Every year thousands of travelers visit the roof of the world in the Himalayan Mountains. But Nepal is a country of extremes with also pristine rainforests. And in the dense forests of Chitwan and Bardia lives one of the most endangered animals in the world: the tiger.
Text: Angelique van Os | Photography: Henk Bothof
It could happen at any time. From nowhere, a large, graceful figure can stroll along the sandy path with firm steps. Leaving its deep footprints in the earth. The black stripe-pattern camouflages its orange-colored coat that glistens in the early morning sun. Brutally I wake up from my day-dream when our guide Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary, DB for short, hits the brakes. We drive less than five minutes on a bumpy sand-path in Chitwan National Park (Nepal), or he’s already found a fresh tiger track. Hanging over the car door he looks at the ground. “This belongs to a male. You can tell by the size and the distance between the toes and nails. They’re bigger than a female’s. He gets out and walks around the tracks. “Probably the tiger went for a drink by the river.” We quietly chase the guide, who only has a stick with him for protection. DB follows the paw prints like a sniffing hound. The adrenaline rises. After about fifty meters there is no trace left. Maybe the Pantera Tigris, the largest and strongest cat-like in the world, is hiding five meters away. The disappointment strikes briefly. And not for the last time, because the Bengal tiger doesn’t show up easily. Rightly so, because the number of wild tigers has decreased by 95 percent since the beginning of the last century (about 97,000 specimens!). According to the last count of the World Wildlife Fund in 2019, there are estimated to be only about 3900 wild tigers worldwide. Tigers are poisoned and poached because of their fur, as trophies, and because tiger bones are an important ingredient in traditional Asian medicines. Furthermore, there are increasing human-animal conflicts and only seven percent of the original habitat has been preserved. Tigers once migrated from Eastern Turkey and Russia to Asia.
Although the tiger population is not yet doing well worldwide, the numbers are steadily increasing. Most tigers (about 2967) live in India. The chance of spotting them there is greatest, although tourism prevails there. The neighboring country Nepal follows with 235 tigers. It is the only tiger country that has doubled its population in nine years, although the numbers fluctuate. In Chitwan National Park we hear from DB that according to the latest count there are 93 tigers instead of the announced 120. That number has decreased due to heavy flooding and fighting with rhinos in 2017.
Ideal hiding place
Driving through the fairytale rainforest of Chitwan, we understand all too well why tigers like to stay here. The other, green face of Nepal is the ideal hiding place. In the lowlands of the Terai region hundreds of square kilometers of pristine subtropical forests alternate with savannahs and river networks. They form corridors with India that are vital for the largest predator, as well as migrating elephants and rhinos. Chitwan is Nepal’s best known and oldest National Park, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1973 for its biodiversity.
As nature manager, DB runs Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge, which has existed since 1964. Both here and in Bardia, Tiger Tops monitors the tiger population with camera traps in cooperation with wildlife organizations such as the Nepal Tiger Trust. They also work together with anti-poaching patrols, educational projects, and scientific research. Arriving at the old site of Tharu, DB tells us that two Texans, Toddy Lee Wynne, and Herb Klein, used the building as a hunting lodge. Conservationist Jim Edwards and pioneer in sustainable tourism, Chuck McDougl, transformed the company in 1971 into a wildlife organization with no hunting practices. DB: “From 1982, we had to move the lodge to its current location to provide more local employment. Hopefully, we can restore the old state to its former glory in the future”. That desire is understandable because the location and the view over the river banks and grasslands are really beautiful. Suddenly DB keeps his finger in front of his mouth. At about twenty meters something rustles in the grass. The guide silently grabs his stick and we sneak behind him. Suddenly he makes a stop gesture. We sink on our squats. He whispers: “We have to be careful: there is a rhino with a calf ten meters away. When she sees or smells us and feels threatened, she can attack us to protect her young. Let’s go back to the field and wait behind a tree.” With over twenty years of experience, DB knows exactly what he’s doing. We patiently wait for the armored one-horned rhinoceros. This species only lives in the Terai region and the north-eastern river banks of India. Also, these animals are almost extinct; there are about 1700 specimens left. The female may have smelled us because she walks around the field with a bow. “Come, she’s going to the river!” At a suitable distance, we run after the rhino. Just in time we see the two of them slip into the water and cross the river.
