Into the Mist

I walk side-by-side with Danny through the fields of shoulder-high grass, wisped with fog. “There they are!” Danny exclaims. Emerging through the mist, three elephants trod down the hill, their heavy hooves stirring up dust in their wake. I stop and extend a hand to greet the gentle creatures, diminished by their stature. Slowly, I fall in step beside the elephants, joining them on their morning eating ritual. Besides these elephants, there are currently 600 rhinos and 98 tigers in Chitwan, making it a sanctuary for the Indian rhino, Bengal tiger, and other wildlife. 

History of Tiger Tops and Eco-Tourism

I arrive at Tharu Lodge on a sunny afternoon in early December. An eco-friendly affiliate of Tiger Tops tourism company, Tharu is situated on the edge of Chitwan National Park in central Nepal. Tiger Tops is the leading sustainable tourism company in Nepal and the oldest wildlife conservation company in South Asia. Upon my arrival I am met by Danny, Tharu’s longest working employee, who serves as my guide and host for the duration of my stay.   

woman petting elephant

Soon after my arrival, Danny and I walk to the adjacent camp to meet the elephants. Tiger Tops’ commitment to elephant welfare is the focal point of their tourism-based conservation. In 2015, they retired all of their elephants from elephant-back safaris in order to reduce the stress it caused the herd of elephants in encountering wildlife in an unnatural way. 

Responsible tourism is at the heart of Tiger Tops’ ethos of protecting wildlife in Chitwan. Since 1964, they have worked alongside the Nepalese government to monitor the protection of wildlife in Nepal and implement educational policies in neighboring communities. Tiger Tops has established lodges in two of Nepal’s national parks: Tharu Lodge in Chitwan and Karnali Lodge in Bardia National Park. Tharu and Karnali offer visitors a minimally invasive way to experience and learn about wildlife in Nepal. 

elephant holding grass bundle in its trunk

Set on an expansive piece of property, the mud buildings of Tharu Lodge were created by Nepali craftsmen using locally sourced materials. The exterior and interior of the buildings draw inspiration from indigenous design. Efforts to minimize their ecological footprint is evident in their use of solar power throughout the facilities. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs are grown onsite at organic farms for use in the carefully crafted meals on offer at Tharu and Karnali Lodges.  

The Boat Safari and a History of Chitwan National Park

Wrapped in warm scarves on what is a chilly first morning in Chitwan, I head to the riverfront to explore the jungle by boat. The road from Tharu weaves through villages of crop fields and cone-shaped huts before reaching the Narayani River. A wooden boat awaits us at the jungle’s edge, a canopy of muted greens and beiges coated in mist.

Our captain navigates the boat down the serene waterway, cutting through the wide and quiet plains of Chitwan. Flocks of birds fly overhead time and again, their ebony and emerald feathers flashing through the sky. “Look! You see these birds?” Danny asks. “They fly here every winter from Siberia in search of warmer weather.” 

Until the 1950’s, the Chitwan jungle, abundant in wildlife, was accessible only by foot. During this period, the only visitors were big game hunters who came and camped for a few months every year to hunt rhinos, tigers, and leopards. Around the same time, farmers began to move into Chitwan Valley in search of arable land. As the land became settled, poaching became widespread, endangering many of the animal species and diminishing the expanse of the forest.

Chitwan National Park was officially established in 1973, becoming the first national park in Nepal. After it achieved national park status, stringent efforts to protect the diverse ecosystem and wildlife were implemented. In 1996, a buffer zone inclusive of forests and private lands was created, which expanded the protection area of the park and subsequently that of the species. Checkpoints have continued to be added to the park to protect against poachers, all effectively making this a sanctuary for the bengal tiger.

Along sand barges and the banks of the river, I see crocodile after crocodile lazily basking in the sun. “There are two types of crocodiles in the park,” Danny explains. “There is the fish-eating Gharial crocodile and the Marsh Mugger.” I had never thought about the different sub-species of crocodiles before, categorizing them all in the same class of jagged-toothed reptiles to avoid at all costs.

Then, Danny exclaims and points to the river’s edge. “Look, do you see that? Tigers were here last night.” We climb out of the boat and carefully follow a set of tracks imprinted on the sandy bank. These tracks belong to the elusive and notoriously shy Bengal tiger, which primarily comes out at night to hunt and avoid people, making them difficult to spot in person. Even though we don’t see one, there is a natural exhilaration that comes from walking the same path knowing tigers were there just hours earlier. 

