If someone tells us that they have spent their vacations in Nepal, the first image that comes to mind is that they have been in a country full of exoticism and color, but above all surrounded by the highest mountains on Earth, walking up and down steep trails, and in a cold and hostile environment.
But if that person tells us that on his trip he has limited himself to visiting the Nepalese Terai and specifically the Chitwan National Park, it will be true that he has been in a place brimming with color and exoticism, instead, no mountains, no climbs no downs, much less cold. Terai is very different from the northern strip of Nepal (the one located at the foot of the Himalayas). Chitwan is located in an area of plains, with a good part of its territory as flat as the palm of the hand, with high temperatures.
Do we miss something interesting if we stop visiting this low area on a trip to Nepal? Well, in my opinion, yes. And there are plenty of reasons to recommend a stay at the Terai, even a short one.
Without a doubt, the main attractions of Nepal are the Kathmandu Valley, the Pokara area and the entire Himalayas, including the Dolpo, the forbidden kingdom of the Mustang and each and every one of the treks that run through the mountains. But, the perfect complement to walking through the heights is the visit to the Chitwan National Park.
The Chitwan National Park is quite large, covering an area of 932 km2, stretching between the border with India to the south, the Narayani and Rapti rivers to the north and west, and to the east bordered by the wildlife reserve of Parsa. A part of the borders with India correspond to the Valmiki National Park, a preserve dedicated to the conservation of the Bengal tiger. The highest parts of Chitwan are hills called Churia, which barely exceed eight hundred meters in height and which are part of the Siwalik mountain range, timidly advanced towards the south of the Himalayas. The rest of Chitwan is between one hundred and one hundred and fifty meters high.
The region’s climate is between subtropical and tropical, affected by monsoons. Between the months of June and the beginning of October, up to 2,500 mm of precipitation can fall, in torrential rains that often alter the courses of the rivers and cause great floods.
Temperatures vary according to the season, thus, between October and February, there is an average of 25ºC, from March the temperature increases to an average of 36ºC in June and with peaks reaching 43ºC.
The best time to visit Chitwan National park is from October to May. If the objective is bird watching, it is advisable to visit Chitwan between the months of December and March.
This was the first national park in Nepal, in 1973, at that time it was called Royal Chitwan (Chitwan means the heart of the jungle), but since the early 19th century it was already a preserved territory and was used as a family hunting ground Nepalese royal. The year 1984 was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list.
Apart from the obligatory journey through the jungle, either on the back of an elephant or by canoeing any of the rivers of the park, it is also very interesting to visit any of the indigenous communities that live established in the bordering areas.
The original ethnic group of the Terai is that of the Tharu, who are considered ancestors of Siddharta Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, who was originally from Lumbini, a place not far from Chitwan Park. The Tharu towns are pleasant and their people are very hospitable towards the visitors. Their main job is agriculture and livestock, and a few works in the tourism sector.
What is most striking about this ethnic group is the fact that they are mostly immune to malaria (also called malaria). It is thanks to this adaptation that they were able to survive throughout the centuries in an area where the anopheles mosquito abounded. The aggressiveness of these mosquitoes transmitting the disease was such that all the people of other ethnic groups who dared to settle in the Terai, ended up suffering from malaria and fatally died.
In the sixties of the last century, the Nepalese government sprayed the Terai rainforests and wetlands with DDT, thereby fighting and almost eliminating the presence of the anopheles mosquitoes. In exchange what occurred was the contamination of the river systems and it also affected people and animals with the bioaccumulation of this product when entering the trophic route.
The effects were disastrous, as many species were affected by the immune system. It seems that one of the animals that least endured the effects of DDT was the one-horned rhino; of the 800 copies that were in the year 1950, it was about to disappear from the park. The other effect derived from the elimination of malaria was that it opened the door to the entrance of people from other ethnic groups. Thus, in a few decades, settlers arrived and settled in the fertile lands until then the sole territory of the Tharu.
The cultivation of rice, corn and mustard harvesting are some of the main agricultural activities, the development of floriculture is also gaining ground. Beekeeping and chicken farms are other commercial aspects exploited in the region.
Tourism began to arrive in Chitwan in the mid-seventies of the last century since then the number of visitors has grown a lot, now more than seventy thousand people a year are estimated. This number is acceptable both for the ecosystem and for the infrastructures and at the moment, when we walk through the park, there is no feeling of being in a too crowded place of tourists, but rather the opposite.
Within the park, there are seven establishments authorized as a lodge to welcome visitors, but most establishments are located in the buffer zone of the park, especially in the surroundings of Sauraha, where the visitor center is. These tourist centers offer, among others, the full board service, specialized guides, elephant, canoe and 4 × 4 tours and bird watching. There are other attractions, notably the Khorshor Elephant Breeding Center and the Gavial Breeding Center.
Chitwan holds the Asian record for biomass production, calculating 18,950 kg / km2. This figure is the association made up of wild ungulates, forests and tall grass, approaching the biomass rates produced by some of the parks and reserves in East Africa. 80% of the park is covered by forests of salt trees ( Shorea robusta ), conifers and palm trees also grow, the rest is pasture areas. In the pastures, the elephant grass ( Saccharum spp ) stands out, which grows even above five meters.
The fauna is the jewel of the park. Up to fifty mammal species and fifty-five amphibians and reptiles are counted. The bird census has reached five hundred and twenty-five species, many of them migratory. Of all the animals, the most spectacular to observe is undoubtedly the Asian one-horned rhino ( Rhinoceros unicornis ).
Now the species is protected to the maximum and it has reached five hundred specimens and it is easy to see. However, in 2002 the poachers killed 37 animals in order to cut the horns.
Wild elephants are more difficult to observe and even more, almost impossible, is to be able to see any of the few specimens of the Bengal royal tiger ( Panthera tigris). Tigers, which need a large hunting ground, hide in the farthest areas of the park, where tourists rarely arrive.
Another rare and endangered animal is the gharial ( Gavialis gangeticus ), although, during a visit it is extremely difficult to see any of these strange saurians, there is always the option of approaching the breeding center for close observation.
As you can already imagine, or if you have ever been touring a wildlife reserve, the observation of certain species is sometimes partly the result of luck and also the professionalism of the guides.
It is possible that in the visits that I have made in the park, luck and a good guide have joined, the truth is that from the top of the elephant or sailing in a canoe, I have been able to observe the rare ungulates called gaur or Indian bison, a large Asian bovine, an endangered species that has a prominent presence in Chitwan. I have also been able to see the sambar ( Cervus unicolor ) and the swamp crocodile. What until now has been impossible has been to see a tiger in the wild.
Hopefully, when any of you have the opportunity to go to Nepal and visit Chitwan, you can enjoy the spectacle of so many animals in the wild.