The next morning we drive to the other side of the park. The buffer zone between the inhabited world and the jungle consists only of a shallow river and a strip of grass. DB tells us that the people are well informed by and work together with patrolling army posts and nature conservationists. This monitoring is of vital importance for the tiger and the reason they flourish in Nepal. “For the past ten years, not a single tiger has poached in Chitwan. Unfortunately, poisoning still occurs when tigers eat cattle. Luckily locals keep their distance and know how to get themselves and their cattle to safety. They are quicker to raise the alarm at the army posts. The fact that we don’t have any more tigers is partly due to the dense population. This makes the cats fight for each other’s territories and food and limits the chances of survival of the young.”
After an enchanting piece of forest and a sea of ferns, we reach open grasslands. Through years of lobbying, DB and the villagers have transformed 200 hectares of woodland into a rich savannah. Because of this, there are more deer and therefore also tigers. Once again, we sneak quietly behind DB through the high grass. Unfortunately, the striped cats are nowhere to be seen. By jeep, we continue our way. Again we are surprised by a rhino, standing in the middle of the road. He disappears into the bushes and then dives into a ditch. DB drives the car a bit further. Moments later the rhino curiously appears out of the bushes and stares at us at less than five meters, only to disappear into the dense green.
Since 2004 TOFTigers has been focusing on sustainable tourism in India and its subcontinent, advising governments in this regard. The involvement and deployment of locals play a key role in this. TOFTigers also focuses on raising awareness among travelers visiting wildlife parks. There are now 300 members from the travel industry connected to TOFT, from international tour operators to travel agents and accommodation. The Dutch travel organization All for Nature Travel cooperates with both organizations (see box). Julian Matthews, founder of TOFTigers: “Nepal’s success is due to the good work done by organizations such as Tiger Tops. Locals feel involved because they play a role in the maintenance of the forest, which provides them with necessities. It creates work and ensures better border regulation between wildlife and villages, which is a problem in every buffer zone. This system works well. We have awarded Tiger Tops an Award for this in 2016,” says Matthews. In 2010, the cry of distress with only 3,200 tigers was so big that thirteen so-called tiger countries decided to take concerted action (TX-2 Project). India and Nepal are the exceptions, but the goal of doubling the number of tigers by 2022 is not realistic, according to DB, Julian Matthews, and the Himalayan Tiger Foundation. Matthews believes there are too few habitats and many prey animals such as deer (chitals) and feral pigs are regularly poached for their meat, leaving too little for the tigers. In India, for example, this is a major problem. “If tigers get enough space and nutrition and have good water supplies, they can quickly expand. The protection and habitats are too limited in countries like China, Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia. It is often a political, economic issue. I believe in ‘tigernomics’ because sustainable tourism can be the cat’s lifeblood. Countries that claim they cannot afford that protection have other interests. After several types of research, we can state that the positive effects and returns of good management and regulated tourism in certain parks in India and Nepal are many times higher than the investments. It’s a mindset that needs to be put in place to save the tiger.”
TIP: TOFTigers publishes almost every year a specialized guide full of the best tiger parks and sustainable lodges that are also committed to nature conservation.
