigers almost every time, sometimes on several days running.

I asked them, “What, besides tigers, brings you back to Chitwan each year?” “We like it!” the Browns exclaimed. “Our coming here for our annual holidays sort of evolved. We are comfortable here. The food is good and the staff look after us well. They are our friends, and we enjoy keeping up with improvements to the lodge and changing guest itineraries. The lodge is comfortable and run by nice people.” They are all run by nice people, and their other observations fit most Chitwan jungle lodges, but at Temple Tiger, they said, “There’s a viewing platform, especially good for spotting rhinos, crocodiles, rare birds and sometimes tigers from the main lodge.” Summing up, Beryl said: “It all suits us down to the ground!”

The Brown’s most memorable moment was seeing their first tiger during an elephant ride. “This tiger was on sand along the river bank. It appeared startled. The elephant trumpeted loudly to warn it off”, they recalled, “but not before we got a good view.” Another time, they got close to a mother tiger with three small cubs, which they have watched grow up over several years.

Other lodges also attract return visitors, some from among Nepal’s expatriate community and many in large touring groups from Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia. In some years, almost half the visitors are Nepali citizens, with almost equal numbers from other South Asian countries. Some resorts, like Tiger Tops, are well known for high profile international guests, like heads of state, kings and queens, senators and movie stars... At Christmas sometimes, even Santa Claus shows up to join the fun!

The jungle lodges of Chitwan are popular destinations for visitors. The number has risen annually from less than 1,000 in 1974, to over 30,000 by 1989. The number of registered visitors was highest in 1999/2000, with a total of 117,497, but they dropped off somewhat during the early 2000s. In 2005/06, for example, there were only 42,654 tourists in the park. Once again, however, the number of visitors to Chitwan is rising.

No lodge or resort management can guarantee seeing a tiger. Viewing rhinos is 100% guaranteed throughout the park, sometimes quite close. A postcard from Machan Wildlife Resort shows bathers at the lodge swimming pool being joined by a curious rhino. A thrilling moment, but nobody encourages swimming with the wildlife! Too dangerous! More than one unwary visitor has been hurt in close encounters with irascible rhinos on the ground. These great beasts are not to be fooled with. They are more safely viewed from elephant back.

It is estimated that there are currently around 125 tigers in the park and over 300 rhinos. Several scientific studies of Chitwan’s wildlife and unique riverine grassland environment have increased our knowledge of animal, grassland, forest and human interactions. Some rhinos live for 40 or 50 years and weigh over 2 tons at maturity, and some have been clocked sprinting at close to 40km. per hour over short distances. Rhinos require a combination of wet grassland and forest environment to survive. To maintain that essential environment, an age-old system of grass harvesting and burning has been maintained. For several days each winter nearby villagers are allowed into the park to cut grass for domestic use and for sale to a nearby paper mill. Good chances of seeing a tiger then. After cutting, the stubble is burned to assure regeneration, so that the forest does not replace the grassland ecosystem.

Rhino poaching is a serious problem at Chitwan. Some local villagers relish rhino meat, and many Asians believe that ground up rhino horn has aphrodisiac qualities. Consequently, the price for rhino horn on the black market is very high, thus endangering the rhinos. Since 1970, when there were less than 100 rhinos in the area, Chitwan’s rhino protection program became a worldwide model of success. Within 20 years the number rose to around 600 rhinos, enough so that some were translocated to Bardia National Park and Shukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve in the western Terai, as new breeding populations. In recent years, however, poaching has become so serious that by 2005 the Chitwan rhino population had dropped by more than one-third. Since then, another 38 or more rhinos have been poached, and others have died of natural causes. Measures to curtail poaching and arrest illegal hunters are being aggressively pursued by park authorities with assistance from international conservation groups, the park lodges, and concerned Chitwan area residents.

In addition to rhinos and tigers (also endangered), there are many leopards and a variety of other feline species in the park. Leopards are most common around the park buffer zone communities where they have easy access to chickens and dogs. Several deer species reside in the park, along with many snakes and amphibians, and hundreds of species of birds. The list of exotic wildlife and birds in Chitwan is long, including some that are highly threatened.

