Lifted straight from the pages of a Rudyard Kipling book, the steamy jungles of southern Nepal are home some of the best wildlife watching in Asia, if not the world. Within the Terai plains, visitors can seek out tigers, elephants, monkeys, rhinos, bears, deer, crocodiles, leopards, river dolphins and a staggering 867 species of birds.
The world-heritage listed Chitwan National Park is regarded as Nepal’s most popular national park, both for its abundance of animals and its accessibility to Kathmandu. Bardia National Park is much more remote and also more pristine. Just getting around the parks is an adventure, usually involving a mix of elephant safaris, rafting, jungle walks and jeep trips. While poaching took its toll on animal numbers during the decade-long Maoist insurgency, the latest counts show numbers to be on the incline.
Visitors to Africa often want to tick off the Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo), and if you swap tigers for lions, you can do the same in Nepal. One of the most majestic animals in the world, the Royal Bengal tiger is also one of the hardest to spot. The density of their habitat combined with the foliage’s orange-brown hues keep these notoriously shy cats well camouflaged.
Living in stealth across the Terai, the spotted leopard is Nepal’s other elusive big cat. Keep your eyes peeled above – most sightings occur in the limbs of trees.
The greater one-horned rhino, with armour-like body plates and a solitary horn similar to its African brethren, is Nepal’s local celebrity. The most common way to spy a rhino is by riding on the back of an elephant, effortlessly traversing the park’s jungle vegetation from an excellent vantage point. An option for braver souls is to track the rhino on a jungle walk. Test your tree-climbing skills before setting out, as rhinos have been known to occasionally charge tourists. All lodges in the park can arrange guides for jungle treks.
Bardia National Park is the place to see wild elephants, where you have a good chance of spotting them along the banks of the Karnali River. Otherwise you can settle for getting intimate with the park's domestic elephants, lending a hand with their daily wash in the river at Chitwan.
Buffalo round out the last of the Big Five, and Nepal is home to one of the last remaining habitats of arna -- an endangered species of long-horned wild buffalo. You will find a healthy population grazing each evening along the wetlands of the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in eastern Terai.
However, not all of Nepal’s wildlife is found in the jungles. The most famous Himalayan inhabitant is the snow leopard. With its thick, white spotted fur, it is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful cats, and also one of the most elusive. A less expected high-altitude animal is the red (lesser) panda, which can be found in the foothills of eastern Nepal. Other wildlife to watch for include the Himalayan tahr (mountain goat), bharal (Himalayan blue sheep) and everyone’s favourite shaggy bovine, the yak.