On Safari in Nepal

Forest-fringed grasslands in Chitwan National Park.

Forest-fringed grasslands in Chitwan National Park.

Nearly hunted to extinction by the early 20th century, the greater one-horned rhinoceros (a.k.a. the Indian rhinoceros) has made a remarkable comeback in Nepal since the 10-year civil war between Maoist guerrillas and what was then known as the Royal Nepalese Army ended in 2006. During a decade in which more than 6,000 rhinos were killed for their horns in Africa and neighboring India, Nepal virtually eliminated poaching, declared its first “zero poaching” year in 2011 and repeating the milestone four times since then. In last year’s census, the country’s rhino population stood at 645—nearly double the 2006 number and the highest total recorded since conservation efforts began in 1957.

For Ghana S. Gurung, a conservationist with the Nepal branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the success is almost unbelievable. On top of all the other challenges, most of Nepal’s high-ranking wildlife officials were killed in a helicopter crash in September 2006, just two months before the peace deal was brokered. Younger, less experienced staff had to fill the gap amid a full-blown conservation crisis. “We were in political chaos,” Gurung told me over the phone from Kathmandu. “The [conservation] infrastructure was totally destroyed. Now, getting to this level is a dream come true.”

Meghauli Serai’s main lodge.

Meghauli Serai’s main lodge.

The transition has not been painless, however. During the war, the country plunged from being the 10th most popular destination for adventure travelers to a lowly 27th, according to a survey conducted by the website iExplore. The rhino population, too, dropped to an all-time low for the modern era, as the Nepalese army battalions tasked with park conservation disbanded most of their posts in Chitwan and two other rhinoceros habitats—Bardia National Park and Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve—for fear of being overwhelmed by insurgents. The result was a free-for-all for poachers.

The rebels, meanwhile, though sparing trekkers from any violence, were not above asking for “donations” from foreigners found walking in the wilderness. And they made no bones about demanding tribute from the capitalists involved in the hotel business. In 2004, extortion threats were behind the temporary closure of two upscale properties in Kathmandu as well as the decision by the Taj Group to abandon its once lucrative 25-year contract to operate the Hotel Annapurna. India’s largest hotel chain—one of the most prestigious hospitality brands in Asia—had quit Nepal.

This April, Taj announced its return.

Two days before my encounter with the mama rhino and her calf, I’d flown to Nepal from my home in Delhi to check out the venture that had lured the company back: a US$7 million lodge on the edge of Chitwan National Park called Meghauli Serai. It’s the first international project undertaken by the group’s Taj Safaris division, a partnership with luxe African safari specialists andBeyond that operates a circuit of jungle lodges in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Having visited two of those properties, I was keen to see how Taj’s brand of high-end and sustainable wildlife tourism translated in the subtropical lowlands of south-central Nepal.

The entrance to Meghauli Serai’s village-inspired dining courtyard.

The entrance to Meghauli Serai’s village-inspired dining courtyard.

I arrived at the lodge at a fortuitous moment. “Would you like to see a wild elephant?” asked my butler as he handed me a welcome drink made from hibiscus flowers. I said yes (of course) and he ushered me through the airy main lodge to a wooden deck where a royal-blue infinity pool seemed to merge with the meandering flow of the Rapti River, which forms the park’s northern boundary. Across the water, a wild bull elephant was perhaps a football field away. With his ears spread wide and his massive tusks thrust forward, he marched purposefully toward the riverbank across from us, where two fishermen stood waist-deep in the current. On seeing the animal approach, the men abandoned their nets but held their ground. “They’re awfully brave,” an onlooker remarked.

“Do the wild elephants ever cross the river?” I asked Dipu, the lodge’s naturalist, after he was introduced to me at the railing.

“All the time. There’s an elephant camp with domesticated elephants on this side that attracts them whenever one of them goes into musth,” he said, referring to the mating period when bull elephants’ testosterone spikes to 60 times normal levels. “Sometimes they even kidnap the domestic females and take them into the jungle.”

It was hard to imagine a better start to my stay. I’ve made more than six trips to India’s most famous national parks, and while visiting the jungle is always exciting, there are no guarantees you’ll spot one of South Asia’s equivalent of the Big Five—the Asiatic lion, Indian leopard, Bengal tiger, Indian elephant, and one-horned rhino. In fact, I’ve only ever seen a tiger. But here I was, newly arrived in Chitwan, and I had already laid eyes on a wild tusker.

A villa bedroom at Meghauli Serai.

A villa bedroom at Meghauli Serai.

As I crossed back through the lodge and crunched down the gravel path to my riverside villa, I reflected on what the Taj Group’s return might mean for Chitwan, the country’s oldest and most cherished national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. A few years ago, the government had forced the closure of all lodges operating within the reserve, including Temple Tiger and Tiger Tops, two of the country’s most famous wildlife resorts. Coming when the country’s top hotels were bleeding money and tourism numbers were just starting to recover, it was a controversial move. Safari operators routinely claim that tourists and staff act as an informal deterrent to poaching, simply by putting more eyes and ears in the jungle. And while everybody loves elephants, rhinos, and tigers, it’s the tourist dollars they generate that provide the most compelling argument for rerouting highways and other measures needed to protect the reserve and the buffer zone around it. Moreover, it was the concessions inside the park that had put Nepal’s wildlife safaris on the map.

“When it comes to Nepal, everybody’s mind first goes to the mountains, the Himalayas,” said Basant Mishra, executive chairman of the Temple Tiger Group. “Why Chitwan became so famous is the work of the concessioners.”

But the Taj Group’s arrival suggested to me that pushing the old players out of the reserve—however painful in the short term—has opened the market up for new entrants. Freed from concerns about competing with properties located inside the park, Binod Chaudhary, the billionaire Nepalese real estate developer that built Meghauli Serai, already has two or three other developments in the works, while Tiger Tops and others have relocated to comparable sites on the outskirts of the park.

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