The Bengal tiger can also be found in the less crowded Bardia National Park. The habitat of the tiger has expanded because the nearby Banke National Park has been merged. The parks have no less than 75 army posts guarding the entire area, making it a haven of 2,231 square kilometers. In 2019, between 93 and 97 tigers were spotted in Bardia. Due to strict surveillance, poaching has not occurred for six years. Unfortunately, there are sometimes human-animal conflicts, largely caused by the limited buffer zone. Bardia has been a National Park since 1988 and is very similar to Chitwan in terms of vegetation, although the forest is less densely vegetated. Amongst others, the rare species that live here are ganged dolphins, lip bears, gavials (crocodiles with elongated mouths), some rhinoceroses, elephants, and leopards. After a pleasant stay in a Homestay (see box) just outside the park, Bhim Bahadur Thanet picks us up early by jeep. He is our new guide and has been with Tiger Topsfor over 33 years. He has an appalling knowledge of tigers and life in the park and tells a lot about it. Along the way, we find a lot of fresh tiger tracks and feces. We wait a quarter of an hour, sometimes half an hour, at various lookout points where animals regularly cross over and drink water, but we’re not lucky; even though you’re in the perfect spot, the animal only just has to pass by. A tiger sleeps five to twelve hours, in contrast to other felines that sleep as much as eighteen hours. Because of the mobility and the dense vegetation, it is more difficult to spot the animals. A tiger also marks its territory of about three kilometers in circles by spraying and leaving stripes behind. This makes it difficult, even for trained trackers, to trace the beginning or end of a track and to know which way the animal is heading.
Bhim doesn’t give up, however, and at the beginning of the afternoon, he discovers a fresh trail. “This is only an hour old, I guess. The paw print is completely clean, no sweeping. Presumably from a large male”, the guide whispers. Bhim explores the path. It’s confusing because the trail runs in several directions as if the tiger has changed its mind. We jump in the car and drive peering over the savannah and through the forest. Nothing. After a big round, we return to the starting point of the track. On the field is a group of deer. Suddenly they stand still and stare alertly at the high grass. A warning cry of a monkey follows. “Tiger!” says Bhim excitedly. “That’s an alarm call. Look, the deer are getting away!” New, smaller tracks have been added. Bhim follows the look of the monkey. “Let’s go!” He grabs his bamboo stick and we run after him. And then, about 100 meters away, the contours of a tiger appear. The encounter lasts only 30 seconds because the female has heard us. She glances fleetingly over her shoulder and stares at us for a few seconds. Then she quickly disappears into the grass. What an intense experience! “Tiger females are very shy and take off quickly. The males can just walk showing off on the sandy path. The males can just walk showing off on the sandy path.
Let’s see if we can find her again by car,” says Bhim. Unfortunately, we can’t, but after a while, a high desperate barking sounds: a mintjac, a ‘barking’ deer is killed. We go on foot again. In the meter-high grass that’s a risk, but we trust the guide. “If we hit a tiger, stay in a line behind me. Whatever happens, don’t run away and don’t panic, because he’ll come after you.” We make our way through the dense greenery. My gaze shoots in all directions and my heart beats in my throat. More cries follow; we’re getting closer. The tension ebbs away when we see a group of deer disappearing towards the river. Their alertness diminishes, the danger is gone. Walking along the bank Bhim recognizes markers. “This is a different male than this morning. We are in a border area of two tigers with several tiger females,” he whispers. We hide in the bushes and wait. On the other side, we suddenly hear a kind of soft smacking and creaking bones, but unfortunately, the tiger doesn’t show up. We go back.
Suddenly a very strong smell of blood comes towards us. Bhim: “Look at the flat grass, a tiger has been lying there. I suspect the cat has dragged his prey a bit further. We’re not going to look there, it’s too dangerous.” In a few hours, almost three different tigers have seen and the tension was cut.
The next two days we’re less lucky: it’s busy in the park. According to Bhim, the increasing number of cars disturbs the peace of the tigers; they hide more and it causes stress. Because of the Corona crisis, the tigers and nature in Bardia and Chitwan have calmed down more. A positive effect is visible in many areas and therefore indicates that limited tourism is necessary for a good living environment. During our last game drive, we wait almost three hours on a beautiful viewpoint and only see some deer and monkeys. At another, a higher point on the waterfront we’re rewarded for our waiting. A large athletic body moves with standing steps through the low water. Through the binoculars, I can see his beautiful coat glittering even better than in my daydream. Unfortunately, the tiger doesn’t walk along the riverbed. It crosses and as unexpected as it came, it has disappeared again. We try to wait for him with the jeep at another place, but the tiger draws his plan again. In the distance only the alarm of the barking deer sounds. Then it remains silent. And we don’t hear a trace of the almost invisible tiger.
