(The following is a condensed write-up of the article published in the Saevus magazine, July 2015. The visit took place during March 2015)
Finally, a clear day! Our spirits had been dampened due to 2 days of unseasonal cloudy weather, hailstones and rain in Pokhara, Nepal. We had been disappointed on not getting a clear view of the famed Annapurna range, but today morning as we began our journey, the majesty of the Himalayas would be revealed to us. An open ground where locals were playing soccer and zipping around in scooters, rolling hills in the distance, were all dwarfed by the sheer scale and size of these snow-clad monoliths. Humbling to say the least! Apart from this wondrous sight though, there was one more reason I was elated to wake up to bright sunshine, we were heading to the destination I had been looking forward to the most during this trip with my family; The Royal Chitwan National Park. It was not my first visit here, however there were only faded memories of the trip made more than 15 years ago. And as some searching online a few months before had revealed, I realized Chitwan had changed since then. Once a destination only for those seeking the solace of the wild, it had transformed into a major tourism hub. The iconic lodges located inside the national park had closed, surrounded by much controversy, being charged of harming the park’s ecology. And now, much of the tourist infrastructure had shifted to bustling Sauraha, currently the main park gateway.
I was a bit nervous, as my search for the Sauraha properties had not left me with any satisfactory options. I was intrigued however, more by a hotel that was away from Sauraha, located in Meghauli, by the name of the Barahi Jungle Lodge. To my pleasant surprise, I found that their management had recently undergone a change, and was now being looked after by Pugdundee Safaris, a well-known Indian safari lodge chain and after their considerable consultations with their representative, Abhay, I went ahead with the booking for my stay there in March.
The last hour of our drive was an exceptionally bumpy one and would give one’s bones a good shake, but the moment we stepped inside the property, I was delighted because I saw my family’s worries sliding away. Varun, the vastly experienced hotel manager, welcomed us at the entrance and walking us through, briefed us about the property, introducing us to our designated naturalist, Subhash Gurung, the lodge’s youngest but one of its most experienced naturalists. Making our way to the rooms, memories of the unspoilt Chitwan I remembered came flooding back, with the hotel’s cottages presenting a stunning view of the Rapti river and the elephant grass of the national park beyond with no human habitation in sight. It’s as if nothing had changed.
The Park’s Lesser-Known Treasures
Chitwan has so much to offer, and this is in addition to the well-known species many visitors come seeking. Courtesy the time we had visited the park, we were fortunate to see the Palash or its more famous name, Flame of the forest, in full bloom, attracting a host of birds including parakeets, bulbuls, sunbirds among many others.
As we would drive through the sal forest habitat (comprising about 60-65% of the park’s ecology), Subhash pointed out a giant creeper, known as the left-handed vine (Spatholobus parviflorus), and it was an awe-inspiring sight seeing this strong climber wrapping around its host.
There is also no doubt about Chitwan being a birder’s haven. With over 540 species recorded in the park, putting it in the league of among the best in the subcontinent, it is also home to one of the most critically endangered birds on the planet, the Bengal Florican. We made frequent forays to its preferred habitat many times but without luck. However, the bird sightings overall were absolutely marvellous. Sightings such as the Green Magpie, White-tailed Stonechat, Lesser Adjutant, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush kept me highly motivated. We often heard the call of the Great Hornbill and on the last day, I was lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of it.
The park also houses over 40 species of reptiles, and over 11 species of amphibians in the park. The most well known among the reptiles are undoubtedly the King Cobra and the two species of crocodilians, the Marsh Mugger and the Gharial. I was lucky to catch a sight of a basking mugger near the access point of the hotel itself, while we had to go deeper within the reserve, to pristine sandbanks to catch a sight of the critically endangered Gharial.
The population of Gavialus gangeticus in the reserve is expected to be about 75-80 individuals and their numbers are seeing an upward trend post the setting up of the Gharial breeding centre at Kasara, new litters are introduced into the park every year.
The Big Boys
Every visitor who comes to the park, undoubtedly is on the lookout for its most charismatic species. Numbering over 500, the second largest single population of the species, the greater one-horned rhinoceros is the most sought-after target, and with such numbers in the park, the chances for close encounters with this iconic animal are always high, more often encountered in the grassland and riverine habitats.
Elephant sightings are uncommon here, and one is more likely to encounter them in the neighboring Parsa wildlife reserve to the east or Valmiki Tiger Reserve in Bihar to the south. It’s not clear why herds have not moved to permanent residence in the park, as the sightings that do sporadically occur are of the lone bulls.
