Carved out of a settled area, Royal Chitwan National Park a troubling relationship with locals. Tigers from the park frequently kill livestock on nearby farms, while rhinos and other animals damage crops. Even worse, rhinos and tigers kill three to five local people every year, which is likely to escalate as settlements crowd closer to park boundaries.
Think of Nepal and you picture Himalayan peaks, right? Well, that’s not all there is to Nepal. Along the Indian border in the south-west, Nepal spills into the flat Ganges flood-plain, which used to make a supremely effective barrier—back in the days before DDT, nobody wanted to live in these swampy, malarial lowlands. And that was just fine with the one-horned Asian rhinoceros. As many as 2,000 browsed around here in relative peace and quiet.
Then between 1950 and 1960, new insecticides rid the Ganges plains of mosquitoes. The population tripled, the forest was slashed in half, and crops planted in its place. Habitat destruction wasn’t the only problem—rhinos were also being poached out of existence, hunted for their horns, which are believed to have magical properties. Suddenly there were only 100 rhinos left.
That’s when the government stepped in, taking 932 sq. km (360 sq. miles) of the former hunting grounds of the Nepali Ranas, expelling 22,000 residents, and turning it into Royal Chitwan National Park. Nobody dared poaching rhinos here—not with the Royal Nepalese Army patrolling its borders. Today there are about 400 Asian rhinos at Chitwan, a quarter of the world’s total, as well as 50 breeding pairs of Bengal tigers.
Along the floodplain of the Rapti River are several lakes, where the rhinos hang out with storks and other marsh birds, otters, rare gharial crocodiles, and the even rarer freshwater Gangetic dolphins. The thick-skinned, huge gray rhinos cool off at water’s edge, but then wander over to browse on the tall grasses a little farther from the river, where several kinds of deer and the mighty guar antelope also graze. The main body of the park is jungle, a dense forest of sal and teak trees with a curtain of vines and creepers and fragrant orchids blooming in the treetops.
Canoeing on the Rapti gives you a great view of the water birds. At Machans, observation towers allow you to watch wildlife with your binoculars from a distance without disturbing them. Right by the visitor center at Sauraha, you can visit an elephant breeding center; 1 km (half mile) down the road, there’s a similar breeding center where you can get acquainted with the endangered gharial crocodile. Hikes into the jungle will score more wildlife sighting; it’s a good idea to hire a guide, not only to identify species and prevent getting lost, but also to deal with any run-ins with rhinos, who can be extremely territorial.
Your last option may be touristy but it’s irresistible—take an elephant ride into the jungle. Spring for the higher-priced ride to sit in a canopied howdah on the elephant’s back.