How to get there
There are no direct flights from the Netherlands to the capital Kathmandu; there are several providers (flight tickets €650-€1100). Fly to Bharatpur: 50 minutes, followed by a one-hour drive to Chitwan. By car: six hours, over bad, winding mountain roads. Chitwan-Bardia: more than a day’s drive. Flying: from Nepalgunj airport. Yeti Airlines compensates its CO2 emissions with sustainable projects.
Best travel time
Bardia and Chitwan: open mid-October-May. Best time for the tiger: February-April, because the grass is lower and it is not so hot yet.
In Nepal, a valid visa is required. This is best arranged in advance through the Consulate General of Nepal in Amsterdam or Brussels. Cost: €50. Also, the necessary vaccinations and malaria pillsare needed.
Do you want to go on safari in Nepal? All for Nature Travel made this trip possible (including the mentioned accommodations) and specializes in the most beautiful wildlife trips around the world. One of the ways you can contribute to nature conservation is sustainable tourism. All for Nature Travel donates at least five percent of the travel sum to the protection of the tiger and its habitat. Also, €25 per booking goes to TOFTigers, to be spent on local projects that promote nature conservation. The combination of Bardia and Chitwan with a stay in the Tiger Top Lodges can be booked from 2795,- euro p.p. For a combination with the Himalayas All for Nature advises the trip Royal Nature & Wildlife.
Although the devastating earthquake of 2015 has left its traces everywhere, Nepal is backtracking. 2020 should have been the year in which the government wanted to boost tourism. COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works, improved facility services, and new walking and mountain routes would be expanded and highlighted. Of course, this has hardly been used so far. Perhaps this will be moved to 2021. In any case, the Nepalese Ambassador of the Netherlands, HE Lok Bahadur Thapa remains positive. He says: “Enjoy Nepal’s natural beauty, vast landscapes, spiritual culture, sports, and nature conservation and cherish this as a lifelong experience”.
Tiger Tops Karnali Logde
Like big brother Tharu in Chitwan, Karnali exudes serenity. In a total of 21 rooms, the minimalist local interior has been applied everywhere – from mud houses to earthy shades, reed, and bamboo. The same goes for the restaurant cum lounge, where good organic food is served. Both Karnali and Tharu work exclusively with Nepalese people, draw energy from solar panels, and received several awards from TOFTigers.
If you want to stay close to the locals, sleep at their house! Ten years ago WWF initiated a collaboration with the community just outside Bardia to receive guests. About 22 households are participating. The rooms are simple but equipped with electricity and straw-mixing water. Only the beds are very hard. The people are very warm and it is a nice experience to cook together and make contact. The concept also offers hostesses their source of income. A nice initiative that you can book for one night through All for Nature Travel.
Barber Mahal Vilas
Before or after the adventures in the wilderness, it is wonderful to stay in Barber Mahal Vilas. In this chic boutique hotel with a courtyard garden and rooftop swimming pool and sauna, you’ll forget the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu. The villa is part of a larger palace complex, which was built in 1913 by order of the then Prime Minister, Maharaja Chandra Shumsher for his son Baber. The property is unique due to four architectural styles: neoclassical Rana Durbar, Newari, Mustang, and Terai design. The spacious rooms are classically decorated and have a royal feel.
This trip was made possible by All for Nature Travel, Tiger Tops, and supported by the Dutch Consulate General of Nepal. Thanks to Nikon Netherlands for providing an AF-S 200-400 mm lens.