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Batons for the Beasts? A Nepalese Safari in Chitwan National Park (Part One)

Published
May 24, 2018
‍Chitwan National Park at left centre, west-southwest of Kathmandu. Country names added. Map data ©2018 Google
‍A more detailed map of Chitwan National Park and buffer zones. Source: BhagyaMani, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0 (2010)

THE ride to Chitwan from Kathmandu, only eighty kilometres (fifty miles), took five and a half hours along almost-impassable roads, mainly used by slow-moving fuel tankers.

At the risk of sounding controversial, the sooner the Chinese build some more railways in Nepal — and maybe some pipelines too — the better.

The current plan is to build a railway across the Himalayas from Lhasa to Kathmandu, thereby spreading Chinese domination southwards to another capital city in true nineteenth-century fashion, and to extend it further to join up with the Indian railways.

Frankly, this can’t happen soon enough.

There are still almost no railways on the ground in Nepal, only a lot of bad roads. The fact that getting a proper railway line from Tibet through to India seems like such a great leap forwards shows just how underdeveloped Nepal still is.

So, hurry there to sample the rustic charm, bad roads and all, before Nepal, too, feels the full force of the Industrial Revolution!

Why go to Chitwan?

I’d gone online and booked several nights’ accommodation in the Chitwan National Park, a renowned wildlife area full of elephants, Indian rhinoceroses (yes there are such creatures!) and even tigers.

When I got there I was glad I’d booked accommodation inside Chitwan National Park, as the town of Sauraha, the northern gateway to the park (where I did stay on my first night) was a bit rough, though it had scenic sunsets over the river. The first morning I was in Sauraha, I saw elephants being ridden along the street as well.

‍Nature scenes near Sauraha

A hazy sunset

Amazing leaf patterns in the trees

 

Elephants being ridden in the morning at Sauraha, next to Chitwan National Park

As the sun climbed higher, the temperature ranged from the mid-30s to mid-40s Celsius, and was unbearably hot at times. This part of Nepal is Not the Himalayas!

Shopping for a Guide

I shopped around several guiding agencies seeking a guide, as for obvious reasons I am extremely suspicious about guides right now. Most people I met were annoyed that they were paying $100 US a day and being made to stay in places that cost no more than $2.50 US. On the other hand, it you book through a company, the guides themselves can be left with essentially nothing.

Sometimes you do not know until the last minute who will be your guide: bad move if you are by yourself.

Basically you want to be able to interact with whoever it is that is going to be your guide, before you take them on.

A bad choice of guides also happened to me in New Zealand. I had someone referred to me who did not have his guide qualifications; someone who wanted to take hallucinogenic drugs on the way up a mountain. I think I have had it all.

In Chitwan, I was referred to one agency by a friendly café owner. The guy selling me the package was different from the guides. Another selling the packages was not so friendly and that put me off his agency. He wanted to charge me US $22 to take a 30 minute walk, plus a two night stay in a homestay in the village of Madi and a trip to the Tiger Point lookout costing US $180. Oh, and they could not assure me of seeing a tiger. Hmm. That did not sound great.

A Nepalese Safari

The hotel I’d booked to stay within the park was called the Jungle Safari Resort. The guide offered by the hotel was really nice, costing $US 300, though even they could not assure me of seeing a tiger. I loved the hotel’s garden and staff and the older gentleman who owned the place. It was quaint, and my room was large and amazing, with air conditioning to keep me cool.

I did a half day jungle safari ride on a jeep, which felt rather cramped. On this trip we took a very slim long canoe to get over the river that runs through the park. We saw a rhino mother and its offspring, along with three other adult rhinos and two sloth bears, a creature I’d never heard of before.

Unlike African rhinoceroses that have two horns, the Indian rhinoceros, the type found in Chitwan, has only one horn. Its scientific name is rhinoceros unicornis: though I think if this species of rhino ever contributed to the legend of the fair unicorn, the legend must have been embellished.

‍An Indian rhinoceros in the water

 

A baby rhino

Everybody thinks of Africa as the place where remarkable wildlife is to be found. A lot people don’t realise that many ‘African’ animals such as elephants and even rhinoceroses also live in India and the adjoining countries such as Nepal. Or, that the Indian region has some distinctive creatures of its own, such as the tiger (of course) and the sloth bear, which I’m going to talk about a little further on.

‍Tigers in Chitwan. Wikimedia Commons image by The China Room, CC-BY-SA 3.0 (2016)

There are also freshwater ‘mugger’ crocodiles in the local rivers, and gharials as well. The gharial is a species of crocodile with a weirdly narrow snout that lives on fish. Sadly, it is almost extinct in the wild. Chitwan National Park has a Gharial Breeding Centre, whose staff are doing their best to restore the numbers.

‍A gharial in the Chitwan National Park’s Gharial Breeding Centre— you can just see the narrow snout

Anyhow, what’s this sloth bear thing, then?

Well, it’s a kind of bear that wound up being named after another animal, because the European naturalists who first came into contact with them, around the year 1800, mistakenly thought that they were relatives of the South American sloth, perhaps even of the giant prehistoric ground sloths lately discovered in American fossil beds.

The naturalists were wrong, but on the other hand, the sloth bear is indeed not your average bear.

They were bears: but at the same time fairly unusual and sloth-like, with missing teeth and a diet that mostly consisted of termites. Sloth bears have large claws and fangs, but aren’t really adapted to eating meat as such.

The sloth bear also has some other peculiar traits (for a bear). Its babies ride around on its back as though it were a possum — or a sloth. The babies of all other species of bear trot along beside mama bear (I’m sure you’ve heard how you aren’t supposed to get between them).

