A procession of bicycle-toting locals crossing the Rapti at dusk, wading or being ferried across the river before disappearing into the trees of the national park on the far side, was once a familiar Sauraha scene.
In the late 1990s, more than 20,000 people lived within the park boundaries, mainly in Padampur, the area immediately opposite Sauraha. Inevitably, villagers were forced to compete with the park’s animal population for forest resources and the ever-increasing number of wild animals would regularly raid farmers’ crops, causing widespread damage and even deaths. The situation became increasingly unsustainable, and the government finally decided to relocate Padampur’s villagers from the park itself to Saguntole, around 10km north of the national park, which extends from Bis Hajaar Tal towards the hills of the Mahabharat Lekh. This programme has now left Chitwan itself free of human settlement.
This has inevitably raised troubling issues. Foremost is that people have been forced to leave their homes to make way for animals and the tourists who come to see them. A great deal of knowledge, and the cultural beliefs that go with it, has been, if not lost, then undoubtedly threatened. There are concerns about water supply in Saguntole and allegations of corruption surround the villagers’ compensation payments. The move could also accelerate the destruction of a vital wildlife corridor, one of the few that still connects the plains and the hills.