Look What We Bagged!

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Hunting down Rhinos in Chitwan

I had read about Chitwan National Park long before we ever arrived in Nepal and had put it on the ‘must-do’ list. I am very pleased to say that it lived up to all my expectations. Fortunately, I think everyone else in my family enjoyed it too!!

Located in the Terai (the flatlands that extend along the length of Nepal’s southern border), Chitwan National Park is Nepal’s first national park. Long before it attained park status, however, it served as the private hunting reserve of the ruling elite. Renowned for its tiger and rhino populations, it attracted people – OK, men – who liked to adorn their walls with the hides and heads of exotic animals. In 1911, a visiting King George V apparently felt the need to unnecessarily, and prematurely, end the lives of 39 tigers and 18 rhinos. I’m sure there must have been a big celebration at the end of that killing spree.

Traditionally this was a region that suffered from malaria; interestingly, the local peoples – the Tharus – were resistant to the disease. During the 1950s, a malaria reduction program was introduced which eradicated it from the area, thus allowing many more settlers to enter the area. Unfortunately, this also brought along with it poachers who targeted Asian one-horned rhinos for their horns. Nepal took measures to address this, and originally established the area as a rhino sanctuary in 1962, and subsequently a park in 1973.

After our rafting trip, we climbed aboard a cramped, local bus which took us most of the way towards the small town of Sauraha, which is on the edge of Chitwan. We parked the kids in a nice restaurant with cold drinks and Chris and I headed out to find accommodations; we ultimately selected some lovely cottages overlooking the Rapti River which forms the boundary of Chitwan Park. The first night we sat out, we watched a gharial (apparently the world’s longest crocodile) sitting right at the edge of the river on our side. We joked that he was so still he must have been fake, until he suddenly scuttled along and slipped into the water – not fake, indeed!

Our home in Sauraha

Our home in Sauraha

The croc on our riverbank

The croc on our riverbank

Next up on our ‘to do’ list was to find a guide that would take us through the park. Given that it is home to tigers, rhinoceros, and sloth bears (oh my!!), entry is not allowed without a guide. So, we wandered around town and spoke with a couple of guiding agencies and believe me, there are many! We knew we had our man (and woman!), however, when we started chatting with Raj and Doma from Nepal Dynamic Eco Tours and Services. They are a brother and sister team who share a passion for the park, the environment and the local communities and are so willing to share that with their customers. We knew they were the right people for us when Raj stopped to pick up some litter on the street (see Mounds of Plastic for why we were so happy).

Doma and Raj outside their office

Doma and Raj outside their office

We got up bright and early the following day to meet Raj and our driver. We had decided to do a one day jeep safari and while I had been skeptical that we would see many animals (given the noise of a jeep), I was quickly proven wrong. Given Raj’s incredible skill at spotting wildlife, we saw loads of animals including four different kinds of deer, gaur (Indian bison), langurs, sloth bears (including a mother with three cubs on her back!), an Indian monitor lizard, wild boar, numerous rhinos, and mugger crocodiles. He also knew where various animals like to ‘hide out’ and at one point stopped the jeep, ran off into the woods, and then called us to come have a look. Telling us to tiptoe quietly, we followed him to find a Burmese rock python lying on its favourite log. Raj’s specialty was birds, however, and while I tried to keep a list of the species we saw, it ultimately proved impossible. Suffice it to say that we saw a good portion of the some 500 species that have been recorded here. We did not, unfortunately, spot a tiger, although we did see some recent scat on the road. Oh well, perhaps next time!

Cue the photo gallery…

Boarding the boat across the river

Boarding the boat across the river

Paddling through the morning's foam - detergent from up the river

Paddling through the morning’s foam – detergent from up the river

Riding in the jeep

Riding in the jeep

Chicken!  Yes, there are wild chickens in Chitwan

Chicken! Yes, there are wild chickens in Chitwan

Pheasants! And Chris gets a severe case of lens envy.

