‘Do you have something else you can wear?’
It is 6am, slightly too early to be judged on my fashion sense. But Govinda Thanait, my guide and a naturalist of the Barahi Jungle Lodge, explains, ‘Most of the animals can’t see very many colours, but red and white really stand out to them, so they’ll see you and run away. It’s best to stick with neutral colours.’ Fair enough. My red T-shirt would need to be discarded.
I’m at the Chitwan National Park, one of 12 national parks in Nepal and arguably the best place to spot one-horned rhinos, with frequent sightings also of Bengal tigers, clouded leopards, wild elephants and gaur (Indian bison). These are Asia’s Big Five.
Left: Kaare Iverson / Aurora Open / Getty Images; Right: Michel Gunther / Biosphoto / Getty Images
During British rule, the park was a hotspot for hunters, resulting in a decline in the number of wild animals. But things changed in the 1960s, when the area’s population started to grow dramatically thanks to the eradication of malaria. People from across Nepal and India soon settled here, alongside the indigenous Tharu communities. At that point, the rhino count was down to only 95, and the rest of the wildlife didn’t fare much better.
The government took drastic measures, declaring it a reserve, moving residents out of the park and hiring patrol teams to stop poaching. And communities on the fringes of the national park saw opportunity: nowadays there are countless hotels and lodges near the park’s two main entrances, Sauraha and Meghauli. Many of them focus on ethical and responsible practices that support the park’s protection.
‘Our eco-certified lodge aims to promote locality,’ says Subash Gurung, operation manager at Barahi Jungle Lodge, a property spread over 12 hectares at Meghauli. The lodge is located right on the banks of the Rapti River, literally a stone’s throw from the national park, and its use of local bamboo and sustainable wood in its architecture helps it blend seamlessly with the jungle. ‘Ninety percent of our staff is from the surrounding villages; therefore we actively generate jobs in the community and improve their way of living. We also teach the locals to conserve our forests, as by doing so we can promote tourism in the area, which is one of the main sources of income in Nepal.’
Chitwan National Park offers contrasting experiences depending on when you travel. During the summer monsoon season, you get sweeping views of verdant green, with grass growing up to two metres on the riverbanks and the Sal Forest, providing lush photo ops. But spring brings out the animals, as it’s mating season. There are plenty of activities to choose from, but it’s best to start with a jeep tour, which covers a vast area in a short time. The real fun begins when you start trekking in the jungle. Armed with only binoculars and accompanied by two guides with walking sticks, I get the low down on how to behave when approached – or charged – by animals.
‘When you encounter a bear, it’s important to make yourself appear larger and be as noisy as possible, to try to scare it away,’ Govinda says happily, while trekking through dense grass. ‘As for rhinos, when they charge at you, try to duck behind a large tree quickly as they’re not as mobile as humans. With tigers, it’s essential you lock eyes with them and slowly back away. Turn your back against them and you’re lunch. Luckily they’re mostly nocturnal, so they rarely attack during daytime; although if they do, they’ll be hiding in tall grass like this and pounce.’ Such comforting words.
If trekking on foot is too much to handle, an elephant safari can be requested as well. Over the past few years, travellers have become more aware of the mistreatment of elephants used for tourism. But in Chitwan they’re treated exceptionally well and even revered as gods (the Hindu god Ganesha is an elephant).
The park has also had a good recent track record in terms of animal protection: incidents of poaching have been few and far between since 2011, reflecting a significant success, especially when compared with the dismaying poaching numbers in African countries.
As of last year, the number of rhinos in Chitwan National Park has grown to about 600. Take the river cruise down the Rapti at dawn and you’ll witness many rhinos bathing and drinking water with their young, along with the also critically endangered gharial, a type of crocodile that only feeds on fish. I felt like I was intruding when the boat got a little too close to a rhino for my comfort. A staring contest ensued, and before I knew it, it hauled itself out of the river and proceeded to mark its territory right in front of me. It was a majestic sight (and smell) to behold.
Bengal tigers have been getting a lot of love, too, with their population in Nepal growing steadily in the past decade. Apart from local efforts, international groups have helped greatly. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, a wildlife conservation group founded by the star and vocal advocate of tiger protection, aims to help the big cat’s population reach 400 by 2020, from about 200 today.
Yet at most national parks in Nepal, you have to be really lucky to set your eyes on tigers. ‘While leopards are easier to spot as they sleep on trees during the day, tigers are more unpredictable as they snooze anywhere they like. Therefore it’s definitely harder to track them,’ says Govinda. ‘Their being nocturnal also increases the difficulty, as the national park closes at night. Night tours are banned here, as we do not want to risk letting in poachers disguised as tourists under darkness.’
Was I disappointed about not spotting tigers? Maybe, but I did get a good look at many of the park’s other residents such as wild boar, various types of deer, monkeys and monitor lizards. Birdwatching is also a huge draw: the park is home to at least 564 species.
Indeed, Nepal is full of surprises. At the lodge, I run into Shristi Shrestha, a movie star and former Miss Nepal who was there shooting a music video. She beams with pride, telling me how kind and energetic Nepal’s people are. ‘Even though we are not economically strong, we are content,’ she says, standing amid the natural marvels just beside us. ‘We’re a very blessed country to have all this at our doorstep.’
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Jacada Travel is an award-winning luxury tour operator that specialises in bespoke experiences and responsible travel. ‘We strive to invest in high-quality trips that support local communities and conservation efforts,’ says Celina Ho, Jacada’s head of marketing and partnership. ‘We also actively discourage people from visiting establishments that could be detrimental to wildlife; therefore we hand-pick our guides and lodges to ensure we bring a positive impact to the communities, while creating precious memories for the travellers.’ The company has offices in Hong Kong, London, Cape Town and Santiago. Visit jacadatravel.com