Searching for wild rhinos and tigers in Chitwan National Park | Nepal

We visited Chitwan National Park 10 years ago and loved the experience of hiking in search of wildlife so we decided to return and try our luck at spotting a Bengal Tiger this time. Rhinos are the main attraction in the park with almost 700 of them roaming the forest and grasslands. Along with the one horned rhinos the park is also home to tigers, elephants, sloth bears, leopards, four types of deer, monkeys, wild boar and hundreds of birds. There are three ways to explore Chitwan; on a walking tour where you have two guides armed with sticks – yup, no guns here, you can also take a jeep safari and sadly the final option which we do not recommend is riding an elephant. These elephant are kept in captivity, their legs chained while they stand in one lonely spot without their family. Then when it’s time to work a big wooden unit is placed on their back which is designed for FOUR tourists to sit on, plus the mahout who’s sat above the elephants head, whacking it with a metal hook.

The village of Sauraha is the base to explore Chitwan and it sits on the banks of the Rapiti river. Across the river is the national park so just by walking to the river bank you have a chance of seeing wildlife. In fact sometimes they cross the river and enter the town, I was gutted as one evening while we were there a wild rhino walked right down the high-street and two days before one walked past our guesthouse!

We headed straight out to organise a tour for the next day and we spotted our neighbour who was a captive elephant, she was 40 years old and eating dry grass. After seeing huge family herds in Africa it was really heartbreaking to witness these elephants all alone and chained up. It’s a bizarre place as you can sit in a restaurant while these giant elephants walk through the streets after a days work. The mahouts will even stop outside shops to order something so it’s quite surreal just walking past elephants everyday….and so sad when they stare into your eyes, they look so depressed.

We ended up being approached at the river by a guide offering his services. I didn’t know whether to trust him as he didn’t have an office but he seemed to be honest and explained that his office shut down since covid so we just took his word for it as he seemed to have a lot of knowledge about all the bird species in the park. It felt better booking directly through the guide as appose to through our hotel, that way the person offering the service gets to keep all the money. Our guide was called Surrender, at least that’s what it sounded like and we agreed to meet the following morning at 7am for a full day walk. The price per person was 2000 rupees for the park entry and 3000 rupees for the walk, lunch and boat crossing. While talking to him at the river the sun was just setting and we got a glimpse of a rhino and a bison (which I didn’t know lived in Asia) in the grass opposite us.

We did the same tour on our previous visit but we actually had quite bad luck as struggled to spot any rhinos so we walked 30km in the sweltering heat. We did see one in the end who was bathing in a river and we almost got charged by a mum and baby through tall grass but all we saw of them was a grey blur.

To walk in the park you need two guides so we had Surender and a young sort of apprentice who walked behind us. They both had thick sticks as their weapons of choice. Craig held our guides stick while he grabbed the permits and began twisting it around in the air like some sort of martial artist…only to drop it and cause a huge bang on the floor that got everyone looking.

A lovely big dugout canoe was waiting to take us across the river and on the other side was a wild rhino, bathing in the water just opposite town which was very cool. Once we were in the park Surrender gave us a safety talk about what to do if we meet each animal. Rhinos have poor eyesight so we were told to keep still if we see one and keep very quiet as those big ears do a great job of hearing everything. If charged by a rhino we need to find a tree and climb it. He said this so causally like we would be able to actually climb a tree but in my mind I’m just going to try and hide behind a tree. If there aren’t any trees then he said we need to run in zigzags. Elephants are considered to be the most dangerous animal for humans, there are only about 60 in the park but they’re to be avoided if on foot. I remember when we did a walking tour in southern India, our guides had guns but ironically when we came across a wild elephant who let off an angry trumpet and began charging us they ran up the hill ahead of us! We weren’t even told to run, they just vanished and we had to run after them. Tigers generally keep themselves to themselves, they’re nocturnal and try to avoid humans but occasionally encounters happen and the guides have had to smack the sticks on the ground to make a big noise to scare them off, the same goes for bear encounters. He also told us that 7 locals have been killed in the surrounding villages by tigers!! And with that said we began our walk.

Straight away Surrender spotted tiger tracks in our dusty path. They were huge prints and we could see they came towards us and then the tiger must’ve turned around and gone back the other way. It wasn’t just one tiger though, there were smaller paw prints from her cub too! They were from earlier this morning or last night as they were very fresh.

The hike went quite quiet for the next few hours. We made a lot of stops at good viewpoints like watchtowers or river banks where we sat for 30 minutes or so, waiting to see if any animals came by. We saw scratch marks from a tiger on a tree and could smell a bear at one point which was very pungent. There were monkeys jumping through the tree canopy and deer in the forest but no predators as yet. One thing we were seeing an abundance of was leaches. We had to keep checking our legs as they made their way up under our trousers and sucked our blood. Apparently they have some sort of anti-blood clotting thing in their saliva so once they’ve had a full feed and drop off it takes a while to stop the bleeding. Craig had blood all over his trousers and sock and got a nasty one on his belly too which left a bruised, blood blister mark that lasted for days afterwards. I spotted one on my ankle and tried to flick it off but it reattached to a stone on my ankle bracelet and I couldn’t get him off. The suction was ridiculous, every time I pulled it the body just stretched like an accordion. Craig tried too, thinking I was being squeamish and not grabbing it properly but the same thing happened, it was like it had been superglued on.

