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Wild vistas of Chitwan

Tucked in Nepal’s unexplored Terai landscape, Chitwan National Park is among Asia’s most fascinating wildlife hotspots with an exciting plethora of mammal and avian species

Nepal – a country of amazing extremes, with a total land area of 147,181 sq km, is bordered by China in the north and India in the south, west and east. The landmass is divided into three geographical zones – the high Himalayas, the mid Himalayas or mountainous region with long terraced slopes leading to fertile valleys, and the flat sub-tropical Terai region.

Recently, we visited one of the most fascinating biodiversity hotspots of Asia – the UNESCO designated Chitwan National Park in the virgin and unexplored Terai region of Nepal.

From the cacophony of Kolkata, the journey to the world famous Chitwan National Park in Nepal is quite a change. Chitwan, undoubtedly, must be among the most beautiful national parks in the world. Its 932 sq km is home to some of the most fascinating wildlife species of Asia, including the elusive one-horned rhinocerous.

We checked-in at the impressive Barahai Lodge run by the Pugdundee Safaris group. This fabulous vernacular Tharu-style lodge is tribal to the core with a pleasant blend of wood and bamboo that lends a rustic ambience. The bar too was well-stocked, easing the weariness that resulted from a four-hour drive from Kathmandu.

In the evening, the Pugdundee Safari's in-house naturalist told us about the history, topography, wildlife species and conservation activities being implemented in this national park while a group of traditional Tharu dancers performed a truly exhilarating traditional dance over a sizzling bonfire. After an early dinner, we retired for the night.

The second day of our visit commenced with an early morning elephant ride and we luckily didn't have to exert ourselves in spotting rhinos. As our mahut (elephant rider) directed the elephant along the dedicated rhino corridor through the rugged reeds and marshy areas of the park, we came face-to-face with a herd of rhinos grazing with their young ones. Our knowledgeable mahut informed us, pointing his fingers to the smallest baby rhino, that it was born just a week back and had already become the cynosure of all eyes.

After the day's adventure, we returned back to Barahi Lodge and headed straight to the infinity pool. After refreshing ourselves, we sat at the rustic Tiger's Den Bar and evoked the thrill that only a wilderness escapade can bestow.

Chitwan is not just another sanctuary that you come across on a long drive through the countryside, it is one of Asia's most preferred national parks and a designated Ramsar site. We were informed that Chitwan National Park is one of Asia's best managed national parks and has a tremendous reputation of resolving conflicts between the park and indigenous people.

What is more, Chitwan being the habitat of the rare and endangered one-horned rhinos, it felt great to know that their numbers have gone up considerably from 534 rhinos in 2011 to 645 as in 2015.

Chitwan is home to nearly 68 species of mammals. Apart from rhinos, it also hosts a dedicated tiger zone. Experts are of the opinion that the alluvial floodplains are the best tiger habitats, which is

exactly what Chitwan offers to the Royal Bengal Tigers. Camera traps (2010-11) revealed that tiger density ranged from 4.44 to 6.35 individuals per 100 sq km.

Our third day was dedicated to bird watching, and as we made our way to the marshy surroundings of Chitwan, we were amazed by the sheer variety on offer – close to 543 bird species have been identified in Chitwan, which is about two-third of Nepal's endangered species. Here in the park's alluvial grasslands you can have a date with Bengal Florican, Lesser Adjutant, Grey Crowned Prinia, Swamp Francolin, Grass Warblers, Oriental Darters and the globally-endangered Spotted Eagle, to name just a few.

Since we were visiting Chitwan in the autumn season, we were greeted by the ethereal sight of migrating birds – Greater Spotted Eagle, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Bar-headed Geese and Fish Eagles. These varieties of birds, numbering around 165 species, visit Chitwan every year in the autumn season from the north and spend the bitter winter months in Chitwan's salubrious habitat.

Chitwan is one national park which scores high on the eco-tourism front – for two successive years, Chitwan has earned the coveted mantle of being a 'No Poaching Zone'.

Chitwan is not just about wilderness. It is also about the indigenous Tharu tribals who have a fascinating lifestyle, far removed from the contemporary world. Their simplicity and warmth is worth going miles to see. I had an animated conversation with the Barahi Pugdundee Lodge's resident naturalist about the lodge's designing, which is predominantly defined by vernacular Tharu-inspired architecture, and sensing my curiosity, he offered me with a complimentary day trip to an adjoining Tharu village the next day.

After a light breakfast, we embarked on our walking tour of Tharu village. We walked barely half-an hour and it took us no time to appreciate that we had entered the Tharu domain. Clusters of thatched huts, the women folk busy with household works, cherubic children playing with water buffaloes.....

As we set foot on the village of Badrahani, we were greeted by the sight of clusters of mud and thatch hutments, and I was told by the naturalist that the Tharu people eke out a living by engaging in cultivation, hunting and fishing. I engaged myself in conversation with a wizened old man in broken-Hindi, who sat by the corner of his modest hut even as his grandchildren were having a gala time playing hide and seek. This old man had this to say: "I am proud to be a Tharu. Once upon a time, we were considered untouchables. I worked as a bonded labourer in Kathmandu for six decades and with whatever little money I could save, I bought a piece of land here in Badrahani. Now, I lead a peaceful life with my grandchildren".

We had traditional Tharu-style crossed-legged sit-in lunch served by a group

Tharu women beautifully adorned in traditional Tharu dresses. Most can speak broken-Hindi and when they know you

are an Indian, they all make their aspirations known – to work in Delhi and Mumbai.

One very noticeable fact about the Tharus is that they worship gram devta or village god. Nature has always been a source of awe to human beings and the Tharus are no different. They have been worshipping nature from times immemorial. Of particular significance is their sense of belonging to the community and it is so palpable when you spend some time in their backyard.

There is a saying in the wildlife circles that if you haven't visited Chitwan National Park once in your lifetime, your spirit of wilderness remains unfulfilled. I now can vouch for that and, had I not visited this stunning, exciting, most fulfilling national park, I surely would have missed out on Asia's numero uno wilderness habitat.

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