Sunday, June 8, 2008

Karnali Lodge & Bardia NationalPark

After packing, cleaning equipment, thawing out, team dinners, award ceremonies, drinking beer and catching up on much-needed sleep, my team flew out of Nepal and my father and I headed the opposite direction and flew down to Bardia National Park from 31 May to 6 June. Located at the far western side of Nepal and adjacent to the Indian border, the Karnali Lodge is one of the Crown Jewels of Tiger Mountain, a conglomerate of lodges focused on animal conservation and one of the original eco-travel groups of Nepal.

From Kathmandu, we took a relatively short 45 minute hop on a relatively new Yeti Airlines twin engine turbojet to the remote and under developed town of Nepalgunj, well known in this country for an active Maoist presence that was operating here during the insurgency days. The Maoists were so bad out in the Nepalgunj area that Tiger Mountain actually shut down it's lodge for several years thanks to the threat. Animals weren't so lucky: One-Horned Rhino were poached from a population of 75 to 33, over 40 Bengal Tiger were poached down to 17.

Landing in Nepalgunj, we were met by one of the Tiger Mountain naturalists (Raja) who escorted us the two hour drive over paved roads which then gave way to dirt trails before finally arriving at Karnali Lodge.

Located on the southern edge of Bardia National Park, the Karnali Lodge is a group of well maintained thatched roof buildings and central meeting hut that is airy and relaxing. It is one of the larger lodges at Bardia and has a well-stocked pen of six elephants, a range of 4x4s and a solid relationship with local game wardens who work jointly on a range of local issues from animal conservation to microcredit loans and women's groups. When we arrived, dad and I learned that even though the monsoon season had kicked off and was in full swing, they had left the lodge open just for us! Pretty cool all things considered and we were the only two guests, with a staff of 56.

Over the next six days, we went on elephant rides, jeep rides, nature walks and rafting trips to check out nature in this amazing jungle setting.

The main highlight of course was the difficult search for the wild and elusive Bengal Tiger from elephant back. Jesus are those things fast. They are beautiful and amazing though, but the trackers we had with us are out of control. They were speaking in Nepali so mostly I just heard "durka durka durka" and would catch sight of an occasional paw print in the sand every 30 minutes or so. But then we would get a translation of what they were working on, and would learn that between the elephant driver and tracker, we had been tracking not one, but two tiger over the last 45 minutes.. and they were hot on their trail.

The problem though, is that most of the bushes looked like this:

and when they didn't look like that, they looked like this, a pic of dad on his elephant wading through the eye high elephant grass prevalent in this area:

So the chase would continue. On and on, over the course of several hours. The tiger would hide, we would follow on a giant, lumbering elephant that would wade through grass and trees alike. We would get close, then the tiger would jet in the opposite direction before we were near. We would continue on though, tracker and elephant drivers determined and persistent in their search, At times, we would employ tactics to encircle the tigers with multiple elephants. That was the only time we came close, and eventually succeeded in seeing them for a brief fraction of a second.

But most of the time, we would push through the brush and that's when other animals would emerge. One of the most interesting, and entertaining was the highly endangered One-Horned Rhino. We ended up seeing 20 of the 33 in the park, which was a higher proportion than we were expecting. Before poachers, these were all over the place at Bardia, but the Chinese l-o-v-e rhino horn because it gives them virility, or whatever BS they believe it does for them. So instead of just dart them and take the horn, the poachers feel it's better to just outright kill the Rhino and leave the entire body to rot, save the little horn. How stupid can you get. They actually poached these beasts to extinction in Bardia, but the Government thought that it was important to spread load it's Rhino population in case of a "disaster" in the relatively poacher safe Royal Chitwan National Park. So they moved 75 to Bardia. Now there are 33. That's smartness at it's finest.

Anyway, so we would come on these animals in the grass, or wallowing in a well-hidden mud hole. After they would huff and puff in the most entertaining manner, all 3000 lbs of them would trot off at breakneck speed through the grass. But man, are they cool, and I was surprised at how nimble they are, although one of my favorite scenes in Ice Age is where Sid the Sloth eats a dandelion and almost meets his maker except for the help of Manny the Mammoth. they have terrible eyesight and when they look at you with their beady little eyes it looks almost equally as funny as when they slowly wander up to one of our elephants, only to make a snort and bounce away like a little puppy when they finally realize what they are being curious about. A puppy that would put a serious dent in my social calendar if I were just walking along and he rolled over me like a steam roller. Here are my two favorite pics of them:

The elephants we were on really could have cared less about the Rhino. As far as they were concerned, they were just blow-hards who posed. But then occasionally, we would accidentally bump into one of the 130 wild elephants that exist in the park. Fortunately for these creatures, no one poaches them here so it's one of the few mega-fauna at Bardai that are actually increasing in number. These guys are something the elephants we are riding on do worry about.. except when one of the wild bulls isn't creeping into the Karnali Lodge elephant pen to convince one of the ladies to go with him back into the forest. Talk about smart. And anti-human. While we were there, one of the wild bulls went up to a blind and was so pissed at the humans that he used his trunk to rip out the stairs. When we would stumble on one of these guys out in the park our elephants would shake, make noises, and want to get the hell outta there. Except for one- Ram Kali. She snuck off into the jungle for days at a stretch with wild bulls on three separate occasions. Three! The only way they would get her back was after she'd get hungry and be looking for her special food the handlers give her.

So finally, after seven rides we saw Bengal Tiger on three separate occasions. There were two other wily tiger that we were hot on the trail of, but never spotted. You know, how many times have you seen these amazing tiger pictures of a beautiful creature, crouched and about to pounce. Or, lounging around and relaxing. No way. After three sightings, here's the only- not the best, not the worst. The only picture we have of a tiger that we sighted. I know how amazing it is, and how it will win an award for best animal image of the century:

It was great- truly great though. Talk about electric to see one and to go through the thrill of the chase as many times as we did. It made the 24 hours, tired hands, sore back and bug bitey collective 24 hours of elephant rides.

Anyway, the trip to Karnali was fantastic from another perspective too. No Internet, phone, tv.. none. It was the pinnacle of relaxing. But, absolutely no way to communicate with the outside world either. And Jesus was it HOT there. I know, I prayed for heat every single night as I jammed a hot water bottle down into the foot of my sleeping bag on Everest. But Karnali was ridiculous. I think mosquitoes and other bugs took a pint of my blood too, and I have the bumps to prove it. These things would drop out of trees onto you while the elephant lumbered on, or come humming out of the forest at a low drone. And yes, I know that it's only going to get worse as we get closer and closer to the Equator. But that's ok, it was worth it. Because in a few weeks, when we are home, I won't think about the elephant rocking like a rowboat on stormy seas.. I'll think of how cool it was to see that tiger jetting through the grass at Mach 3.

Here's a census of a select group of animals we saw on our 6 days at Bardia:

3 Bengal Tiger

3 Wild Bull Elephant

20 One-Horned Rhino

1 Fresh Water Dolphin (of 9 left)

2 Ghiral Crocodile

1 Blue Bull (Ngali Antelope)

Herds of Wild Boar

Herds of Chittal (Spotted Deer), Hog Deer, Swamp Deer, Barking Deer- Tiger food.Yum



Etc etc

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