Among the ungulates residing in the park, are four species of deer, the chital/spotted deer, the sambar, the indian muntjac/barking deer and the hog deer, all of which can be frequently sighted. The four-horned antelope is also known to reside here, but is seldom seen. Largest of all the bovine species, the gaur, number close to 300 here in the park. Sightings are not as frequent though, as they often reside in the hilly, inaccessible areas of the park. Come spring though, co-inciding with the peak of their breeding season and the annual grass-clearing that is carried out in the park, they descend to the lowlands and this is a good time to see the familial interactions of gaur herds, led by a matriarch keeping a watch on curious calves. Solitary bulls will vie to get the attention of these wandering female-driven herds.
Among the canids, the ones you can come across are the jackal and if your luck holds, the uncommonly seen dhole/Asiatic wild dog, a species undervalued by most visitors, it can be an utter delight to see pack behavior of these efficient predators. Three species of bear (Family: Ursidae) are known to inhabit different habitats in Nepal, and the one you would come across in Chitwan is the familiar bear of the majority of the Indian subcontinent, the sloth bear. We were fortunate to come across one shuffling through the grasslands on a jeep safari.
Finally, that leaves the two species visitors probably wish for most, but few ever get a sight of, the two big cats: The tiger and the leopard. Chitwan’s expanse, the nature of the habitat and the continuous army patrolling make sightings of these big cats difficult. However, if luck is in your favour, then who knows?
One of the best parts about Chitwan is the sheer range of options through which one can explore the forest. Apart from the elephant and jeep safaris, one could explore Chitwan on foot and by canoe. Both are exceptionally good for bird-watching and for observing the park’s smaller treasures, as you can move at a leisurely space and keep your eyes peeled for any movement in the foliage. The former though is not for the faint of heart, as mock and even unrestrained charges by rhinos though rare, are not unheard of, and while the guest is usually safe as the guides are well trained to handle such encounters, there have been a few isolated incidents where things have gone awry, though the guest has always been safe. Otherwise though, there cannot be a better way to be at one with the wilderness.
The canoe ride of course is a delight for the entire family, a sunset ride is guaranteed to make you a nature romantic, all with the continued thrill of spotting wildlife, finally culminating into a confluence point of the rivers Narayani, Rapti and Reu where you can watch the sun dip below the hills.
Even with those two great ways to explore however, the most popular one in Chitwan irrespective of where you stay, has to be the elephant safari. Through an average duration of 1.5 hours, these giants will take you through the rich habitat of the community forests, a multi-purpose area for both forest produce collection and eco-tourism run by village committees (As many as 9 such areas are currently demarcated throughout the park). Wildlife is as diverse as in the core of the park, and seated in the all-terrain vehicles that are the elephants, this is possibly the best way to have close encounters with large mammals as evidenced by the following image of our experience with a female Indian one-horned rhinoceros.
Besides the elephant safari, another popular way of course is the jeep safari. Here in Chitwan, this is possibly the most expensive option, but as many regular safari-goers would opine, nothing can beat this medium in terms of sheer reach and coverage within a short space of time.
Moreover, the thrill of tracking a predator when you come across signs is an experience as many would know, one that is guaranteed to get your adrenaline racing, your heart jumping every time a shadow emerges from the forest onto the dirt track.
In an endeavor to explore the park, we had undertaken an extended jeep safari on one of the days, and late in the morning at around 11:00 AM, we were heading to the Tiger Tops Lodge (the hotel is closed for the moment, being managed by a skeletal staff till the lodge’s future became clear) to take a break and avail of our packed breakfast. My wife, Deepi and brother Nikhil were with me, and we were sitting relaxed looking forward to a nice calm breakfast. As we rounded a bend, suddenly, it was as if time slowed down to a trickle. We saw an animal crossing the road not 15 feet in front of us, it crouched, turned to look at us, I saw rosettes, my brain simply refused to take in the reality of the sighting, my wife stood up in slow motion with mouth agape, and the driver braked the car to a halt! All this must have happened in that exact sequence in a space of 1-2 seconds, because before I could even focus my lens on the leopard (I quite literally have a shot of an empty spot where it was crouched), it shot off from the road into the undergrowth making its way through the dense foliage of an undulating hillside. Subhash kept his eyes sharply trained on the animal, and I was ruing I was not going to get a shot of this elusive cat. Fortunately, as it made its way up the hillside, we saw the rosettes again and for a few seconds the leopard seemed to stop to regard us. Knowing that autofocus would struggle, I switched to manual focus and fired off a few shots focused on its body. Soon I saw part of its head, and before I could try again, it was gone. After we were sure it was gone, Subhash turned to us and said, ‘Leopard!’, and all including Subhash had a good chuckle on that. It had all been so fast. When I checked my click later on, I was elated to find two large eyes had also been trained on us. One of the lodge’s naturalists had ascribed the title of the ‘Ghost of Chitwan’ to this secretive cat, in the nature orientation at the hotel. No kidding!
