By LB THAPA, lately in Sauraha, Chitwan, FOR ONTOTHEROAD.COM

My recent itinerary was a tour from Pokhara to Lumbini and Chitwan National Park on motorbike. After having spent two days in Lumbini, I directly headed to Chitwan National Park. From Bhairawa I took a shortcut route to catch the main highway to reach Chitwan National Park.

After a bumpy motorbike riding from Pokhara to Butwal, a smooth ride from Butwal up to Chitwan National Park was a pleasant experience. Right before entering Chitwan National Park, there was a large hoarding board with some information about the Park. At the bottom of the board, there was a large arrow showing the way to Chitwan National Park. Within a few minutes, I found myself in Sauraha. I lodged at a hotel from where I could see a beautiful view of the Rapti River. The Sun was setting and its glow appeared serene and aesthetically beautiful.

There was a time when Chitwan National Park was a favorite hunting ground for Nepal’s ruling class, who would stay in the forest and shoot tigers, rhinos, leopards and sloth bears as a part of their adventurous hobby. Moreover, the Ranas would invite royalty from Europe and princely states of India to participate in days or sometimes, even months’ long hunting trips.

Tourists relax on the bank of the Rapti River. Photo: LB Thapa

Things changed and in 1973, Chitwan National Park officially declared the first national park of the country. It was granted the status of a World Heritage Site in 1984. It covers an area of 932 km2 of Chitwan district, which lies between the Narayani and Rapti rivers to the north and the Reu River and Nepal-India international border in the south. Chitwan National Park is best known for one horned rhino but there are tigers, elephants, crocodiles and myriad species of birds.

As far as its vegetation is concerned, about 70% land of Chitwan National Park is covered with Saal trees and 20% land is covered with grasslands. The Park is also known for 50 different types of grasses, many of them are not available in other parts of the country. One popular grass is Elephant Grass, which grows as tall as 8m. Among others, the park is the home to more than 50 mammal species, over 525 birds and 55 amphibians and reptiles. Four horned antelope, Pangolin, Golden monitor lizard, Python, Giant hornbill, Black stork, and White stork are also the proud assets of the Park.  

In fact, the entire area of Chitwan National Park is suitable for different species, but alluvial flood plains provide an ideal habitat for the great one-horned rhinos. Not only rhinos but Bengal tigers are also thriving in Chitwan National Park. The population of tigers and rhinos has been regularly increasing in Chitwan National Park. In 1980, there were only 300 Rhinos, but this number further increased to 503 in 2011. Similarly, there were only 40 tigers in 1980s but this number reached to 125 in 2010.

It is good to know that Nepal Army has taken up cudgels in their hands for protecting the wildlife of Chitwan National Park since 1975. Nepal Army has been doing remarkable job to keep poachers away from the jungle and therefore wildlife and natural resources are safe and secured. Efforts have been made to bring local people’s involvement in conservation and the benefits are given to people living in the buffer zone. In brief, it can be said that Chitwan National Park has become an example of Government-Community partnership in biodiversity conservation.

Local handicrafts are much popular among the tourists at Sauraha, the main tourist town in Chitwan National Park. Clothes made on handlooms and several wood & bamboo items are always the first choice of tourists. In addition, Mirgakunj Consumers Committee, Chitwan (MCC) has been encouraging local artisans by giving them training from the professionals. Many of these artisans work hard to hone their skill for making quality wooden rhinos and elephants.

 “The training has taught us how to make well crafted rhinos and elephants. However, finishing is the matter. For that, it demands years of hard work and patience to bring quality into the work. Wooden rhinos and elephants are very popular among the tourists in Sauraha. Many Nepali and foreign tourists buy those wooden rhinos and elephants at good price”, said Indra Karmacharya, a local artisan in Sauraha.

Speaking with this scribe, Karma Lama, a senior artisan and the owner of Natural Handicraft Shop, said: “I have all kinds of rhinos and elephants—smaller one to big one. Last year I sold one big wooden rhino at Rs.45,000 to a German tourist. Mostly Nepali visitors purchase smaller rhinos and elephants whereas foreigners prefer to buy big ones”. Mr.Lama has been working as a local artisan for the last 25 years in Sauraha.  

Elephant riding is the main attraction of Chitwan National Park. Majority visitors to Chitwan National Park never fail an elephant ride. However, the visitors can also go for boating along the Rapti River, or a Jeep ride that meanders through the Park can also bring lots of excitement for the tourists. This scribe too had a wonderful time to have an elephant ride. A ticket has to be bought at Rs.1400 and only four persons are allowed to sit on the back of the elephant at a time. The elephant stand is about 3km away from the main tourist bazaar. There are two stands from where tourists can board on the back of the elephant. The mahout helps the tourists to sit properly so that four passengers can sit comfortably.

