Wild for ...Nepal
In Chitwan National Park, former Wanderlust editor Phoebe Smith meets the people successfully and ethically championing wildlife conservation.
There was definitely an elephant in my bedroom. Though I was snuggled under a soft duvet, with clean white sheets and a proper mattress, I could hear the soft padding of a pachyderm just behind me, munching on tree branches. I sat up in the dark, momentarily confused about my wild intruder, only to remember that I wasn’t home in my bedroom at all. I was staying in the Elephant Camp in Tiger Tops Lodges, on the edge of Chitwan National Park.
As such, the ‘walls’ around my bed where merely made of unbleached canvas and mosquito net, creating a safari-style tent that was larger than most hotel rooms. As I turned on the light on the bedside table (yep, this tent had electricity too – not to mention a private bathroom with hot running water), I realised that the elephant wasn’t actually inside at all. Instead she was safely behind my tent, in a huge paddock, meandering past as she fed in the coolness of the evening. I lay back down and drifted off to sleep, soothed by her breathing and relaxed by her gentle, padding footsteps.
Elephants, Chitwan National Park
Say Nepal to most people and they rarely think 'elephant' – or, in fact, wildlife at all. This is one destination famed instead for its mountains. It’s home to the world’s highest peak, and a smattering of other serrated giants yawning well beyond the 8,000-metre mark, and most people come for the hiking.
However, though a keen walker myself, I had wanted to discover the country away from the trekking trails. As such, I travelled 160km west of the bustling capital of Kathmandu. I was bound for Tiger Tops Lodge, a unique collection of locally styled Tharu longhouses and luxury safari-style tents, with a rich heritage spanning over 50 years. It was here where the first image of a tiger was captured using one of the first iterations of a camera trap.
Back when Tiger Tops opened in the 1960s, hunting was still popular, but they soon realised that people would come to watch and shoot animals with cameras rather than guns. And so Tiger Tops became a key player in Nepalese wildlife conservation. And that forward thinking is still happening today. Tiger Tops was the first place in Nepal to ban elephant riding – something that has been popularised in the country for years.
“It was a risk,” explained Marie Jenson when I arrived at the lodge. She was key to working with the mahouts (elephant carers) and Elephant Aid International founder Carole Buckey to make it happen. “It’s such a long-established tradition here, that the locals were very sceptical and understandably worried that they would effectively be out of work.”
The opposite has actually been true. Though tourists riding elephants is not permitted, Tiger Tops came up with a clever alternative. “You walk with them instead,” said Marie, “as though you are a member of the herd.”
The thought of being among these gentle grey giants in their natural habitat was what brought me here. And merely a couple of hours after arriving, having feasted on local lentil dal bhat curry and freshly baked chapattis, I found myself in the national park, amid the jungle, wandering behind my four-legged ‘guide’ Gulab Kali.
As all the elephants at Tiger Tops have been raised being ridden by their keepers, the mahouts are still permitted to do so, for safety. “We found the elephants were confused otherwise,” said Marie, as I watched Gulab Kali’s huge feet gracefully negotiate the terrain. “But chains, bull hooks and sticks are not allowed.”
As Gulab Kali moved, she communicated with the other elephants using a series of subtle grunts and ear flaps. Occasionally she reached up to grab a particularly tasty looking leaf-coated branch, and snacked as she walked – a woman after my own heart.
As we approached a clearing, Gulab Kali stopped dead in her tracks. Suddenly everything was different. She raised her trunk and blew out a loud trumpet into the still air. She stamped her feet and waved her ears fast. “Rhino,” whispered Marie. And we slowly peered around Gulab Kali’s rump to see a greater one-horned example looking straight at us. Sporting giant folds of skin in a series of symmetrical plates, she appeared almost robotic. Myna birds perched on the rhino’s back, cicadas chirped like machinery in the background and her eyes focused on us behind her perfectly pyramidal horn.
Baby rhino and its mother, Chitwan, Nepal
Unlike other rhinos around the world – where numbers are rapidly depleting at an alarming rate – this particular rhino breed is bucking the trend, thanks to military protection against poachers (the south-east Asian market values their horn – which is just made from the same keratin we have in our fingernails and hair – as a medicinal ingredient). Also key is the engagement of local people, who have seen long-term value to entire villages from tourists coming to see rhinos – as opposed to short-term gain for one individual who helps poachers kill them. As such, numbers have swelled from a worrying 408 pre-2010, to a more sustainable 645 in 2017.
And, thanks to my elephant hiking leaders, I was able to get within metres of Chitwan’s celebrity sighting. We watched the rhino for a while, and she was soon joined by a calf who regarded us curiously. I could have stayed for hours, but as the sun began to set it was time to head to the river, where the elephants could wash. Seeing them frolic in the dimming dusk light, without interference from us as we supped sundowners from deckchairs, ended the day in satisfying style.
The next morning, after my night spent surrounded by the herd, we woke early for another walk. This was followed by breakfast, which we made for the elephants – specially hand-wrapped straw ‘sandwiches’, packed with the nutrients they need.
We spent the rest of the day on a 4x4 safari in the park – during which we saw langur monkeys, more paradise flycatcher birds than I ever thought possible, herds of free-roaming chital, samba and muntjac deer, wild boar and even scratchings on the broadleaf trees from Bengal tigers.
Spotted deer, Chitwan National Park
In the afternoon we floated down the river spotting the rare gharial crocodile – another conservation success for Nepal, thanks to a breeding centre that has helped bolster their decreasing numbers – and once more went for a relaxing meander with the elephants.
On the final morning the resident naturalist, Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary (aka DB), woke me early so that I could check out the finale in Nepal’s list of conservation successes. Taking a car and a packed breakfast we headed to a nearby small village and the Vulture Restaurant.
Once much maligned in the country for being unclean, ten years ago these birds were rapidly dying owing to the painkillers given to ailing cows (which cannot be killed due to Hindu beliefs) that poisoned the meat the vultures ate. A bird lover, DB took action by setting up a hospice for cattle, which he then gave non-toxic drugs. When the cattle died, DB would lay them out near a hide he constructed, allowing visitors to witness flocks of these magnificent birds clean the carcass of meat within minutes.
Bearded vulture, Nepal
As the pink light dappled on the long grass, I watched the vultures at work from the comfort of the wooden shelter. I was in awe at their efficiency and grace. “Now locals are proud we have vultures, as they bring people in to the area to see this spectacle,” DB explained. That was certainly a thought very easy to stomach.
Thanks to conservationists like DB and responsible accommodation like Tiger Tops blazing a trail in offering visitors new ways to interact with the jungle creatures on their doorstep, soon to say Nepal and not think wildlife will well and truly be the elephant in the room.
Recommended C&K tours
Majestic Nepal 12 Days & 10 Nights
Explore medieval Kathmandu and stay in the spectacular lakeside setting of Pokhara in the low Himalaya, enjoying gentle walks against the backdrop of the spectacular Annapurna range. Three-night extensions in Chitwan National Park are also available.
Wonders of Nepal 12 Days & 10 Nights
Discover Nepal’s finest sites, scenery and hotels, combining Kathmandu valley’s ancient monuments, and the mountains and valleys of the Himalaya with Chitwan National Park, where rhinos roam.
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