Across the river we saw some captive elephants coming down for a bath. The two adults had mahouts on their backs while the three babies followed close by. Apparently these are elephants from the breeding centre, they’re used to help patrol the park from poachers so the army or rangers walk through the park on them. We heard these elephants don’t live a good life, when their not helping patrol the park they’re chained up. We didn’t see that though, instead we saw the elephants being taken to the river for a bath and drink and then they roamed through the grassland eating as much fresh greenery as they liked. Surrender said sometimes Rolando, a local, wild elephant follows these captive elephants down to the river but he didn’t show up today. He’s the father to many of the elephants at the breeding centre.

We had our lunch by the river and passed a couple of other groups who hadn’t had much luck seeing any animals either. We also saw a Danish film crew who were filming a guide whacking foliage out the way with his stick like it was a machete. It was very amusing because we were walking along a parallel path to them but they just wanted to make the terrain seem wilder than it was so they got the guide to pretend he was bushwhacking his way through the impenetrable jungle.

I was wondering if all we’d see today was the rhino across the river from the village but luckily we were in for a treat. A group of two other tourists and their guides were standing still ahead of us and put their fingers to their mouths to make sure we stayed quiet. We didn’t know what animal they were looking at but we made our way over to them, using a fallen tree as a bridge across a deep stream.

We found the animal, it was a rhino sleeping in another stream. He was only about 8 meters away from us so it was a very close encounter and we had to be totally silent. His head was half underwater so every time he breathed loud bubbles would come out his nose. We watched him for about an hour and on a couple of occasions he stood up and looked right at us. We all had to be dead-still, he could easily charge us and would be with us in a matter of seconds. There were trees around to hide behind though and the bank was quite steep to reach us, otherwise I don’t think our guides would allow us to be so close. Even the guides were taking videos so we figured it must be a pretty good encounter, we later asked Surrender about our rhino viewing and when we said it was quite close he said it was ‘too close!’

Monkeys were plummeting themselves through the tree-tops. They made such loud crashing noises and the rhinos oversized ears were swivelling around like antennas, trying to focus on the noises around him. The rhinos in Asia are different to African ones, in Asia they’re ‘one horned rhinos’ so they just have the one horn unlike the Africans which don two. The Asian ones have a bizarre body armour, like sewed seams around their shoulders and hips. They look like the one dinosaur that wasn’t wiped off the planet.

The rhino was farting a lot, bubbling all the water up like a kid in a bath. Then he would get up and roll sideways or sink his whole head underwater. I don’t know if the guides moved but at one point the rhino seemed to notice us. He was staring our way and began walking away until he suddenly charged…away from us! He charged through the water and right up the muddy river bank opposite us. Holy crap! It got everyone’s hearts pumping but then he just stood in the forest for a while and his humongous penis came out. The guides kept encouraging us all to have a look in the binoculars or take a photo but I didn’t want a photo of that on my camera. The guides were all whispering amongst themselves but there was one words we could understand “masterbating” apparently that’s what the rhino was doing!!

We were very happy to get that close encounter, anything else we saw was going to be a bonus. We spotted more tiger tracks throughout the day and Surrender got a piece of grass and used it to measure a circle around the paw print. This is so he could see how tall the tiger stood….it was up to my hips! A big male tiger.

We made our way to a cross junction in a road where a tiger is sometimes spotted walking along and we sat there for 45 minutes. We didn’t spot any tigers but there were two elephants from the breeding centre who were out for their afternoon grass grazing. They came quiet close to us so I began filming a selfie and all of a sudden the elephant started coming right for me. I thought I was going to be trampled but she tapped my head with her trunk which was quite a surprise!

Then it was time to walk back, we were quite exhausted even though we’d had a lot of breaks. Surrender told us about a couple of occasions where he thought he was going to die as a guide. One time a rhino charged him and the only tree around was a very thin one. The rhino was much quicker than he expected and made it to the tree at the same time as him. He had to resort to hitting the rhino on the front of it’s face with the stick as that’s the only part of its body that’s not thick skinned and like armour. Luckily the rhinos baby began to run away so the mum just followed. Another time a sloth bear went to attack him, this was in the days when only one guide was required so he was smacking his stick loudly on the floor and shouting loudly, trying to scare the bear away. He was expecting his English guests to join in shouting but eventually the bear ran away and he turned around to see the couple embracing in a hug, too scared to even look at the bear. He also told us about some close encounters with tigers, it all sounded rather exciting to me to be honest but things like that seem to excite me more than feel me with fear. We managed to spot a mum and baby rhino in a grassy field so that was a nice little add on, although the baby was almost the same size as the mum and I dream of meeting a teeny-tiny rhino because their ears look hilariously large for their little bodies.