‍Sloth bear with cubs. Wikimedia Commons image by Samadkottur, CC-BY-SA 4.0 (2007)

‍The closest I got to a sloth bear: I think you can just vaguely see it.

Though it mostly lives on insects, the sloth bear can be ferocious. Horrible tales are told of people who have somehow annoyed one and been slashed to bits by its claws Revenant-style, or even — this is worse — been kept alive while the sloth bear, ill-adapted for devouring large prey in the usual fashion, chews on their limbs and sucks out the juices instead.

Why is the sloth bear so much more awful than it needs to be in order to subdue its usual prey, the termite?

The reason is that the sloth bear actually needs to subdue the tiger.

In spite of their defensive armament, sloth bears are among the favourite prey of the tiger. A tiger can kill a sloth bear if it succeeds in taking it entirely by surprise. But if the sloth bear gets wise at the last moment, the tables are turned.

(Fear of the tiger also explains why sloth bears keep their babies close.)

What else did I see? I saw the amazing colours of kingfishers, fly-catchers and giant hornbills (wow, the bird life!), two monkeys, and a crocodile farm.

It was a pity that I also felt half-dead physically, with my burnt lips from strong sunshine in the Himalayas where I’d just been, and a chest infection which was also down to my recent hardships at altitude.

The next day I got antibiotics to deal to the chest infection. I’d nearly lost my voice. I had to get better.

Down at the river, after my canoe-ride, I spoke to cigarette-smoking and drunken guides, who said I should hire them as they would be used anyway; as other companies used them on contract. That didn’t really suit me.

I had read some disturbing stuff on Trip Advisor I always check this out when I arrive at a place: what to do, where to go. But I am a bit tired of it now.

The elephant breeding centre was privately owned. It did rides with up to four people on the top of the elephant on a square ringed seat. The elephants were trained up; but wild and domesticated elephants sometimes went crazy.

A male elephant had killed a woman, and a tourist saw it all. She said Ronaldo (the elephant) was going for her. My guide later told me Ronaldo was a wild male elephant who had broken down all the electric fences in the breeding centre. The elephants there, which were mostly female, had to be chained up. He had mated with them and produced several calves.

Ronaldo had killed several people in fact, and broken into fruit shops and eaten the fruit twice.

The people from Sauraha are very resilient as in addition to rogue elephants, the area is visited by floods in each monsoon season. Recently, the restaurants, a baby rhino and a mother elephant were washed away. The mother took a month to die a very painful death. The mother’s baby was adopted by another elephant and the baby rhino, which survived, was adopted by the people of the village, who let it eat some of their crops.

It suddenly rained, and at 5 am that morning off I went to the river mouth to see what I could see. I thought ‘I am not paying $22 for a 30 minute walk, up the riverside’.

I bumped into a guide who was staring through binoculars. He said he preferred this to sitting in his office, and all the gambling with cards that happens around town. He would walk seven times a day to see what was going on.

A thoughtful guide, and more about the elephants

Ultimately I met a guide named Kamal, whose laid-back, honest nature appealed to me. We walked and talked for about two hours and I gave him a 50% deposit on the spot to do the tiger-watching tour (though I would pay for my own food).

Kamal said he almost got attacked by Ronaldo while with an elderly couple. He made them hide behind at tree while he lit a cigarette. He reckons anything to do with fire makes elephants run away.

So, that’s how Kamal got rid of Ronaldo. Kamal also told me that in some places elephants are only fed 100 kilos of food a day and they should be fed more. Instead of living until eighty, they die much younger.

Local private elephants were brought from India. Kamal said that having four people on their backs and the steel seat was cruel. He didn’t mention the breaking in process which meant they are kept in a pen for two years, and broken in by their master.

Some of the other elephants were government elephants, used by the Nepalese army. These elephants were not used for giving rides to members of the public: just transporting army personnel. They seemed to be more well-fed and better looked-after.

Type image caption here (optional)Government elephants used by the Nepalese Army

I mostly ate out at local restaurants and the food was only two dollars US or thereabouts. I said I would depart for the town of Madi in three days’ time, when I felt better. Kamal and I continued to meet at certain times to walk along the river.

 

A local food stand

I went to the elephant bath, and refused to take a ride or scrub them with a pot scrub which made them white and pale, unnaturally so I think. At first I thought all the elephants were very well looked after, but finding out more from Kamal made me realise that their care could be improved.

‍Feeding the elephants

So I decided to feed the elephants instead of riding on them; especially the one that arrived with the steel seating. It looked tired and two old, overweight men were riding on it.

 

The stables at the elephant breeding centre

 

Elephants bathing

Afterwards, the people fed the elephants bunches of bananas, which was great to see. Some people were putting water on the elephants, which were relaxing, and not scrubbing them at all. Some people now pay to walk with the elephants and not to ride on them. I had wanted to ride them, but was made aware by my Facebook friends about the cruel practices that went on.

The elephant I fed had an open wound on its head. Apparently the trainer struck it to make the elephant submit to his directions. I never saw a woman on an elephant, interestingly enough.

Another thing I noticed was that only the government elephants had tusks.

If through education people like me can feed and not ride the elephants, hopefully other people will do so also.

I could have stayed by the river for longer. But it seemed like party central and I was in no mood for that, as I was ill. Next time I will stay by the river. I liked eating at the places next to Kamal’s office. The people were genuine and really wanted to talk to you. The Everest Region, where I had been, just seemed a bit more commercial, and I was glad to be here in Chitwan, to get well and feel better.

[This is the first part of a two-part essay]

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