Home of the Great Herds

Features Issue 146 Feb, 2014
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: Kapil Bisht

Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in Nepal’s western Terai remains an outpost for Nepal’s threatened wildlife.

In the days before the nationalization of forests in Nepal, the swath of dense jungle south of the Kanchanpur District, in the Far-Western Development Region of Nepal, was a hunter’s paradise. Malaria stalked this wilderness, and was believed to have a penchant for claiming those from the hills. This threat kept people away, and wildlife prospered. But there were occasional onslaughts. Hunting licenses were issued for these jungles. Hunting trips were organized, and shikaris descended into the wilderness, killing animals by the scores.

In 1969, however, Suklaphanta, as this wilderness was known, was declared a royal hunting reserve, thus limiting access to the vast jungles to the guns and whims of royalty. Then, seven years later, the area was made into a wildlife reserve to protect the very species that the trigger-happy and tiger-hungry hunting parties came hoping to bag.

The Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve occupies an area of 305 square kilometers. Sal forests, grasslands, and wetlands make up this area. In 2004, an additional 243 square kilometers were annexed to this area to create a buffer zone. The southern and western boundaries of Suklaphanta are contiguous to the Indian border. Owing to this, animals from the neighboring jungles of India regularly cross over into Suklaphanta.

Likewise, the animals of Suklaphanta enter the jungles on the other side. One of the most famous examples of this migration of animals between the two countries was that of the elephant known as Thulo Hatti, which, in the 1990s, was the tallest living Asian elephant. I remember my father driving me to the sanctuary (which, like the locals of Mahendranagar, my hometown, I pronounced as “century”) when I was seven or eight. The Thulo Hatti had been spotted in a herd near the park headquarters. I didn’t see the Big Guy even though my father put me on a terrace. I think they were too far away, or either I too short or too excited. Not long after that the Thulo Hatti disappeared altogether, killed by poachers, it was said, when it crossed into the jungles of India. My only glimpse of Thulo Hatti was on a black-and-white postcard.

Mini Savannahs
Suklaphanta is known for its large, savannah-like grasslands, called ‘phanta’ in Nepali.  David Reed, author of Rough Guide to Nepal, found them to be scaled down replicas of the immense grasslands of Africa: ‘The great swaths of natural grasslands (phantas) in Nepal’s extreme south-west could be mistaken, albeit on a smaller landscape, for the savannahs of East Africa.’

Among all the protected areas in Nepal’s Terai region, Suklaphanta has the largest grasslands. The reserve is named after the biggest of such grasslands, ‘Sukilaphanta,’ which means ‘white grassland.’ The name alludes to the grass head, which turns white when it blooms in winter. Another time when the grasslands turn white is during the period of controlled burning, when great plumes of white smoke can be seen in these grassy expanses as the reserve’s employees set fire to selected sections. The ash from these fires helps the growth of new grass—a vital food source for the reserve’s great swamp deer herds.

Suklaphanta is almost synonymous with swamp deer. The reserve has the largest herd of swamp deer in the world. Some herds have over 700 individual deer, a remarkable number but not anywhere near the 1000-strong herds that used to graze in these grasslands a few decades ago. The last annual count found that the reserve had a population of 2170 swamp deer. Records also show that there has been a steady increase in their population in the last five years.

Black Tiger and Tiny Hares
The swamp deer is one out of the reserve’s total of 43 species of mammals, which include the endangered Asian Elephant and the Royal Bengal Tiger. Like all jungles, Suklaphanta has its share of lore. There is one interesting story about the “black” tiger (the name certainly came from the thick stripes that made its body unusually darker) that lived here. To the locals, however, it wasn’t just its color or its huge size that made the tiger special. They believed the tiger belonged to the goddess of the jungle. Its physical attributes made the tiger a coveted quarry. It was reportedly shot down by King Mahendra during a shikar trip. The sky is said to have turned dark almost immediately and violent winds began to blow after the tiger was slain. During that same hunting trip, a bullet fired by the King ricocheted and hit his queen, Ratna. She was saved only by being flown to Kathmandu in an army helicopter. The accident is said to have been the retribution for killing the sacred tiger.

Although not yet folklore material, the One-horned Rhinoceros is certainly a success story in Suklaphanta. The four rhinoceroses translocated here in 2000 have now increased to eight. (The increase in population doesn’t sound impressive, but the increase was during the Civil War, when poaching animals was easier than protecting them.) There is also a significant population of leopards, blue bulls, barking and hog deer in the reserve.

Suklaphanta is also home to the rare and elusive hispid hare (Caprolagus hispidus), a pygmy hare species. Its diminutive size often leads to it being mistaken for a baby hare—a thing that works to the animal’s advantage, for hunters who would have otherwise resorted to guns or other weapons to kill it, try and capture it with their hands, the inevitable result being the hare getting away. Another equally rare but enjoyable sight is that of a bevy of smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) plunging into a river and swimming with their adorable whiskered faces just above the water. 

There are numerous lakes in the reserve, of which Salgoudi Tal and Rani Tal are the biggest. The latter, and its vicinity, is of as much importance from an ecological and aesthetical perspective as from an archaeological one, as David Reed explains: The lake – a lagoon, really – is like a prehistoric time capsule, with trees leaning out over the shore, deer wading shoulder-deep around the edges and crocodiles occasionally peering out of the water-hyacinth-choked depths. In the early morning, the birdlife is amazing, a dazzling display of cranes, cormorants, eagles and scores of others. Nearby is an overgrown brick circle, 1500 meters in circumference, which locals say was the fort of Singpal, an ancient Tharu king (Rani Tal was said to be his favorite spot).

