Thought of as the adventure capital of trekkers, mountaineers and white water enthusiasts, it is often forgotten that Nepal is also a haven for wildlife and offers amazing opportunities to see the highly endangered Royal Bengal Tiger, Asian One-horned Rhinoceros, Asiatic Wild Elephant and fish eating Gharial Crocodile.
Nepal has nine national parks and four wildlife reserves, in all, about 15000 square kilometres amounting to almost 18 percent of the country. The Terai lowlands to the south of the country are defined by a belt of well-watered floodplains stretching along the India border, and it is here that the jungles of Nepal can be found. This is the richest habitat in Nepal with tall grasslands interspersed with riverine and hardwood Sal Forest.
The two main national parks that offer the best opportunities for wildlife viewing are Chitwan National Park in central, southern Nepal, and Royal Bardiya National Park in the far west. The best time to visit either Chitwan or Bardiya, is from October through to March before the heat of the summer and monsoon season arrives. During these summer months, temperatures soar in excess of 40oc, rivers swell and parts of the parks are inaccessible.
Chitwan National Park
Chitwan is Nepal’s first and most famous national park and it is situated in the Chitwan Doon, or the lowlands of the Inner Terai, a five hour drive or 20 minute flight from Kathmandu. It was declared a national park in 1973 and in 1984, UNESCO designated it a Natural World Heritage Site. Covering an area of 932 sq km., the park includes hilly areas of the Siwalik Range covered by deciduous Sal forest and the floodplains of the Narayani, Rapti, and the Reu Rivers, which are covered by dense tall elephant grass, interspersed with riverine forests of Silk Cotton (Kapok), Acacia and Sisam trees.
The park offers protection to 56 species of mammals including the one-horned rhinoceros, Bengal tiger, leopard, sloth bear, wild elephant, striped hyena, Gangetic dolphin and wild bison. There are estimated to be 470 species of mammals, over 500 species of birds, 126 species of fish, 150 species of butterflies and 47 species of reptiles in the park.
The main hub of activity for the Chitwan National Park is Sauraha, a small but lively tourist centre outside the park boundary, where both budget and upmarket lodges can be found, as well as restaurants, bars, shops, money changers, internet cafes and everything else to cater for the tourist trade.
You are spoilt for choice in the activities available and you can fill your time exploring Tharu villages either on foot or bicycle; taking elephant, walking or jeep safaris in the jungle; drifting down the Rapti or Narayani rivers in a traditional wooden canoe; visiting the local elephant breeding centre, or just relaxing with a cold beer by the river watching the world go by and the elephants having their daily bath.
Royal Bardiya National Park
Bardiya National Park is situated on the eastern banks of the Karnali River, about 400 kms. west of Kathmandu, or a two hour drive from Nepalgunj. It is easily the largest and least disturbed jungle area in the Terai, and is predominantly Sal forest interspersed with tall grasslands. It is bound on the north by the Chure hills and on the west by the Geruwa River, a branch of the Karnali which is a major tributary of the Ganges.
A more remote option than Chitwan, it offers the best chance of spotting a tiger in Nepal, as well as the possibility of seeing rhinoceros, swamp deer, leopard, jungle cats, blue bulls (Nilgai), sloth bears, barking deer, Marsh Mugger and Gharial crocodiles, Gangetic dolphin, Langur monkeys and countless bird species. The park is also famous for its small herds of wild elephants which are rarely seen.
The majority of the lodges are based around the national park in the small town of Thakudwara, a far cry from the commercialism of Sauraha. Bardiya offers a laid back, tranquil and truly local jungle experience. The activities here include jungle safari on elephant back, jungle walks, canoe trips, jeep drives, visiting Tharu villages and fresh water river dolphin watching.