A Jeep Safari and a Searching for Tigers 

Later that afternoon I join Danny and a wildlife guide in one of the lodge’s restored, open-top Land Rovers. As the open plains turn into thick jungle, I imagine tigers lurking behind the tall blades of grass.

Tiger tracks on the banks of the Narayani River.

Conservation has never been so important for those tigers, or the locals who live alongside them at jungle’s edge. Tigers Tops routinely involve the local community in protection and preservation efforts, with a majority of employees at Tharu Lodge hired directly from the surrounding area. Among other initiatives, the company has built schools and provided health services to these populations.

We drive for another hour or two and spot all four of the deer species within Chitwan: sambar, spotted deer, barking deer, and hog deer. The gentle, hooved mammals gracefully leap into the forest as we approach, intimidated by the sight and sound of the vehicle. I watch as the white-furred and stocky rhesus macaques swing through the trees, their babies balancing on branches. 

Species numbers have increased significantly in Chitwan over the years after unabated poaching that started under Mao. Currently, there are 600 rhinos and 98 tigers in Chitwan National Park, an accomplishment in part due to the efforts of Tiger Tops, who track these numbers and share them with the government. 

“Tigers frequent this spot!” Danny announces as the vehicle stops again. Climbing out to wander through an open jungle in tiger territory does something to stir my nerves. Nonetheless, I walk through the clearing with my eyes peeled, determined to spot this striped cat I have dreamt of seeing in the wild for years, expecting to lock eyes with one at any moment. 

Alas, our luck eludes us with the tigers yet again. However, there is never a wasted day spent exploring the vast offerings of the jungle, abundant in much more than just big cats. 

Elephant Watching

Most of my free time is spent joining the elephants on their activities. Each elephant at Tharu Lodge has an expansive area to wander around, has two keepers to look after them, and are walked and fed regularly. 

Elephants are highly social creatures and thrive off of interactions with people. Tiger Tops has developed a way for guests to interact with the elephants to maintain the importance of the human-elephant bond without placing stress on the elephants. Guests have the opportunity to spend time with the elephants throughout their daily rituals — from morning grass cutting and feeding, to afternoon jungle walks and river baths. Through this approach, Tiger Tops has fostered a unique and conscious means for people to connect with and learn about elephants in their natural habitat.

One morning, I fold grain, salt, and brown sugar into banana leaves as the gentle giants look on. Upon finishing, I offer them the elephant sandwiches, which they eagerly accept with their trunks. On another morning, I join them for grass cutting. A few of the elephants walk through a village to fields where grass is cut for their meals while they graze on the crops. The elephants bathe in the nearby river and help load bundles of grass onto their backs with their trunks.

The emotional and cognitive intelligence of elephants is reflected in their every move, in their attentiveness to people, in the expression in their eyes. The time spent in their presence is at once educational and humbling.

Jungle Walks

On my final afternoon at Tharu, I join Chunchun Kali and Champa Kali, two of Tharu’s female elephants, on a walk through the jungle. Following in their heavy footsteps, I walk through the neighboring village and past brilliant yellow fields ablaze with blossoming mustard seed. As we cross the river and enter the densely green forest, grass crunches beneath our feet. 

Chunchun and Champa lead the way. We traverse hills, thick bush, and open plains, stopping to graze now and then. Danny is on the lookout for other creatures as we continue our journey. Sure enough, before too long, we spot them. A few meters away, two grey mounds of leathery skin rise above the bush. Their bodies are partially camouflaged, though their unmistakable horns protrude from behind tall blades of grass.

The elusive Indian Rhino.

This is one of the only places in the world where the Indian rhino exists in the wild. Sedentary for some time, the two rhinoceroses slowly turn and saunter through the field. Although they can charge quickly, we are safe in the presence of the elephants, signaling to the rhinos that we are not a threat. With approximately 3,600 left in the wild, Indian rhinos are almost as difficult to spot as the Bengal tiger. Spotting two of these prehistoric-looking creatures is the perfect way to conclude my time spent in Chitwan, reiterating the slow but steady increase of endangered species in the wild and the enduring importance of conservation and sustainable tourism.

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