There are evidences elsewhere in the reserve of old settlements, perhaps dating back centuries. Ruins of houses built from an old type of brick can be seen near an army barracks. It is astounding to know that even when Suklaphanta was nothing but a true wilderness, Tharus lived in it: what the hill people regarded as a death-zone until malaria was quelled some five decades ago, the Tharus had called home for time immemorial.

Return of the Black Beauty
In September 2012, after being hunted to extinction from the area several decades ago, blackbucks returned to the Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve. A small herd, comprising of 22 adults, was brought in from Nepalgunj and released into an enclosed area in Hirapur Phanta, a grassland in the reserve’s northern part. The Blackbuck Re-Introduction Program was a joint project of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the National Trust for Nature Conservation, and the Hariyo Ban Program, which is funded by the USAID.

The blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) is still an endangered species in Nepal (in India, although not exactly flourishing, they survive in larger numbers), and Khairapur, near the Bardia National Park, is the only place in Nepal where blackbucks survive in the wild. The grassland frequented by this particular herd was declared a Blackbuck Conservation Area by the Nepalese government in 2009. After that the blackbuck population in Khairapur has grown to nearly three hundred. The blackbuck herd in Khairapur is also the northernmost population of the species in the world.

But the isolation that allowed the Khairapur herd to survive even as blackbucks began disappearing from other parts in Nepal has also meant they are susceptible to inbreeding. Suklaphanta’s Blackbuck Re-Introduction Program is an effort to protect the vulnerable species from such threats. To boost the genetic diversity of the Hirapur Phanta herd, individuals from the central zoo in Kathmandu and from the Khairapur herd will be added to it later.

The enclosure at Hirapur Phanta, which is spread over 7.5 hectares, creates a predator-free habitat for the herd. On a recent visit I saw a fox trotting along the periphery of the enclosure, looking for a way in. Unable to find one, he dashed off towards the village in the east, where the prospects of a meal were better. The secure, albeit not totally natural, habitat of the Hirapur Phanta has already begun to show results. Within a year, the herd’s population has increased to 32 individuals.   

Getting There

Several buses leave daily from Kathmandu for Mahendranagar, the headquarters of Kanchanpur district. The journey takes around 18 hours. Tickets are available in Sundhara. There are also daily flights from Kathmandu to Dhangadi. From Dhangadi it is an hour by road to Mahendranagar. Transportation from the Dhangadi airport to Mahendranagar should be arranged in advance, as buses and taxis ply the route sporadically, although buses are available if you can get to the main road from the airport (2 kilometers). The Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve is another eight kilometers from Mahendranagar. Since there are no resorts near the reserve, the only option is to return to hotels in Mahendranagar. In terms of facilities, Hotel Sweet Dream (099-522313), Opera Hotel (099-522101), and Hotel New Anand (099-521693) are Mahendranagar’s best hotels.  

Outside the Jungle
If going to the jungle and spending hours to try and get a glimpse of an animal doesn’t sound fascinating to you, there are other activities around Suklaphanta and in Kanchanpur. Nepal’s longest suspension bridge, which stretches across the Mahakali River for 1.6 kilometers, is a couple of kilometers west of the reserve’s entry point in Majhgaon. The bridge looks spectacular in the evenings, with the sun dropping behind and reddening the Mahakali River.

The homes of Tharus, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Terai, are testimonies to their ability to live off the wilderness. The design and material of their homes and the objects of daily use reflect the symphony they have forged with the inhospitable jungle. To get a sense of the communal bond that is the hallmark of Tharu culture, accompany them on their fishing trips. Quaint experiences like bullock-cart rides can also be had in Tharu villages. A visit would not be complete for connoisseurs of spirits without trying the fiery Tharu rice-beer, which is sometimes left to ferment for several years.    

Grassy Havens
Suklaphanta’s grasslands, forests, and water bodies are a haven for numerous bird species, many of whom thrive in numbers that are unequalled by any other protected area in Nepal. The reserve has 425 species of birds—a remarkable number considering the area of the reserve; Chitwan National Park, which is three times bigger than Suklaphanta, has 541 species. Suklaphanta has the largest Bengal Florican population in Nepal. The Sarus Crane, the world’s tallest bird that can fly, is a frequent visitor to the reserve. Rare and endangered species such as Swamp Francolin and Lesser Florican can also be spotted here, along with Grass Owls, Warblers, and Flycatchers.

Suklaphanta has 50 percent of all the globally-threatened bird species found in Nepal. And its importance as a habitat is proved by the fact that half of those species are dependent on grasslands. The reserve is a crucial site for numerous birds: It is the farthest west that Swamp Francolin, Jerdon’s Bushchat, Rufous-rumped Grassbird, Chestnut-capped Babbler and Jerdon’s Babbler exist and one of the few places where the Hodgson’s Bushchat winters regularly. The Finn’s Weaver and Singing Bushlark have also been recorded here in recent years, the former once considered endemic to India.
A total of 27 species of fish, which include the mahaseer and rohu, inhabit the streams and lakes in the reserve. Mugger crocodiles basking in the sun on the stream banks are also a common morning sight. There are 12 species of reptiles in the reserve, including Golden monitor lizard, India Python, and different species of cobras. There are also over 600 species of plants.

Suklaphanta has come a long way from the days when it was the haunt of shikaris. With the years of pressure from guns and axes coming to an end, this great wilderness has once again emerged as a haven for wildlife. In this protective and bountiful environment the swamp deer once again have a chance to form great herds.