Whether CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK has been blessed or cursed by its own riches is an open question. The coexistence of the valley’s people and wildlife has rarely been easy or harmonious, even before the creation of the national park. In the era of the trigger-happy maharajas, the relationship was at least simple: when Jang Bahadur Rana overthrew the Shah dynasty in 1846, one of his first actions was to make Chitwan a private hunting reserve. The following century saw some truly hideous hunts – during an eleven-day shoot in 1911, a visiting King George V killed 39 tigers and 18 rhinos.
Still, the Ranas’ patronage afforded Chitwan a degree of protection, as did malaria. But in the early 1950s, the Ranas were thrown out, the monarchy was restored, and the new government launched its malaria-control programme. Settlers poured in and poaching went unpoliced – rhinos, whose horns were (and still are) valued for Chinese medicine and Yemeni knife handles, were especially hard hit. By 1960, the human population of the valley had trebled to one hundred thousand, while the number of rhinos had plummeted from one thousand to two hundred. With the Asian one-horned rhino on the verge of extinction, Nepal emerged as an unlikely hero in one of conservation’s finest hours. In 1962, Chitwan was set aside as a rhino sanctuary (becoming Nepal’s first national park in 1973); and, despite the endless hype about tigers, rhinos are Chitwan’s biggest attraction and its greatest triumph. Chitwan now boasts around 508 rhinos, and the park authorities have felt confident enough to relocate some to Bardia National Park. A number were killed by poachers during the conflict but now the soldiers are back at their posts in the park the problem has declined (though it has not been eradicated).
There are thought to be around 122 tigers in the park. Chitwan also supports at least four hundred gaur (Indian bison) and provides a part-time home to as many as 45 wild elephants, who roam between here and India. Altogether, 56 mammalian species are found in the park, including sloth bear, leopard, langur and four kinds of deer. Chitwan is also Nepal’s most important sanctuary for birds, with more than five hundred species recorded, and there are also two types of crocodile and more than one hundred and fifty types of butterfly.
Visitors can only enter the national park accompanied by a guide, and guides for activities such as jungle walks, elephant rides, canoe trips and jeep safaris vie for your attention once you arrive in the vicinity of the park. Note, however, that promises of “safari adventure” in Chitwan can be misleading. While the park’s wildlife is astoundingly concentrated, the dense vegetation doesn’t allow the easy sightings you get in the savannas of Africa (especially in autumn, when the grass is high). Many guides assume everyone wants to see only tigers and rhinos, but there are any number of birds and other animals to spot which the typical safari package may not cover, not to mention the many different ways simply to experience the luxuriant, teeming jungle: elephant rides, jeep tours, canoe trips and jungle walks each give a different slant.