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Going on safari at Royal Chitwan National Park


Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park has the power to conjure the romantic South Asian visions of Rudyard Kipling.

Located in Nepal's Terai region near the southern border with India, Chitwan is a natural wonder with huge rhinos, tigers, elephant rides, forest treks, river journeys and more. At one time, princes came to this area to hunt wild game, but now the park strives to preserve its natural heritage.

Chitwan's forests are a blending of tropical and sub-tropical vegetation with about 70 percent consisting of sal tree cover. About 20 percent of the park is grassland hosting some 50 species.

More than 43 species of mammals, 450 species of birds, and 45 species of amphibians and reptiles inhabit Chitwan's 932 square kilometers.

Royal Chitwan National Park is nestled in the Terai arc, a culturally-fascinating area inhabited by the indigenous Tharu people who still preserve many aspects of ancient life. Not far from the park is Lumbini, the birthplace of Prince Siddharta, who became the Buddha and founded one of the world's oldest major religions.

Journeying through the Terai countryside is a wonderful experience as one sees native architecture alongside more modern buildings, colorful costumes and generally happy people.

Arriving at Chitwan, one immediately gets the a feeling out of Jungle Book, and the sounds of forest life abound. Don't expect to find huge herds of animals here as on the plains of Africa. The wildlife in Chitwan tends to be shy of human contact and uses the natural forest to cover for concealment.

However, with a bit of effort you will get some memorable glimpses into the forest ecosystem. You won't have any trouble spotting the numerous birds, monkeys and interesting plant life.

Rhinos and Royal Chitwan National Park
Rhinos at Chitwan, by Hugo van der Flier

Rhino is celebrity at Chitwan

Larger 'star attraction' animals are harder to find but luckily one of the biggest stars, the single-horned Indian Rhinoceros, is the easiest to spot of the bunch. These massive creatures appear nearly as large as an elephant on first sight and they are much bigger than their African cousins.

The Indian rhino may have been one of the inspirations for the medieval unicorn. Don't wear anything bright while rhino watching as this may provoke the animal to charge. The local guides though are experts on the behavior of the park's wildlife and if they sense an aggressive rhino, one trick is to whack a walking stick against an exposed tree root. This simulates the noise made by a walking elephant provoking caution in the rhino.

An elephant is one of the only things that will dissuade these behemoths as they are more than a match for a tiger or lion. They do not attack with their horns though but instead with tusks that are exposed when they open their mouth.

Tigers however have become very elusive and its a lucky camper who is able to see one on the average two to three day tourist stopover. Most likely you will only be able to gaze at tiger paw prints instead.

An elephant safari is the regal way in which to explore the forests. You will likely be able to track down a rhino on elephantback which often leads to a very exciting chase sequence. There is nothing quite like having several elephants "running" through the forest shaking the ground in the process as a picqued rhino cuts a swath through the vegetation. Walking hikes through the forest provide opportunity for more detailed study. Among the other wildlife that you might spot include deer, pythons, wild cattle known as gaur, leopards and if you're unlucky the wild boar. The Nepalese guides say that if you spot a tiger stay still an look it straight in the eye, if a rhino eyes you stay still and make no noise as it has poor vision, but if a wild boar is in the area, run for your life!

Canoes trips on Chitwan's beautiful rivers are serene, but watch out for the crocodiles! Unlike the polluted streams and rivers of Katmandu, the waterways here are relatively pristine capturing the massive runoff from the Himalayas and Mahabharata mountains.

Accommodations in Chitwan range from sparse tent safaris with outhhouses and middle-range establishments like the Royal Park Hotel to luxurious safari lodges. The park is about four or five hours along a spectacular mountain route from either Katmandu or Pokhara.

A visit to Chitwan is a return to nature at its mystical finest. A regal experience that etches deeply into one's memory.

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