Straddling a floodplain of shifting grassland and sandbanks north of the Koshi Barrage, Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve is the Terai’s smallest park. There are no tigers or rhinos, nor even any jungle, but birdwatchers can have a field day. Koshi Tappu is among the subcontinent’s most important wetlands, and thanks to its location just downstream from one of the few breaches in the Himalayan barrier, it’s an internationally important area for waterfowl and waders.
Some 465 bird species, many of them endangered, have been counted here. Flocks of up to fifty thousand ducks used to be seen in winter and spring, though numbers have been lower in recent years. Most of Nepal’s egrets, storks, ibises, terns and gulls are represented, as are at least five globally threatened species, including the black-necked stork, red-necked falcon, swamp francolin and the impressive lesser adjutant, one of the world’s largest storks. November and December are the optimum months to see winter migrants, while mid-February to early April are best for the late migratory species.
The reserve was established to protect one of the subcontinent’s last surviving herds of wild buffalo, believed to number 150–170 animals. However, there are concerns about the number of domestic buffalo getting in and mating with the wild ones. Mugger crocodiles and many species of turtle and fish are also present, as well as blue bull, wild boar, langur and spotted deer. Before the flood, numerous gangetic dolphins could sometimes be seen playing in the water above or below the barrage.
With no rhinos or large carnivores, Koshi Tappu is comparatively safe to enter on foot with a guide, though wild elephants have been known to maraud in this area. Elephant rides (Rs1000/hr) and canoe trips (from Rs2500) can also be arranged. Between the channels of water, a number of semi-permanent islands of scrub and grassland are the main stomping ground for blue bull. (Tappu means “island” in Nepali, an accurate description of this floodplain in the wet summer months.) Blue bulls are big animals with sizeable horns; they normally run away at the first scent of humans, but you have to make sure not to threaten them or block their escape route.
Nepal’s river dolphins
Nepal’s river dolphins
Nepal’s susu, or gangetic dolphins, belong to one of only three species of freshwater dolphins in the world and, like their cousins in the Amazon and Indus, are highly endangered. A small, isolated population survives in the far west of Nepal, downstream of the Chisapani gorge in the Karnali River. Before the 2008 flood, dolphins used to cavort openly in the outflow of the Koshi Barrage, less than a dozen kilometres from Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve; since then spottings have been less frequent, though three stranded dolphins were rescued by the army and released back into the Koshi in early 2009. However, whether these practically blind animals (they use echo-location), revered in myth as “messenger kings”, return in numbers, or go the way of the now-extinct Yangtze Dolphin, remains to be seen.