A tour to Nepal's royal chitwan national park

Experience wildlife in chitwan national park.

It was almost midnight.

The jungle around us was pitch-black.

Above our heads, the tall trees obscured the starry sky.

To see where we were going, we kept our faint torch close to the ground.

We were looking for a tiger!

But as we stumbled along in the dark, a fearful thought kept popping into my mind—was the tiger also looking for us?

To see some of Nepal’s treasured and endangered animals in their natural habitat, my wife and I had come from Calcutta, India, to Tiger Tops, a jungle lodge in Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park.

This is a 360-square-mile [932 sq km] reservation of grassland and beautiful forests in the northern reaches of the Terai, among the foothills of the great Himalayas.

Getting to tiger tops

The journey was an adventure in itself.

First we flew from Calcutta to Kathmandu, the capital of the mountainous kingdom of Nepal.

The flight offered us a spectacular view of the towering peaks of the Himalayas, including the 29,028-foot [8,848 m] Mount Everest.

Kathmandu—the name evokes a sense of what is ancient and remote.

So we were surprised to find Western-style buildings standing along traditional, narrow, winding streets.

Ancient bazaars with their handcrafted goods vie with arcades selling imported perfumes, tinned goods, and stereos. It is a changing but still fascinating city.

At the Kathmandu airport, we boarded a 19-seat plane for Chitwan Valley.

After a 30-minute flight through lofty mountains with terraced slopes and deep valleys, we landed in Meghauli on a grass field, apparently one of the world’s smallest airfields.

But the journey had not ended yet.

Via Land-Rovers and dugout canoe, we came to a small clearing.

Transportation by canoe.

To our surprise, six huge elephants emerged from the tall grass to meet us.

This was to be our transportation for the rest of our journey to the jungle lodge.

Sitting on the padded platforms on the elephants, we found the gentle, steady rhythm of the elephant walk a real contrast to all the different modes of transportation we had used to get this far.

Transportation by means of elephant.

At last we arrived at Tiger Tops.

It was a two-level cane structure with thatched roof, standing on 12-foot [3.5 m] stilts.

Our rooms were pleasantly furnished.

Just as we were noticing a sign in the room that said: “Don’t leave food out for unwanted guests,” we heard a thumping sound from outside.

The “guests” were several langur monkeys scrambling along our veranda, looking for handouts.

Meeting the elephants

At the nearby elephant camp, our naturalist instructor explained the vital role the elephants had in the lodge operation.

The camp maintains a herd of 12 elephants for transportation.

Camp elephants taking a bath.

Ten of them are females as they are more gentle than the males.

Each elephant eats 500 pounds [230 kg] of fodder and drinks more than 50 gallons [200 liters] of water daily.

The cost of maintaining one elephant comes to $2,500, U.S. a year, and an elephant lives 65 years, on the average.

This gives real meaning to the term “white elephant.”

Since white elephants were considered holy, they could not be put to work but would become a liability.

Thus, an ancient king could easily ruin a minister not in his favor by giving him a white elephant.

We were told that the elephant can be trained by its mahout, or keeper, to obey a number of verbal commands and other signals.

To move forward, for example, the mahout sitting on its back will prod his toes behind the elephant’s ears, and to make the elephant move back, he will dig his heels into the animal’s shoulders.

Other interesting and fun commands are like giving you a wash.

An elephant giving tourists a wash using it's trunk.

It takes five to eight years to train an elephant thoroughly; it then becomes very sensitive to such commands and responds quickly in spite of its four-and-a-half-ton frame.

In search of rhino

A rhino at  Royal Chitwan National Park.

The great Indian one-horned rhinoceros is found in only one location in the world—the area between Nepal and the territory of Assam in India.

To get a glimpse of this rare animal, we set out in a caravan of elephants, with two or three persons sitting atop each animal.

The elephants formed a single file, each gently plodding along in the steps of the one in front.

For years the habitat of the rhino was threatened by widespread cultivation of the Terai grasslands and by government-sponsored malaria-eradication programs.

