Chitwan National Park is one of the crowning jewels of Nepal, and it’s also one of the country’s more successful conservation projects. We had taken a boat through the park, scouting for tigers in the wild. And the following day, we rounded out our weekend in Chitwan with a ride through the local villages. We were given the back of a jeep and we spent the ride observing the village while the wind sent a hot, sticky heat across our skin. In addition to seeing the Terai villages, the end goal was the park’s Elephant Breeding Center.
Elephants in Asia is a sticky subject fraught with a lot of hard questions. In many cases of conservation, breeding centers are used to revive endangered populations. But the elephant population in Chitwan is not endangered. Instead, the Center breeds elephants for hard labor in the fields, or as tourist lures. Initially, I assumed that the breeding center was used to repopulate elephants in the nearby forests. This National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and therefore under international protection. Once in captivity, however, it seems that they are not required to release them, even though the Asian wild elephant is endangered.
Even before arriving, I had these reservations about the purpose of the Breeding Center. But, as a part of a packaged tour, I was shepherded along to learn more and to see the newest born elephants. The prize animals at the breeding center were twin baby elephants, just three months old. It seems like it’s cute, but not a big deal. According to our guide, however, these twins are the only surviving elephant twins in the park’s history. And they are just the third set to be born here, period.
Twin elephants are extremely rare all over the world and have dismal survival rates. Considering the extremely long gestation time for elephants (22 months!), the momma elephant who carries the twins has a long road to travel before birth.
When we arrived, the twin elephants were loping along after their momma on their way back into the breeding center after having left with the Mahouts in search of breakfast. And while I wanted to celebrate the birth of these adorable elephants, it was hard to see the mother elephant march back into the compound bound in chains. It is just a matter of years before those twins follow suite.
Another set of elephants, both about two-and-a-half years old, were feist! They trotted over to our group as soon as we walked into the compound. These two guys were frisky and playful. And they knew precisely what they wanted — any and all food that was in or bags and hands. One of them even walked straight up to me with his trunk extended and tried to taste my camera! I assured him that the crackers in the other hand were tastier, and he then pushed and nudged me until I had surrendered all of my food.
As the final activity during our tour of Chitwan, we would ride an elephant through the jungle to spot wildlife. After all of my effort in Laos to not exploit the elephants, I fear the jungle ride defeated the purpose. Even more tricky than breeding elephants, riding them is met with a lot of opinions. In Thailand, it’s a clear no-no and not a responsible tourism practice; in short, you shouldn’t ride an elephant when traveling there. In Nepal, however, I tend to float in the other direction, as do several prominent responsible tourism websites. In Chitwan National Park, the elephants are primarily used to allow tourists to see the endangered one-horned rhino. Additionally, the park has a handful of the world’s remaining Bengal tigers, vultures, and and other critically endangered animals. In the larger scheme of it all, the elephants shuttling tourists to the rhinos provide invaluable funding that goes toward anti-poaching measures. This is a rare instance where responsible tourism can include a ride on an elephant as a means of supporting responsible tourism.
And so, by taking that elephant ride, I had the opportunity to see the one-horned Asian rhino. These rhinos are extremely dangerous on foot, and the elephant ride is one of the few ways tourists can view the rhino without risking serious dismemberment. And I am not exaggerating here. One of the nearby guides had returned home from the hospital just that day because of a wild rhino attack! For our journey, this rhino was unperturbed by the three elephants circling him in the large, grassy area. He munched the grass for several minutes, and then he stood perfectly still, almost like he was posing for a mini photo-shoot for us — he was much more tolerant than the Indian cow debacle!
In addition to the wild rhino, I spotted several types of deer — spotted deer and barking deer most notably — and even saw a peacock, for good measure!
It was a lovely trip and one that I highly recommend to travelers visiting Nepal. We had no major issues throughout our visit. In fact, the whole trip was documented well by one of the doctors volunteering in a community near our village of Pharping. Lip Choy, a Malaysian doctor, was such a fun addition to it all. He took a picture of absolutely everything he encountered. Add to that the fact that he had just completed his own Vipassana Meditation course, and he was a veritable chatterbox. Fellow travelers Jess and Regina also joined our group of Pharping volunteers. Jess was spunky and fun; she had just received her certification in the US and was a newly minted doctor. Regina is Portuguese and also a doctor volunteer in the medical clinic in Chapagaon.
And all of these months on the road, it was fun and a relief to travel with three doctors! My cousin and I had a bevy of questions for them, naming symptoms and questions from our illnesses endured these past months on the road. Despite being sure we had issues, our doctor-friends cleared our symptoms and told us to wait it out until we rejoined the developed world in just a few weeks.
As far as health concerns went throughout Chitwan, all seven of us chose to take anti-malarial medicine because of the parks tropical climate and proximity to India. Until this point, I have opted against malaria medication even though it was recommended for all of SEA and India. Instead, I used strong DEET repellant and wore long pants in the evenings. And while that worked well, I figured only an idiot would refuse to take anti-malaria medication while all of the doctors in the group were doing it. I already had a three-month supply from the U.S. travel clinic I visited just before my trip, so that was plenty for my cousin and I to take recommended dose of Doxycycline every day (and for four weeks thereafter).