National Parks and Sanctuaries : Chitwan National Park

Famous for its extravagant hunts when it was a royal hunting reserve, the Royal Chitwan National Park is the oldest national park in Nepal. The presence of malaria spared large scale deforestation and settlement in the area until the 1950's when the valley saw the dissappearance of Swamp Deer, Wild Buffalo and Elephant.

The classic terai swamp and grassland habitat at Chitwan supports the second largest concentration of the endangered One-horned Rhinocers. Besides the Tiger for which it is also famous Chital,
Hog Deer, Sambar, Muntjac, Wild Boar,Common Langur and Rhesus Macaque are found here. The Narayani River supports a good and visible number of Gharial and the Mugger crocodile is found in the numerous lakes and waterbodies.

Chitwan has over 485 species of birds and observing a mixed feeding party in the forest is a rewarding experience. It is a good place to see Bengal Florican, Giant Hornbill, and the Grass Owl.

The Park is best visited between October and April.


Royal Chitwan National Park is the oldest national park in Nepal. Situated in the subtropical inner terai lowlands of South-Central Nepal, this Park like so many others in the subcontinent originates as a royal hunting reserve that once covered the entire valley with a lush growth of grassland and forest.

Although these forest were immune to large-scale human settlement due to the presence of a deadly form of malaria, some semi-aboriginal groups that had developed partial immunity, like the Tharus, did inhabit and farm the rich alluvial soils. However, Chitwan's claim to fame through the 19th and 20th centuries was the abundance and diversity of wildlife and it became a Hunting Reserve for Nepali Royalty and their Indian and European guests. Even in the early part of the 20th century the terai was considered a virtually inexhaustible reservoir of game and Chitwan became famous for the extravagant hunts that were organised during the non-malarial winter months. The scale and magnitude of these hunts, where 600 elephants could on occasion be assembled, is best illustrated by K.K. Gurung, who writes, "Another distinguished visitor to Chitwan was the Prince of Wales, who came in 1921, and during the 1930's three major hunts were held in the valley. The third, staged in 1938-39, in which Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy of India, took part, broke all previous records with a bag of 120 tigers, 38 rhinos, 27 leopards, and 15 bears from the Chitwan valley and the surrounding areas."

What needs to be emphasised here is that these hunts were conducted at irregular intervals; the habitat was strictly protected and protection was stringent, even inviting the death penalty for the illegal killing of a Rhinoceros.

By the 1950's however, politics, science and demographics combined to erode this marvellous wilderness. The King of Nepal launched an internal coup to regain power from his hereditary Rana Prime Ministers and ushered in a democratic government more responsive to the needs of the people who had been multiplying and stripping bare the overpopulated hills of Nepal. The pesticides (DDT and later malathion) and medicines needed to combat malaria were easily available and by the end of the 1950's the malaria free Chitwan Valley was thrown open to settlement.

In a matter of months the fertile alluvial floodplain was drained of its marshes and cleared of its forests and the animals that occupied this habitat like the Rhinoceros, Swamp Deer and Wild Buffalo were transported, in one easy step, from abundance to virtual extinction. A small part of the valley remained a hunting reserve but when the population of rhino fell to between 80 and 100 animals the government of Nepal created an official reserve protected by the Rhino Patrol. The wilderness however, remained in steady retreat until 1973 when Chitwan was declared a National Park to be protected by the Army.

By this time 2/3rds of the forest cover was lost. The Swamp Deer and Wild Buffalo had vanished and the Elephant population, with migration routes disrupted was reduced to a relic group of about a dozen animals to the east. Nevertheless, protection has brought some recovery and at present the Rhino population stands at over 400. Chitwan is also an important tiger reserve and has been the location for two long-term studies - the Smithsonian - Nepal Wildlife Department Tiger Ecology Project and Dr.Charles McDougals' land tenure and dispersal study. Apart from these Chitwan has also hosted Dr. Andrew Lauries' seminal work on the Great One-horned Rhinoceros, is the location for the captive rearing and reintroduction of the endangered gharial crocodile and several other smaller studies.