Only in the last two decades or so had conservation efforts been put forth to stabilize the situation.

Now, about 300 of the estimated 1,000 one-horned rhino left in the Indian subcontinent roam in the Chitwan Valley swamplands.

Soon our lead elephant headed straight into a wall of elephant grass that towered well over our heads.

We began to feel the excitement of the chase.

Through the grass we could hear one mahout calling excitedly to the other.

Suddenly, the elephant alongside us raised its trunk and issued a piercing blast, and our animal reacted by swerving to one side.

Amid all the commotion, a rhino dashed out of the grass, brushed past us, and disappeared into the grass ahead.

Quickly, we rushed forward to get a further glimpse of the animal.

As the grass cleared, there, in full view, was a baby rhino scurrying to keep up with its frantic mother. Together they vanished into the safety of the trees.

Picture of mother and baby rhino.

We were glad that the rhino chose to run away from us.

For even though an elephant can usually handle a tiger, it is cautious with this third-largest land animal.

When provoked, the rhino will fight furiously either with its foot-long [30 cm] horn or with its long, sharp lower tusk, which can cut the underside of the elephant like a scalpel.

Despite its short legs, the rhino can match a horse in speed for short distances.

This, coupled with its weight, makes the rhino a formidable enemy.

Tiger call

Picture of a Bengali tiger.

It was after ten-thirty one evening, and nearly everyone was in bed.

Suddenly the silence of the night was broken by rushing footsteps and shouting.

A tiger had been sighted!

Three of us along with two Gurkha escorts dashed off into the darkness.

We walked about a quarter of a mile.

Then we were told to remove our shoes, for they would create a vibration that a tiger is sensitive to.

Not used to being barefoot, that last part of the walk was silent agony for us.

We were also not allowed to talk, whisper, cough, or sneeze.

Was the tiger really in front of us, or eyeing us from behind?

What had we got ourselves into?

Our guide signaled us to stop.

We listened but could hear nothing in the dark, still night.

By the light of our faint torch, we inched forward until we found we were moving along a seven-foot-high [2 m] thatched partition.

When we came to a right-hand turn, we were motioned to stop and position ourselves behind cutouts in the partition.

We stood as still as we could and listened.

Yes, we could hear the tiger devouring its prey, and it sounded very close—too close!

Suddenly powerful lights came on, and there it was, a Royal Bengal tiger!

He was just about 40 paces from us.

Instinctively, I tensed, not knowing what his reaction to our intrusion would be.

But to my surprise, there was no response from the tiger.

The lights did not disturb him.

Yet I was told that if we were to click our cameras, he would be gone.

What a beauty!

There he lay beside his kill, a young buffalo.

His powerful body, over nine feet [3 m] long to the tip of the tail, was full and rounded, probably weighing about 450 pounds [200 kg].

Markings of white, black, and golden orange stood out vividly.

His obvious strength would lend support to the claims made by some that the tiger is more powerful than the lion.

Using our binoculars, we were able to get a close-up look at his beautiful head and body.

Truly one of the world’s most magnificent animals!

It was worth every bit of the effort to see the famed Royal Bengal tiger.

My impression had always been that the tiger is an inherently aggressive animal that will attack at the mere sight of man.

But as I was finding out, the opposite is true.

Unless provoked, it is normally shy and mild-tempered.

When it comes across a human, it usually runs away after giving the situation a brief look-over.

Wildlife photographers report that they have come within 10 to 15 feet [3-5 m] of a tiger in its natural habitat, only to be stopped by a warning growl.

This is also the signal to back off and slowly withdraw. 

The tiger may follow until the intruder has gone beyond the boundary of its territory.

Fond Memories

The next morning we had another urgent call:

“Get ready quickly for takeoff!”

Automatically I envisioned the hustle and bustle of getting to the airport in a taxi.

Only this time our taxi was an elephant.

Soon, our lovely lodge, our gentle elephants, our feline friend, our meandering river, were all behind us.

But with us we carried away memorable pictures of the way life is for these magnificent animals of the wild.