The mahout asks the passengers to keep the corner pole between their two thighs and hold the upper bar strongly. I was with the three Chinese passengers. I tried to speak with them but they replied in Chinese, then I courteously said ‘Ni how ma’ with an enigmatic smile on my face. Within ten minutes of ride, we reached an open ground in the dense forest. There were about four more elephants with their passengers.

The elephants began grazing in the green grass in a group—we waited for about 15 minutes. When asked our mahout said, “We are waiting for a phone call from our friends who are already inside the jungle. They will inform us as soon as they spot rhinos”. Even after 20 minutes of waiting, they received no phone call from other mahouts. Then all the mahouts decided to march into the forest.

The forest was extremely dense. “Bend your heads low and protect your face from the branches of trees,” instructed our mahout. The elephant took us deep inside the jungle. There was not a fixed path for the elephants. The elephant would walk wherever mahout directed. Though we tried our best, it was extremely difficult to avoid those nasty branches and overgrown bushes. I got some bruises on my hands and my Chinese co passengers too. However, the excitement and adrenalin rush made us feel no pain from those bruises. However, even after spending over one and half hours in the forest, we could not see a single tiger or a rhino; but yes, we saw several other animals and many beautiful birds, which we had never seen before.

We returned to the same grassy land where four elephants had assembled. We requested the mahout to let the elephant eat grass so that we could take pictures of a heard of beautiful deer—he agreed. I was so surprised when mahout said that each adult elephant cost nearly seven to ten million rupees. “These elephants are very expensive and there are well trained people to take care of them. We need to provide them healthy foods rich with various minerals. Most of these elephants are purchased from India,” added the mahout.

Grappling with problems

Elephant stand at Chitwan National Park. Photo: LB Thapa
A tourist walks along the Rapti river. Photo: LB Thapa

While talking with different tourism entrepreneurs in Sauraha, I found anger and disappointment among them due to lackluster attitude of the government by not constructing Narayanghat-Mugling highway road. Due to extremely bad condition of the road, many foreign and Nepali tourists are not going to Chitwan National Park. They go to Pokhara and other places instead. This scribe did go through the road and I can tell the world about the horrible experience I had. The clouds of dust were so thick that even in afternoon all vehicles had switched on their headlights, as the visibility was extremely poor. After having reached Mugling, I vowed not to travel by the same road until it was blacktopped. I can better understand why the flow of tourists to Chitwan National Park has plummeted so drastically.

However, now the road has been blacktopped and traffic has become normal. This has given a reason for the tourism entrepreneurs to smile.

One more enemy of the Park is pollution. Increasing amount of pollution in the Narayani River has adversely affected the aquatic ecosystem of Chitwan National Park. Many industries dump their waste in the Narayani and so are true with residential houses, which produce tons of garbage and throw in the river.  

One of the most serious issues with the Park is poaching. Poaching has always posed a serious threat to wildlife in Chitwan National Park. Every possible step should be taken to curb the cases of poaching and stealing of timber—Chitwan is the home for precious saal trees. Poachers and timber thieves must receive strict punishment including confiscating their property. This will make them think twice before committing such crimes. “Poachers and timber thieves develop their contact with the corrupt leaders and high-ranking officials and kill endangered species to smuggle out their body parts. Poachers are only tiny fishes; the sharks are roaming free and they are never arrested. Even if they are arrested, they are let off cheaply”, said one of the Park authorities on condition of anonymity.

The Park authority and the local people must cooperate with each other for the safety and security of wildlife and timber. In the meantime, the Park authority should pay compensation on the damage of crops and livestock at the earliest possible. When this scribe spoke with the local people of Meghauli, they said that the compensation they receive for the loss of their cattle and crops is too little and too late.

Yet another aspect of this problem is Human-wildlife conflict. Many people live in the buffer zone of Chitwan National Park, which spreads around 750 km2. Local people grow seasonal vegetables and crops. To meet their basic needs they also raise livestock. Many times rhinos, elephants and tigers encroach into human settlements and wreck havoc. At times when tigers and leopards do not get enough food in the wild, they turn to cattle and sometimes on human beings as well. Meghauli lies at the closest proximity of the Park. As a result, the village is more likely to receive wildlife attacks. This village shares 25km of its border with Chitwan National Park. In the past 20 years, about 30 tigers have killed around one hundred people in an area of 766 square kilometers. This is an alarming situation and the concerned Park authority must find a concrete solution than some patch ups.

If the Park and the local people have healthy relationship, incidences of poaching and stealing timber can permanently be stopped. Without direct involvement of the local people, wildlife and timber can never be safe and secured in Chitwan National Park.

LB Thapa, the blogger

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