Hit hard by Tiger poaching in the late 80's and early 90's private and government organisations forged a remarkable alliance to combat this threat and today the tiger and rhino population in Chitwan is thriving. Innovative schemes have also been launched to widen the benefits of tourism and foster conservation. Forests fringing the park that have been protected by the local villagers have been opened for local tourism thus co-opting the locals into the business of conservation.

The park was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1984.


The Chitwan region of Southern Nepal occupies the valley of the Narayani (Kali Gandaki) River where it emerges from the Himalayan foothills to be joined by another major tributary, the Rapti River. This lowland region is part of the terai, the belt of forest and grassland that once stretched for 1500 unbroken miles through India and Nepal along the base of the Himalayas. The terai itself is divided into the bhabbar terai, south of the Siwaliks and the dun or valley terai found between the Siwaliks and the Himalayan foothills. Chitwan is part of the dun Terai.

The Park covers the elongated valley of the Rapti River. Its boundaries are demarcated by the Rapti River to the north, the Narayani River to the West, the crest line of the Siwaliks - locally known as the Churia - to the south and the Parsa Reserve Forest to the East. This is a pristine area with a unique ecosystem of significant value to the world. Apart from the rivers several ox-box lakes that are the relics of the shifting river courses punctuate the alluvial floodplain of the valley floor. Most of these support abundant populations of fish and Mugger Crocodiles.

Latitude: 27°20-27°40'N
Longitude: 83°52'-84°45'E
Area: 932 sq. kms.
The lowland areas of the Park are 400 to 500 feet (121 to 152 m)above sea level while the hills on the eastern side of the park exceed 2000 feet (600m).

Chitwan has a tropical (north Indian) monsoon climate with high humidity. The winter months from November to February are generally quite dry and cold but by the end of March Chitwan begins to warm up. The months between June to September are hot and the humidity is very high. The monsoon arrives in Chitwan by the middle of June and lasts till mid-September.

Rainfall:Chitwan receives an average rainfall of about 80 inches ( 203cm).
Temperatures: Min. 2°C (35.6°F); Max. 40°C(104°F)

Chitwan falls within the moist sub-tropical deciduous belt. Approximately 70% of the Park is covered by high ground and the Churia Hills. These uplands are covered by forests dominated by the Sal (Shorea robusta) which forms between 20% and 80% of the canopy cover. Other important species here are Saj (Terminalia tomentosa), Kusum (Schleichera trijuga), Tantari (Dillenia pentagyna), Jamun (Syzigium cumini), Harra (Terminalia chebula), Bahera (T. bellarica) and Haldu (Adina cardifolia).

Giant vines and creepers like Debre lahara (Spatholobus parviflorus), Bhorla (Bauhinia vahlli) festoon these trees which also host several species of orchids and epiphytes including the ubiquitous (viscum sp.) A sal-chir pine mix covers the highest part of the Churias(appr.3%)

The alluvial floodplain is covered either by riverine forest (7%) or grassland (20%). The riverine forests consist mainly of Khair (Acacia catechu), Shishum (Dalbergia sissoo) and Simal (Bombax ceiba). The grasslands comprise a diverse and complex community with over 50 species. The Saccharum species, often called elephant grass, can reach 8m. in height. Other high grasses include themeda, phragmites and arundo. The shorter grasses such as Imperata are useful for thatch. The grasslands and the mosaic habitat they form along with the riverine forest and lowland Sal are the highest value areas of the park in terms of biomass. The maintenance of the grasslands and the particular mix of short and high grasses is therefore critical to the well-being of the ungulates and the prey-predator dynamic. For centuries now the grasslands have been burnt in what is termed the fire-climax ecology and this is deemed vital for the preservation of the grasslands. Other factors, which keep colonising tree species at bay, are flood and frost. The grass is burnt from end-January to mid-February.

© Toby Sinclair 
There are more than 43 species of mammals are found in Chitwan. The Park supports the second largest concentration of the endangered One-horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis). Chitwan rhinos have been translocated to other areas of the terai like Bardia and Dudhwa in India, from where they had disappeared to form the nucleus of new populations. Long famous for the Tiger (Panthera tigris) the Park supports about 80-100 tigers.

