Nepal - Getting to know Chitwan National Park
Chitwan means 'heart of the jungle' and it's an apt name indeed. Covering nearly 1,000 square kilometres of lush, steamy jungle and languid river systems, Nepal's flagship National Park is home to over 50 species of mammal, and a host of rare creatures. Stars of the show are the endangered one-horned rhino; other inhabitants include sloth bear, a variety of deer, wild oxen, crocodile and over 500 species of bird. Lurking deep in the jungle are Bengal tigers and leopard too, but you'll be exceptionally lucky to see them.
Chitwan was granted National Park status in 1973. It's a real conservation success story. One-horned rhino were on the verge of extinction, with some counts putting their number at less than 100. These days there are over 600, a number of which have been relocated to other National Parks in an attempt to reintroduce them there.
You can explore the park's dense jungle and lush river network on foot, by canoe and by jeep, or even on the back of an elephant, although this is not an activity we encourage (more about why below). Dawn and dusk safaris are the order of the day: when the jungle comes alive with the calls of roosting birdlife, chirping insects and wildlife foraging for food.
Chitwan National Park is open year round, but we’d recommend visiting between February and April when the weather is cool and the long grasses have been cut, making it much easier to spot wildlife on the plains. The months of October and November are a good second bet. Staying close to the park and its rare wildlife is an absolute must and there are a crop of boutique lodges located within the park's buffer zone, offering comfortable surrounds in which to relax between safaris.
What to do in Chitwan National Park
- A walking safari with a trained guide is the highlight of a Chitwan trip for many visitors. It’s not as scary as it sounds, although every rustle of tree and bush will make your heart jump. It offers the opportunity to get surprisingly close to the rare rhino and you may well see tiger tracks, but are highly unlikely to come face to face with the animal itself (phew!). Walking safaris typically take place early in the morning when the air is fresh, it’s not too hot and the animals are most active.
- You don't need to be a serious twitcher to be impressed by the birdlife in Chitwan! The region is home to over 500 species of birds. Dazzling sunbirds, warblers, flycatchers and mighty eagles, the list is endless and many are extremely rare. It's best to go out at dawn or dusk when they are at their most active, with a trained guide to help you spot them. Don’t forget your binoculars!
- Exploring the river systems of the Sauraha area in a traditional dugout canoe will give you the best chance of seeing crocodile in the wild. Sit back and keep your eyes peeled as you leisurely float along the river. In winter, crocs can often be seen sunning themselves on the mudflats and shoreline of the river. It’s worth mentioning that these canoe trips are quite popular so expect to be sharing the experience with other canoeing visitors! For closer croc spotting, visit the park’s Crocodile Breeding Centre, where endangered gharial and marsh mugger crocodiles are bred in captivity before being released into the wild.
Disappointing as it may be, royal hunting trips were once en vogue here. King George V visited in 1911, and shot 39 tigers in just 11 days. Thankfully, times have changed.
Around Chitwan National Park
- The animals of Chitwan share the landscape with the indigenous Tharu tribe, who up until the 1950s were the only human inhabitants in the region. Visiting a nearby Tharu village is the best way to learn about their age-old traditions and observe their simple lifestyle. It’s also possible to spend the night in a village homestay and the Barauli Community project has been set up to offer this unique experience. Your local host will join you on a bike ride around the village, introduce you to the other residents and show you how to cook a traditional Tharu meal. As well as being a memorable tourist experience, it’s an excellent opportunity for the villagers to preserve their characteristic culture and to generate a means of income besides farming.
- Bis Hajaar Tal means ‘twenty thousand lakes’ and whilst we can’t positively verify the exact number of lakes, we can confirm that this area is awash (sorry!) with wetlands. It’s one of the best areas in the region for bird watching and the dense maze of marshy lakeland teems with birdlife including eagles, storks, kingfishers and more.
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In Chitwan National Park many operators and lodges have historically offered game viewing trips on the back of elephants, suggesting by doing so it’s possible to get closer to the one-horned rhino in particular. However, concern for the elephants' welfare means a growing number of operators no longer offer elephant-back safaris and we support this policy, offering walking and jeep safaris as a more responsible alternative. For more details on our wildlife policy click here.