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Chitwan National Park
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Introducing Chitwan National Park

Chitwan National Park is one of the premier drawcards in Nepal. The World Heritage–listed reserve protects over 932 sq km of forests, marshland and rippling grassland, and is home to sizeable populations of wildlife. It’s little wonder this place is so popular.

Meaning ‘Heart of the Jungle’, Chitwan is famous as one of the best wildlife-viewing national parks in Asia, and you’ll have an excellent chance of spotting one-horned rhinos, deer, monkeys and 450 species of birds. If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll see leopards, wild elephants and sloth bears – though it’s the once-in-a-lifetime chance to spot a majestic royal Bengal tiger that attracts people in their droves.

Sadly, Chitwan lost many animals during the decade-long Maoist insurgency, when the army were preoccupied with the conflict and unable to provide adequate protection from poachers. However, the good news is that recent census figures show rhino numbers are substantially increasing (503 individuals in 2011) and tiger numbers are steadily increasing (around 125 adults in 2010).

The best option for experiencing Chitwan National Park is to stay in one of the luxury lodges located deep inside the park. Clearly this experience doesn’t come cheaply, and with calls for the removal of all lodges from the park getting louder, the future of this option looks uncertain. At the time of writing, the government had set a date for closure of these lodges at 15 July 2012. In response, the lodges have bought land just outside the national park to develop new accommodation.

Most budget travellers opt for the more affordable lodging in Sauraha, a tourist village on the northern bank of the Rapti River on the edge of the park. It has a lively backpacker scene, and while many enjoy its social nature, and it is a great place to have a beer watching the sunset over the river, others are let down by its insensitive and overly commercial development.

Two whole days in the park is really the minimum for wildlife spotting. The nature of dense jungle, tall grass and the nocturnal hours kept by many animals are all factors that make spotting animals far from guaranteed. A good approach is to treat wildlife viewing as one would the pastime of fishing: some days you’ll get plenty of bites, others not a nibble. Irrespective, it’s all about the thrill of the chase and being out and about in tiger and rhino country. Be aware that the popular four-day, three-night packages include a day of travel at either end.