With the disappearance of the Swamp Deer and the Wild Buffalo the prey base consists primarily of species like Chital (Cervus axis), Hog Deer (Axis porcinus) and Wild Boar (Sus scrofa). This is supplemented by smaller animals like the barking deer or Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak), grey or Common Langur (Semnopithecus entellus) and Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta). Sambar (Cervus unicolor) were once common in the Sal and riverine forests but there seems to have been a decline of these animals. A good population of Sloth Bear (Melurses ursinus) exists here. Smaller animals like the Palm Civet, Common Mongoose, Jungle Cat, Fishing Cat, Leopard Cat and even rarities like the Binturong, Spotted Linsang, Crab-eating Mongoose and Serow have been reported here. Chitwan is also home to the Gaur (Bos gaurus) which are most commonly seen in late winter and early spring when they descend to the lowlands. Wild Elephants (Elephas maximus) have been seen more regularly than in the past and it could be that the small eastern population has increased. Four-horned antelope or Chowsingha (Tetracerus quadricornis), Striped Hyena, Pangolin and the Gangetic Dolphin have all been seen here. The Smooth Indian Otter was once common although over- fishing of the large rivers and streams seems to have impacted adversely on the population in the past few years. The Indian Wild Dog or Dhole (Cuon alpinus) is quite rare and only sporadic sightings of these are reported. The Leopard (Panthera pardus) is also found in Chitwan, but as in most other places, is hard to spot.


With over 485 species of birds recorded, Chitwan can justifiably lay claim to being a great bird park. Several endangered species are found here including the Bengal Florican, Giant Hornbill, and the Grass Owl. In the winter months several Palearctic species migrate to this part of the terai and many Himalayan species descend into the lowlands. Ospreys, Grey-headed and Himalayan Fish eagles and even the occasional White-tailed Sea Eagle patrol the rivers which are the habitat of several species of waders and waterfowl. Gulls, terns, egrets, herons, Openbill, Lesser Adjutant, Black and Black-necked Storks all depend on the rivers, marshes and ox-bow lakes. The forests come alive with mixed feeding flocks that can comprise over a dozen species in rainbow colours and the grasslands are crowded with babblers, prinias, laughing thrushes, cettias, larks, warblers, finches and buntings.

One of the great spectacles here is the flowering of the semal or Bombax tree which paints the riverine canopy in vivid swathes of scarlet. This flowering attracts large numbers of birds including passage migrants like the Spotwinged Stare. With the onset of summer there is a significant change in the avian population. The Palearctics depart to be replaced by Pittas, Orange-headed Thrushes, Paradise Flycatchers and others.

Deep in the hill forests, the shadows are lit by vivid splashes of colours as long-tailed broadbills, rubythroats, yellow-bellied fantail flycatchers, minivets and others flash through the canopy.

More than 45 species of amphibians and reptiles occur in the park and Chitwan boasts of a good population of both the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) and the marsh or Mugger Crocodile (Crocodylus palustris). The common Monitor lizard is found in Chitwan and amongst the snakes the python, king cobra and the common cobra are found here. The green pit viper and various species of frogs and tortoises are also found in Chitwan.
Chitwan is a paradise for butterflies and moths. Spectacular species like the Atlas Moth and the Northern Birdwing are found along with over a 100 other species.

© Toby Sinclair 

Best time to visit: Mid October to end April
Park season/timings: Year round

How to get there:
By air to Meghauly. Drive from Kakthmandu, Pokhara or Nepalganj or Sanauli/Tansen. By raft down the Narayani River.

Accommodation: Tourism is operated through private concessions.

The top lodges are:

Tiger Tops - the pioneer of wildlife tourism in Nepal with 2 satellite camps;
Temple Tiger further to the West;
Gaida Wildlife Lodge in Sauraha to the East and
Chitwan Jungle Lodge near Kasara.

Copyright Wildvistas 2007. Website designed by Boltzmann Consulting
Site best viewed in IE with 1024x768 resolution