Among the dozens of Chitwan area lodges, resorts and guesthouses, six resorts are located inside the park boundaries, including Temple Tiger Jungle Lodge, Tiger Tops, Island Jungle Resort, Chitwan Jungle Lodge, Machan Wildlife Camp, and Gaida Wildlife Camp (on the boundary, with a tented camp inside). There are several others in the park buffer zone, and many more, large and small, on the outside, especially around the main park entrance town of Sauraha. Besides elephant rides, float trips and nature walks, the lodges also provide informative lectures and slide shows for their guests. And, that’s not all. Evenings are typically full of camaraderie among resort guests while dining, at the bar, and on those cold winter evenings by a blazing campfire. If you go to Sauraha, be sure to visit the park museum. The last time I was there, after passing informative presentations about jungle wildlife, the final display brought me up short. There, in a mirror, I was reminded that humans are among the most destructively dangerous animals around!

Besides management staff, the major lodges in Chitwan have guides and naturalists, cooks and waiters, gardeners, bartenders, plumbers, carpenters and electricians, housekeepers and laundrymen, vehicle drivers and boatmen, and the inevitable elephant keepers/trainers/drivers called mahuts. Each elephant and its mahut typically forms an inseparable, life-long bond. Most lodges make a point of employing Chitwan’s indigenous people as a way of bolstering the local economy. Many mahuts, for example, are Tharu or other Terai indigenes. Most boatmen are Bote fisher folk who have intimate knowledge of the rivers. The guides and naturalists come from nearby Tharu or Darai villages, and from the Pahari hill migrants.

Park naturalists are formally trained and certified, with years of experience and knowledge to draw from. Each is highly skilled at identifying wildlife and birds and interpreting the wider natural environment to visitors. They are a remarkable lot. Although they’ve seen it all scores of times, their job is to make every new and return visitor’s trip especially wonder-full!

Access to Chitwan’s wonders was not always what it is today. During Rana times (1846 to 1951) this magnificent jungle was the exclusive hunting reserve for the privileged elite and their guests. Rana hunts were something to behold and, in this modern age of conservation and environmental consciousness, to shudder at! The number of game animals bagged during the big hunts was staggering. In 1911, for example, during a hunt organized for England’s King George-V, 39 tigers, 18 rhinos, two bears and several leopards were shot. In 1939, the hunting party of Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India, broke all records. They bagged 120 tigers, 38 rhinos, 27 leopards and 15 bears. Later, some Nepali elites saw the folly of hunting, and became actively involved in promoting wildlife conservation.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the Indian naturalist E.P. Gee surveyed Chitwan and prepared a plan for rhino and tiger preservation. Then, a few years later, in 1973, Chitwan became Nepal’s first national park, and in 1984 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today Chitwan is far and away the crown jewel of Nepal’s parks and nature reserves. Some may disagree with that and say, perhaps, that Mt Everest’s Sagarmatha National Park or the Annapurna Conservation Area deserves that honor. But given its unique wildlife viewing, high bird population, its size and ecosystem diversity, and numbers of visitors, Chitwan surely takes the prize.

Chitwan National Park is not only about tourism, it is also about conservation. The Nepal government and National Trust for Nature Conservation (formerly the King Mahendra Trust), with assistance from the United Nations and World Wildlife Fund, support a buffer zone program to help protect the park from human and domestic animal encroachment and to encourage local business and community development. Many lodges sponsor special environmental, economic and public activities outside the park boundary to help preserve the very special nature of the jungle as well as the lifestyles and cultures of the local people. For example, after Temple Tiger Jungle Lodge opened in 1988 it set up special programs for the conservation and protection of park flora, fauna and wildlife, and for ethnic community development. Temple Tiger, Tiger Tops and other resorts provide financial assistance to local community schools and health facilities, and contribute to the maintenance of public access roads. Tiger Tops, established in 1965, has also participated in a ‘Save the Tiger’ program, and the monitoring of crocodile survival as part of a gharial conservation project. Lodge personnel also work closely with the park warden and his staff to thwart wildlife poaching. And some activities sponsored by local businesses and resorts are pure fun, such as the annual Elephant festival and races at Sauraha and the Elephant polo competition held each winter at Meghauli.

All in all, Chitwan is both an exciting and restful place to visit. There you’ll come face-to-face with raw nature at its finest. And, if you are luckier than me, you may just see that proudest of Chitwan’s wild animals, the Royal Bengal tiger.

The author thanks the staff of Temple Tiger Jungle Lodge, Tiger Tops/Tiger Mountain and Machan Wildlife Resort for their hospitality over the years, and their generous help with background information.

Don Messerschmidt is an anthropologist and writer who has lived in Nepal since 1963.
Sanu Raja Bajracharya started his career as a wildlife photographer while working for Tiger Tops and has spent more than twenty years in the profession.