On our final morning, my mother, father and brother were looking forward to the India-Bangladesh World Cup match, and Varun and team had very kindly made arrangements for them to watch the same. My wife was quite tired from our extended safari on the previous day. We had a late flight from the airport that afternoon, so there was a chance for me to plan one final foray into Chitwan’s wilds. I had spoken last night to Varun and Subhash, and they encouraged me to go on a morning jeep safari with Jitudai, the hotel’s most senior naturalist. Two other ladies, guests of the resort were scheduled to go with Jitudai, and so I joined them. As we set off that morning to the calls of a stork-billed kingfisher, we passed through a riverine forest patch. As the forest gave way to the grassland, suddenly there was a burst of chital alarm calls. The driver turned off the ignition and we listened, rapt in attention to the direction of the calls. We were possibly around 40 metres away from the source of these calls emanating from the grasslands. The calls continued. Some predator seemed to be out and about. The next moment, another loud sound erupted from the grasslands, ‘Aaaooonghh!’ and it would have looked to the two ladies that both Jitudai and me had been exposed to a mild electric shock. Both of us jumped on top of the railings of the jeep to scan the grassland. There was no question in our mind anymore about what had been spooking those chital. About 15 metres ahead in the grass, we saw movement, expecting to see a terrified chital. Instead, for the briefest second, we saw a large striped head and the swish of a striped tail, as the orange and black of its moving body melded perfectly with the dry elephant grass. All we could see was elephant grass parting as the tiger made its way deeper into the grassland. Once it disappeared, both Jitudai and me chuckled silently, incredulous expressions on both our faces. There was a bit of disappointment for me laced with that chuckle, there had been no shot possible. But a sighting is a sighting, and that deep, reverberating call was going to stay with me as a keepsake even if I could never truly share the awe it inspires. As we moved on, I was still enjoying those treasured moments, though a stubborn part of me still had a finger on the shutter-release button. Suddenly, about 20 metres ahead, I saw a dark shape extricate itself from the grassland onto the road. The driver had not seen it, and Jitudai was still scanning the grasslands on our right. Whatever that animal was, it was going to disappear in a matter of seconds to the grasslands on the left. So on the moving jeep, I stood up on top of the seats, did my best to focus on the dark shape and fired off shots. Hearing the shutter clicking, Jitudai followed my gaze, and in the most hushed yet excited tones possible, exhorted the driver to get closer to the shadow. We reached at the spot just in time to see the tiger disappearing off into the grasslands to the left, and for a second an upturned tail near a Silk cotton tree, a signal it was spray marking before finally disappearing again.
A good way to end my amazing time in Chitwan? My wife had playfully teased me on that very morning as I had left for the safari, ‘Tiger dekh kar aana, nahin toh vaapas mat aana! (Go see a tiger and come, or don’t come back!) Chitwan’s bounty had given me one last treasure to take home with me 🙂
How to get there & Stay:
Chitwan National Park, located in Central Nepal, is most often accessed by road from Kathmandu, a distance of approximately 150 km. Pokhara, another popular tourist destination is located at a similar distance. Chitwan can also be accessed by air, with local flights from Kathmandu to Bharatpur airport, from where depending on the location of your stay, it takes between 1-1.5 hour. It has as many as 9 gates for access, however the one used most commonly is Sauraha, followed by Kasara (also the location of the park HQ) and Meghauli (Bhimle). There are hotels catering to a variety of budgets in Sauraha who will offer packages suited to your needs, inclusive of elephant safaris (only government-owned elephants can enter the park core, all privately-owned elephants can only access the community forests), jungle walks, jeep safaris, elephant bathing sessions etc. For more intimate and luxurious experiences, a combination of new properties and the old ones located formerly in the national park area, have shifted operations just outside the national park close to community forests. Barahi Jungle Lodge, Kasara Resort and Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge are a few examples.
Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Sigma 70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG