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Safari on a budget: Tracking tigers and rhinos in southern Nepal
The tigers lurked just out of sight. As we ambled through the dense Nepalese brush atop a lumbering elephant, we steadied our gaze for the minutiae of the jungle. We inspected the crevices of our visibility, focusing near and far, eager to catch glimpses of wild creatures doing wild things. Shifting left and right with each elephantine step, we clutched our splintery wooden seats perched precariously on the back of the world's largest land mammal, looking for the world's most elusive - the Royal Bengal Tiger.
We caught muddy rhinos bathing in shadowy watering holes. Peacocks strutted out and disappeared in a flash of color to the other side of our path. Monkeys swung above our heads. A Samba deer stopped to stare at us just feet from our shifting perch, skittishly retreating when our elephant grabbed a bundle of branches and effortlessly snapped them to the ground with his powerful trunk to clear our path. The tigers were illusory, hidden from our sight. Our mahout cackled, "It is okay if you no see tiger. But just remember tiger sees you."
The Chitwan jungle of Nepal is one of the world's largest havens for tigers, and the locals truly fear the man-eating feline. And for good reason, almost ten people are killed annually. Ten years ago, a single Bengal Tiger went on a rampage, killing six in just a weeks time. Also, in an unlikely tale seemed plucked from the annals of fiction, a single tiger called the Champawat Tigress killed 436 Nepalese and Indians in the early 20th century. The beast was eventually tracked and killed by big game hunter Jim Corbett. Appropriately, a divergences of opinions form over the predatory creature. To the excited traveler, a glimpse of the endangered feline is a paramount safari experience. The locals, justifiably, feel differently about it.
When we met our local guide, we asked the question, "Will we see tigers today?"
His buzzkill response -- "hopefully no."
What is Chitwan?
While most travelers' conception of Nepal involves treacherous snow-capped peaks and friendly Sherpas, Nepal's southern region provides a range of low altitude outdoor activities such as cycling, rafting, and embarking on safari. At the heart of the southern Nepal experience is Chitwan National Park - the original Nepalese national park and home to a wide range of birds, mammals, and reptiles.
The term Chitwan means "heart of the forest," and the Chitwan National Park lives up to this billing. Established as a world heritage site in 1984, the jungles of Chitwan are straight out of Kipling's Jungle Book - stocked with tigers, monkeys, sloth bears, leopards, and lots of rhinos. The park originally served as a gaming reserve for Nepal's feudal elite. The ruling class would camp out in the reserve during the winter months, sniping the bounty of the forest. As sensibilities shifted in the 20th century, the park was re-purposed as a nature preserve.
Safari Options and Experiences
While the tiger is in the back of everyone's mind in Chitwan, the elephant is front and center in many activities. On safari, it is possible to climb onto the back of a pachyderm, providing better nature viewing opportunities from the vantage point atop the towering giant. Searching for tigers and other wildlife on elephant is perfect for a number of reasons: the other animals do not feel threatened by the elephant's presence, the height allows views over the tall grass of the Chitwan plains, and the elephant can make its own path by breaking branches and powerfully forging ahead through dense jungle. Also, riding elephants -- very cool.
Elephant safaris cost around $17 per person, and the Chitwan park permit costs about $5 per day. Afterward, pay just $6 for the opportunity to hand-wash a hard working elephant with scrubbing stones in the cool river outside of Sapana lodge. It is an unbelievably resonant experience that costs about the same as a morning matinee in the states.
For brave jungle travelers, a nature walk is an exciting way to spend a day. A local guide provides direction, information about plants and animals, as well as "defense." The "defense" is a very meager stick that will cease to inspire any legitimate feelings of safety. The possibility of being charged at by rhinos or trampled by wild bull elephants will not be quieted by the guide's stick, but plenty of trees provide an ample measure of safety in retreat, provided you can climb well. During our stay, a young American couple angered a male rhinoceros and he charged at them, forcing them to climb a nearby tree and stay put until he tired of the endeavor. A nature walk costs around $23 for a full day of trekking. Expect to see a few rhinos, wild elephants, gharials, crocodiles, monkeys, and birds - lots of birds.
For around $14, travelers can also take a dugout canoe down the Rapti River, observing wildlife such as marsh muggers and kingfishers along the banks en route to the Sauraha elephant breeding center. The elephant breeding center is filled with elephants of all ages, and if you are lucky, maybe a baby elephant will be present. The elephants are all owned by the government of Nepal.
Several other awesome activities exist, check here for details and pricing.
While African safaris easily scale into the five digit range, a safari in Nepal can be done with budgetary finesse. Lodging can be found for just $25 - $40 per night at mindful and relaxing resorts such as Sapana Lodge. Local park fees are just $5 per day. Meals should never cost more than a few dollars. Sapana Lodge is a great choice in Chitwan because it is affordable, and they assist the local Tharu community with micro-finance initiatives and employment. Sapana encourages their guests to explore the cultural aspect of Chitwan by visiting villages and interacting with the indigenous Tharu settlers of southern Nepal. Living in these wetlands for a very long time, the Tharu have built up a scientifically baffling resistance to malaria.
There are several lodges within the Chitwan National Park boundaries as well, such as Chitwan Jungle Lodge.
Tigers and company
Chitwan is home to a number of large mammals, including tigers, clouded leopards, binturongs, elephants, rhinos, and even honey badgers. When visiting the park, it is all but guaranteed that travelers will witness wild rhinos and other animals, but tigers are tough to track down. With that said, tiger sightings occur often enough, and the odds of viewing one are better than in other tiger hot spots such as Laos or Sumatra. The best time to search for tigers is in the Spring months when the elephant grass has been cut short by villagers.
Unfortunately, during my summer expedition, no tigers were seen over a three day period. The day before my arrival, a Singaporean couple were creeping through the jungle in the early morning light on the back of an elephant. As the elephant crashed through an especially dense thicket, a tiger slowly stalked across their path. I returned to this story for hope throughout my stay, and now its gravity tugs me towards the subcontinent to track tigers again.
How to get there
Chitwan National Park is located just four hours south from Kathmandu in the Terai region. From Kathmandu, it is a thrilling ride, as all commutes in Nepal tend to be, and provides stunning vistas around nearly every bend in the road. Reaching Chitwan by tourist bus from Nepal's capital costs around $6, and an A/C private car will cost at minimum $80.
To reach Nepal, one must first land in the capital city of Kathmandu. Flying to Kathmandu is cheap from locations such as Dubai and New Delhi on Fly Dubai and Air India respectively. Also, flights from Bangkok exist on Thai Airways, though they are not as budget conscious.
All photography by Justin Delaney