Maoist insurgents control more than half of Royal Bardia National Park's 375 square miles. As we sipped scotch after dinner at Bardia's nearly empty Tiger Tops Karnali Lodge, the evening's quiet was shattered by the sounds of shouting, clashing gongs and thumping drums—villagers trying to drive off elephants intent on eating unharvested rice. We heard the same ruckus the next two nights. With noise pretty much their only defense, the villagers are outmatched by the crop-raiding pachyderms. Between eating it and stomping it, just a few elephants can destroy a village's rice crop in a night or two.
We caught up with the marauders the next afternoon on an elephant-back tour of the park. Our trained elephants sensed the presence of their wild relatives in a dense patch of trees, and our elephant drivers moved cautiously toward them so we could get a closer look. But with the first glimpse, the animals we were riding backed away, and we retreated hastily across a river. Three wild males—which we nicknamed the Bad Boys of Bardia—glowered at us from the other side until, with the light failing, we finally departed.
Wild elephants disappeared from Bardia many years ago, but in the early 1990s, about 40 somehow found their way back. No one is sure where they came from—perhaps as far away as Corbett National Park—and today they number between 65 and 93. Copying a model pioneered in Chitwan, conservationists in Bardia worked with local community groups to protect this forest and help them raise and market such cash crops as fruit and medicinal herbs.
In the buffer zone around Bardia, we met with members of one of these associations, the Kalpana Women’s User Group. They told us that one recently completed project is a watchtower from which farmers can spot wild elephants. They also told us they have purchased biogas units so they no longer have to collect fuel wood in the forest. (Biogas units convert human and animal waste into methane, which is used to fuel stoves and lanterns.) Last year, the women won a conservation award from the World Wildlife Fund program in Nepal, and they used the 50,000 Nepalese rupee prize (about $700) to lend money to members for small enterprises such as pig and goat farms. These women, with sheer angry numbers, have also arrested timber poachers and received a share of the fines imposed on the culprits.
But success breeds problems. In the Basanta Forest, between Shuklaphanta and Bardia, tigers killed four people in 2005, and 30 elephants destroyed nine houses. "We like to have the wildlife back," a member of a Basanta community group said to us. "Now what are you going to do about it?" There is no easy answer.
It’s a day’s drive—about 300 miles—from Bardia to Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park. Though tigers live in the forests between the two parks, bustling towns in the river canyons between them prevent the animals from moving freely from one to the other.
Our excitement at finding fresh tiger tracks on a riverbank near a Chitwan beach faded after we entered the park itself. Moving in and out of forest and grassland, we scoured the landscape looking for rhinos. In 2000, we saw so many—at least a dozen during a three-hour elephant ride—that they lost their allure. But on this morning, only five years later, we spotted just one.
Only organized poaching could explain such large losses. Poaching rhinos for their horns (which aren't really horns but compacted masses of hair used in traditional Chinese medicine—not as an aphrodisiac as is widely believed) was rampant in the 1960s. After poaching was curbed by the army beginning around 1975, rhino numbers rapidly recovered. But here, as in Bardia and Shuklaphanta, the Nepalese Army abandoned the park's interior to fight Maoists, and the poachers returned in force.
Eventually, though, the loss of the park's 200 or 300 rhinos spurred warden Shiva Raj Bhatta to action. He told us that in the few months before our visit, he had arrested more than 80 poachers—all now languishing in a local jail. Under the leadership of a hard-nosed colonel, the army, too, had reportedly stepped up its anti-poaching patrols.
More encouraging still, Chuck McDougal, a longtime Smithsonian research associate and a tiger watcher for more than 30 years, informed us that a census he'd just completed found all 18 tigers in western Chitwan present and accounted for. What’s more, McDougal reported, a pair of wild elephants were turning up regularly—a mixed blessing. And the first group of American tourists in more than two years had just checked in at Chitwan's first tourist lodge.