Peacocks! And Chris gets a severe case of lens envy

A rhino grazes in the long grass by the road

A rhino grazes in the long grass by the road

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Close enough, thank you

A gaur heading into the woods

A gaur heading into the woods

By the day's end, Nancy had become an expert spotter. Here, she noticed a sloth bear in the woods with three cubs.

By the day’s end, Nancy had become an expert spotter. Here, she noticed a sloth bear in the woods with three cubs (centre of the picture by the tree).

A grazing rhino

A grazing rhino

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Raj, stopping to pick up litter along the way

DAY TWO

Chris here, picking up the trail.

Raj and Doma contribute ten percent of the profits from their guiding company to local causes, so the next day we traded in the jeep for bicycles, and pedaled off with Doma for a tour of the community.

Our first stop was an organic farming co-operative on the edge of Sauraha, run largely by women. They have a small plot of land, five katthas (that’s about one half an acre). They also have a few cows and are raising funds to buy a vermi-composter unit. By our standards, it’s a small operation, but they are demonstrating organic techniques in the hopes that others will adopt them and keep the land healthy.

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Our second stop was a daycare for landless people. This was the first of several times we would come across the term “landless” in the day. Owning land is deeply connected to livelihood here, for even a small plot of land can provide a reliable source of income. Tourism may be where the big money is these days, but for many that wealth is out of their reach, and for these families both parents are working.

We were treated to the ABCs song and dancing, and in return we sang a few campfire songs (“Land of the Silver Birch” and “Kookaburra”). I doubt either the kids or us would win any talent competitions, but it was fun.

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From there, we pedaled to Kumroj, a Tharu village, to visit the local public school. We stopped first to purchase a supply of pencils and notebooks to give to the students. As we stepped into the school grounds, we were greeted by warm smiles and greetings in English.

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Education is mandatory in Nepal up to age 16, and it is the stepping stone to a better future, but the path is rocky. Public schools are underfunded, and this one, in a word, was sparse. Concrete classrooms ring a common playground that has no play equipment. The kindergarten was a bare room, with a play area behind a row of steel bars and with a single doll on the floor. A gift of a book and a pencil goes a long way here.

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As we left, we heard the class next door reciting their times tables in rough English. One of the teachers mentioned that they were always interested in volunteers to teach English. In a flash, Nancy was up in front of class leading the drill, and Aran soon got in on the act.

Aran's teaching style had the students enRAPtured

Aran’s teaching style had the students enRAPtured

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With the grade five class

Next, we dropped in on the grade eight class, where we gave an impromptu geography lesson comparing Nepal and Canada. Our request for a map sent one of the teachers off to find what we think was the school’s only globe. Even at the grade eight level, there were no resources in the classroom.

If the resources were lacking, spirit was not. I don’t think we have ever encountered a more eager group of students.

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After a quick bite from the cart outside the school, we were off on our way, only to stop five minutes later to hold a goat. We noticed the house had a methane digester at the back, and Doma told us that Kumroj was the first village to convert almost entirely to biogas. In every yard, there is a digester which converts manure into gas for cooking. It’s one of those win-win projects, backed by international NGOs, that has given villagers a new fuel source (replacing wood), improved hygiene (introducing toilets), and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

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DSC04057 A backyard biogas digester

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Manure and water are mixed to make a slurry, which drains into the underground digester to produce methane gas

Riding back into town, we stop at the office of Chitwan Buffer Zone. One half of all the fees raised by the Chitwan National Park are invested in the community, and the process of deciding on the projects to be funded is through a community participatory process involving 160 user groups that cover all the villages in the buffer zone. It’s a pretty cool model for tying tourism back into community development, one worthy of a separate article.

It was a tired, but happy group of cyclists that made its way back into Sauraha. A huge, huge, thank you to both Raj and Doma for showing us an amazing part of Nepal and such a warm community spirit!

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