Overall we had a pretty successful walk and our guide said we could reuse our entry permit to visit the buffer zone tomorrow on a two hour jeep safari for just 1000 rupees (about £7) so we agreed. The trip wasn’t very good to be honest. All of the jeeps set off at the same time so when we spotted a couple of rhinos we were sandwiched between other jeeps which were all full of locals who had no concept about being quiet around wildlife. Our guide kept trying to shush people but it was a lost cause and very infuriating. Anyway, we got a little look at a couple of rhinos and another one bathing in a river. Handpainted signs said ‘Tiger Zone’ on them which was exciting but we didn’t spot any. There was a Tibetan monk sat in front of us and he was sooooo smiley. He looked so happy to be on the trip and was taking plenty of selfies with us in the background. When we stopped for a toilet break (also infuriating as it’s just a two hour safari) we all disembarked the jeep and I noticed the monk was disabled. One of his legs was severely twisted and he used a cane and sort of dragged his foot along. It made all the small stupid things we worry about seem pathetic, his walking would limit him in everyday life, he had to leave Tibet due to you know who, yet he had the hugest grin on his face and so much gratitude to be on this trip. He spoke good English so we enjoyed a chat with him at the toilet break. The locals might of wound me up on the safari but this fella kept us smiling the whole way. We saw lots of monkeys, three different varieties of deer and a big eagle which may of been the honey eagle that Surrender told us about, apparently they only eat honey! It wasn’t my favourite trip though, they really need to have a serious intro at the beginning and tell everyone to be silent but hey, I can’t see anything changing, the locals love to shout.

For our final day around Chitwan we rented bicycles and cycled to 20,000 lakes. It’s within the buffer zone of the park which basically means all the wild animals are free to roam and I think this part of the buffer zone is the only one where you can enter without a guide. We headed to the Rapiti river first, looking for any animals but instead we found a sort of free pop-up elephant medial centre for privately owned captive elephants to ensure they’re kept in good health. Volunteers were cutting their huge nails and rubbing their legs to check they didn’t have any pains which was great to see.

Then we made our way through the villages which were lovely and rustic. Some of the houses were made of bamboo and then covered in mud and most people owned chickens or goats. The goats had recently had babies and they were absolutely adorable. One of the locals picked a tiny black one up with a red ribbon around its neck so we could stroke it and my goodness it was silky soft!

I took a slightly off the beaten track route to the lakes and we ended up at a river that we needed to cross. It looked too deep though so we were grateful that a local came by, rolled up his trousers and waded through the water. It came up to his thighs so we decided it was ok for us to take the bikes through. Turns out the guy was a park ranger so when we arrived at the office across the river he greeted us with his trousers still rolled up into little shorts.

The roads through the buffer zone were tough to cycle along with lots of rocks and the odd patch of sand that we swerved through. We eventually reached the first lake but it was hard to tell it was a lake because the surface was covered in lily pads. We sat on a rowboat moored up in the shallows and listened as the water bubbled up and made strange fart noises. We spotted a couple of crocodiles and some big eagles but no large or exciting animals. There weren’t even many lakes, they’d mostly dried up even though it was rainy season up until a month ago.

Our bums were in agony on the way back, we probably cycled about 25-30km and it was about 20km too much for my butt. We spotted some wood carvers in a village who were making rhino statues out of really heavy wood. It was fascinating watching them carve from a block of wood as they didn’t even draw a design or shape on the wood, they just knew exactly where to place the chisel and bang it with a hammer. They held the wood between their feet and one of the men was missing a few of his toes and I wondered if it was from this job, it wouldn’t take much to slip with the chisel.

We rented the bikes for the full day but we couldn’t wait to get back and drop them off after just 5 hours of cycling. But it was really nice seeing local life in the villages, everyone seemed smilier there and we met some really cute kids unlike some who ask for chocolate because other tourists give out sweets which just causes them to beg.

Sadly we didn’t get to see a tiger in the end but we still had another enjoyable experience in Chitwan. After a month in Nepal it was time for us to make our way back to Kathmandu on one of their legendarily slow buses. It took 9 hours to drive 170km!! In fact it took 3 hours just to drive the first 40km as we slowly picked up other passengers and then we were stuck in traffic after a bus crashed into the rock face and two trucks crashed into each other. I will not miss these bus journeys that’s for sure! For our final day in Kathmandu we ate some very disappointing food, a complete contrast to the delicious meals we enjoyed in Pokhara! But we also visited the Swayambhunath Temple which seemed to be a Buddhist stupa and a Hindu temple right next to one another. It was at the top of a hill and home to monkeys. A man warned us on our way up to be careful as a young girl had just been attacked by them and had her trousers ripped! I asked if she instigated them and he said “no she was just feeding them”. Well there ya go! After a final bit of shopping for fake North Face hiking gear it was time to get caught in traffic one more time on our way to the airport and say goodbye to the Himalayas which we had a perfect view of out the airplane window. Now it’s time to head back to Thailand, an old favourite of ours.

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