Tracking tigers in Nepal's Chitwan National Park
In search of an elusive predator in the country's southern lowlands
As the two-metre-tall elephant grass we’re wading through crunches underfoot and the tangled, dense undergrowth rustles in the breeze, it takes two words to stop us in our tracks. “Tiger, tiger,” comes the high-pitched call, spat out with unbridled urgency. A silence envelopes our group.
Elephants begin to trumpet, dancing around with their huge ears flapping, their clobbering feet kicking up plumes of dust as they hone in on a set of bushes not too far from the clearing where we identified two sets of fresh tiger pawprints only moments earlier.
As we try to keep our cameras steady, focusing on the bushes in front of us, our guide and naturalist Suman says the commotion is a pretty good indication there’s a tiger nearby. “I hope so,” I whisper under my breath, anticipating my first glimpse of one of the world’s most striking predators. Every one of my senses is heightened; a giant of the animal kingdom is only a few metres away.
It’s a brisk autumn morning in Chitwan National Park in Nepal’s southern lowlands at the base of the Himalayas – a 932-square-kilometre conservation area that’s considered the best-preserved in Asia. Inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1984, the park is home to as many as 93 of Nepal’s 235 Royal Bengal tigers, along with a healthy population of one-horned Asian rhinos, the highest concentration of birds in the world (more than 350 species, according to Unesco), and plenty of deer, antelope, monkeys, bison, sloth bears, gharials and leopards.
We spend a few moments staring at the bushes, watching for any further signs of the tiger we’re so desperate to see, and then collectively opt to retreat, deciding to give it another 15 minutes or so before circling back in the hope our elusive cat might return.
If it was the male tiger who was responsible, he’d be out here parading it around, which makes me think it was the female … they are much less showy.
“There’s been a kill,” Suman, 25, says as the thrill of the past few minutes begins to subside and the feeling starts to sink in that this was a missed opportunity. “A spotted deer, but it was probably killed very early this morning. If it was the male tiger who was responsible, he’d be out here parading it around, which makes me think it was the female … they are much less showy.”
It’s peak tourist season and tiger breeding time, which means the pair whose footprints we saw earlier will likely be together for about a five-day period. “The female footprints are more elongated or pointy, while the males are bigger and rounder,” says Suman as we take a closer look. He explains what trackers search for when they’re seeking out tigers in this habitat.
We learn male tigers weigh up to 325 kilograms, can have a territory of up to 50 square kilometres, often walk up to eight kilometres a night hunting for prey and live solitary lives unless they’re mating.
Global tiger numbers have dropped significantly over the past century, due to habitat destruction and hunting. There are now fewer than 2,500 Bengal tigers in the world. Tiger hunting was once a royal sport in India and national parks were often popular hunting grounds during the British Crown’s rule of the country between 1858 and 1947. Fortunately, Nepal is one place where the population has now almost doubled again, thanks to targeted anti-poaching programmes.
We circle back to the grassland that hides what is left of the spotted deer. There’s a leg that’s been gnawed on and the rest of the body is strewn a few metres away. It’s fresh, just as Suman suggested. “The tiger will almost certainly return to it,” he says. As there are no vultures in the park, the carcass is safe until the tigers return, he explains.
A fleeting glimpse of a tiger tail is the most our group gets to see on this outing and, despite the obvious let-down, I’m reminded that the park’s tiger population is notoriously elusive and we were lucky to see even that.
The 600 or so greater one-horned rhinos that live here are far more visible than the big cats, especially across the tall grasslands, scrub savannah, Sal forests and clay-rich swamp land. The largest of the Asian rhino species are often found grazing or wallowing in muddy watering holes.
On a separate outing, we make our way through the dense bushland in a 10-seater open-top Jeep. Our driver, a man Suman affectionately calls Baloo, after The Jungle Book character, is quiet but knows his way around these parts and within a few minutes of setting off has us parked in direct view of a wallowing rhino. He turns the engine off and the giant one-horned beauty becomes spooked, moving behind the reeds and out of our line of sight.
“Quick,” whispers Suman, beckoning for us to follow him. He opens the Jeep door ever so gently and we all bundle out, tiptoeing through the grassland behind the watering hole. Suman leads the way with Baloo on his heels and the rest of us a few steps behind, one eye on the safety of the vehicle we’ve left behind and the other on the scrub in front of us.
“Come, look through here,” says Suman with a touch of David Attenborough about him. We creep forward and lock eyes with the mammoth beast through the blades of grass before he makes his escape up a hill. He’s not the last rhino we see – we spend a good amount of time watching a mother and her calf on the move among the thick elephant grass and encounter another pair crossing a river.
Each one has a single black horn up to 64 centimetres long and a greyish-brown hide that gives it an armour-plated appearance. Suman explains their diet consists mainly of tall grasses, shrubs, leaves, aquatic plants and some fruits, and that the vulnerable species is mostly solitary, except when adult males or rhinos nearing adulthood gather at wallows or to graze. Males have loosely defined home ranges that are not particularly well defended and often overlap.
There are plenty of ways to experience the jungle in these parts. Visitors who make the 20-minute flight from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu to Bharatpur and then the hour-long drive to the village of Jeetpur, which borders Chitwan, are able to immerse themselves in the environment via boat, Jeep or even on top of an elephant.
From our base at the 30-room Meghauli Serai resort, a luxury property overlooking the Rapti River with park-facing villas, we are able to walk straight on to the banks of the river and into a canoe or Jeep, or can wander a short distance to the elephant safaris departure area.
“Did you see the tiger?” is invariably the first question at the end of each outing in Chitwan, closely followed by: “What did you see today?” Shared stories of sightings (or a lack thereof) of Nepal’s “Big Five” – a rhino, Asian elephant, Royal Bengal tiger, sloth bear and gharial – bond adventurous travellers in their desire to see exotic animals in their natural habitat.
“We love it here,” a tourist from India says. “We’ve visited three times and today was as close as we’ve come to a tiger, but we’ll keep coming back.”
As my stay comes to a close and I spend one more morning exploring the nearby village on foot, I’m reminded by the locals whose children run up to me with fresh flowers and huge toothy smiles that it’s only been only four years since much of the country was devastated by an earthquake that killed 9,000 people, dramatically reducing the number of tourists who visit the country. It doesn’t help that Chitwan is often overlooked in favour of the Himalayas, particularly Mount Everest, but given that last year this wild paradise was rated as one of the best trips to take in Nepal by Forbes magazine, what have we all been waiting for?
Updated: February 21, 2020 05:50 PM