Whether you watch these giants lumbering up the street as you sip coffee in your hotel room or opt to ride an elephant through the balmy jungles of Chitwan National Park, the experience is unforgettable.
Welcome to Sauraha
The Terai refers to the southernmost region of Nepal. It’s a narrow belt of flat plains, winding rivers, and subtropical jungles that borders India.
Sauraha, a village on the border of Chitwan National Park, boasts a wide selection of hotels and camps to stay at. Sauraha also has a variety of souvenir shops, restaurants, and agencies that arrange guided tours and other activities.
Only a six-hour bus ride from Kathmandu, Sauraha is the perfect home base for exploring Chitwan.
Elephants of the Terai
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are currently endangered due to poaching and habitat loss. Elephants in the Terai are not the only species under threat; the Bengal tiger and one-horned rhinoceros have also suffered from human activities.
Nepal’s effort to conserve their animal population has been one of the country’s most successful endeavors. And one of the best ways to fund conservation efforts is to tap into the tourism industry.
The average cost for an elephant-back safari excursion is about 40 USD per person. One ride usually lasts anywhere from one to two hours and takes you into a portion of the national park on quiet trails where you may be fortunate enough to spot:
- Wild boar
- Sloth bears
Each elephant is outfitted with a howdah that seats up to four passengers. The elephant’s mahout or driver sits just in front of the howdah close to the elephant’s neck and commands it.
Most tourists enjoy the elephant safari experience because it’s a safe and quiet way to explore the jungle. On an elephant, you have a good chance of successfully sneaking up on shy animals and viewing them in their natural environment without disturbing them.
Elephant safaris are a key means of generating revenue to support conservation efforts in Chitwan National Park. Also, it is just cool to say that you’ve ridden an elephant.
But there is still a bitter undercurrent of truth that can dampen the joy of being around elephants in Chitwan.
The Dark Side of Elephant Tourism
The elephant safari tour package option is losing its popularity because of concerns about how the elephants are treated.
Many elephants, captive-bred or wild-caught, are subjected to harsh training methods to make them easier to control and thus suitable for transporting tourists.
After one local mahout was asked about the scars on his elephant’s forehead, he said:
“Well, you have to beat them. It’s an elephant, not a person. Otherwise, how will they do what you want them to? The wounds heal quickly and don’t bother her much, anyway.”
While this logic may sound narrow-minded, it’s important to remember that this reasoning has been maintained as pure fact by mahouts for generations.
Mahouts do seem to value and appreciate their elephants – they simply don’t know any other way to deal with them.
This situation illustrates the importance of education for local elephant owners. Many mahouts are starting to implement gentler training techniques. And as the popularity of elephant rides dies down, so does the need to train elephants for such activities.
A Better Alternative to Elephant Safaris?
For those wishing to stay far away from elephant rides, there are a few other more elephant-friendly options.
A jeep, although noisier than an elephant, will help you cover more ground in the park. Most rare wildlife sightings (like tigers) happen from the back of a jeep. You’ll have the chance to see more of the jungle when on a fast-moving jeep as opposed to a plodding pachyderm.
Jeep safaris can comfortably accommodate more bodies at once, as a bonus. You can take along a large party of several friends and enjoy the experience together without the worry that comes from overloading an already overworked elephant.
Walking with Elephants
Several hotels are making the transition to offering elephant walks instead of rides.
This experience allows you to travel alongside an elephant and her mahout as you explore a portion of the jungle. You get to watch her move comfortably in her natural environment sans the burden of several bodies.
Some high-profile elephant owners and agencies are switching from the practice of chaining up their elephants to keeping them in open paddocks. This allows the elephants more freedom.
For a more in-depth experience, look into staying at an elephant camp in Chitwan.
The Rapti River is the shallow body of water that marks part of the border between Sauraha and the restricted grounds of Chitwan National Park.
One sandy section of riverside beach is the spot where elephants are taken for their daily bath at around ten in the morning. This activity, essential to elephant health and happiness, is open for visitors to take part in.
For 300 Nepali rupees (about 3 USD), you can wade right into the river to socialize with the elephants.
The fee technically covers a brief bareback ride as the elephant sprays you with a water shower from its nose. Elephants seem to love this prank, spraying far more often than directed to!
You are free, however, to spend the entire morning paddling in the cool stream, feeding the elephants bananas, taking pictures, and scrubbing down wrinkly elephant skin with smooth stones under the oversight of an experienced mahout.
If you notice a mahout being rough with his elephant or using a bullhook, you can simply opt to interact with an elephant whose trainer is being more gentle.
The relaxed elephant bathing experience is a good opportunity to interact with these gentle giants since they seem to be at their happiest. They’re free to stretch out and lie down in the refreshing current, drink, spray themselves with water, and enjoy snacks handed out by tourists.
A visit to Chitwan is a must. Even if you’re not interested in supporting elephant tourism in Sauraha, there is still much to see and do in terms of conservation and cultural education. The Terai is yet another unique facet to the gem of Nepal and worth every effort to experience!