Endangered animals have found a safe haven in a Nepalese national park, writes Helen van Berkel.

He was a stone-cold killer. He'd killed three times before and, from the look in his eye, he was prepared to kill again. The elephants kept their distance: they know how dangerous a rhinoceros can be. This one-horned rhino male had killed three villagers, a guide warned. We'd seen the tip of this guy's ears and snout earlier and now he'd emerged from his evening bath to give us an impressive full-body display. Satisfied he was still the king of the grasslands, he lumbered off into the sunset.

One-horned rhinos are native to the Indian subcontinent but good old humanity has done it again: there are only about 3500 left and they're found in the wild in only a band of scattered populations across northern India and southern Nepal. Crooked Compass' Soul of Nepal tour took me to their refuge in Nepal's Chitwan National Park (chitwannationalpark.gov.np). Here, they roam unmolested apart from visits from tourists who maintain a respectful distance; elephants, who maintain an even more respectful distance - and Bengal tigers who also have found a safe home here.

Chitwan is about half an hour from Kathmandu in a plane so small everyone had a window seat. The landscape below looked like this: flat plain, plain, plain, mountain. They seemed to rise sheer and green from the valley floor, some topped with isolated homes; all hemmed with winding roads jammed with trucks and traffic. A jeep drive through paddy fields dotted with the colourful umbrellas of rice harvesters and tiny hamlets where children peeped shyly from behind their mud-brick homes took us to Barahi Jungle Lodge. On the edge of the 930sq km park, famed for its wildlife, from birds to monkeys to deer to sloth bears - and Bengal tigers, even a walk down to the river's edge gives you glimpses of crocodiles (tick), elephants (tick), rhinos (tick).

Life wasn't always as stress-free for these animals. On our first night at the resort we were shown heartbreaking pictures of the days when the Great White Hunters got their jollies killing anything that was magnificent and beautiful: King George V proudly posing in photos of row upon row of dead Bengal tigers and rhinos was enough to turn me republican.

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Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Photo / Lisa Pagotto, Crooked Compass
Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Photo / Lisa Pagotto, Crooked Compass

On the back of an elephant is the safest way to get close to the rhino. Admittedly, I felt a twinge of disquiet at boarding one of these plodding pachyderms. But who are we in the west to ride into someone else's country and tell them what to do? We ride horses - and look at what we made horses do for our entertainment during the Olympics. Our mounts are clearly well looked after - we later fed them "elephant sandwiches" which consisted of grass-wrapped nuts and seeds and vitamins. And that trunk clearly liked the treat.

We were lucky enough to see a crocodile one pink-tinged evening as we set out in dugouts to watch the sunset over Annapurna. The crocodiles' long narrow snout suggests they're not a danger to humans, even though they can get up to 6m long. These guys, too, are critically endangered.

But the biggest danger to me turned out not to be one of these great beasts.

A golden mist hung over the river as we headed out in the predawn half-light in search of the Bengal tiger. First, we put on a pair of leech socks, tied at the ankle and knee. We didn't see a tiger but as I crouched to watch a mother rhino and her baby wallowing in a mud bath I was silently attacked from behind.

"There's a leech on your back!" came the hissing whisper. I stood up only to be hastily pushed down: "Don't stand up! You'll squash it!" The guide carefully pulled the kind-of-cute-yet-gross slug from my back. I'd felt nothing - but now I have the smug joy of having had an experience no one else I know has had.

The closest we got to the big cat was a worryingly fresh-looking paw print in a
muddy puddle. It was disappointing not to have seen the beast of Bengal, but the tiger's absence has merely given me a reason to return to Nepal.

Nepal's national parks

Chitwan is the most easily accessible of Nepal's national parks, but for the adventurous traveller there are other incredible sites to add to the bucket list.

1 Bardia National Park
Established in 1888 as the Royal Bardia National Park, it covers more than 950sq km and is the country's largest national park, and was thankfully untouched by the 2015 earthquake. Like Chitwan, Bardia has amazing opportunities to see tigers, wild elephants and one-horned rhinos, as well as more than 250 species of birds, some endangered. Although around 70 per cent of the park is forest, there are also many open grassland areas, excellent for game viewing.

Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Photo / Lisa Pagotto, Crooked Compass
Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Photo / Lisa Pagotto, Crooked Compass

2 Sagarmatha National Park

A Unesco World Heritage site, Sagarmatha is the highest national park in the world, at the base of Mt Everest. It features dramatic mountains, glaciers and deep valleys. Wildlife found within the park includes the Himalayan tahr, ghoral, musk deer, and black bears. Also there, but less likely to be spotted, are wolves, lynx, and snow leopards. Access isn't easy - you'll need to fly into Lukla from Kathmandu, then trek for two days - but once you're there accommodation options range from resort hotels, lodges and camping.

3 Langtang National Park
Langtang was established in 1976 as the first protected area of the Himalayas. Visitors are able to explore local villages - there are about 45 within the park's boundaries - as well as glaciers with incredible views of the mountains. To visit a gompa (monastery), tourists must get permission from the lamas and make a small donation. Gosainkunda lake is believed to have been created by Lord Shiva and as such is visited by thousands of Hindu pilgrims during August's Janai Purnima festivals. The park headquarters is at Dhunche, which can be reached by bus from Kathmandu.

4 Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve
Koshi Tappu is the smallest of the Terai's national parks but is a sought-after destination for birdwatchers thanks to the 493 species there. It's also the last habitat of the endangered arna - a type of water buffalo - with only about 100 left. You won't find tigers or rhinos here but you will see weird and wonderful species, including fishing cats, mongooses and gangetic dolphins. Koshi Tappu's elephant stable is home to eight females who are visited by a semi-wild male, named Ganesh Maharaj by locals, after the Hindu god. The best time to visit is between October and March.

Getting there
Korean Air flies daily from Auckland via Seoul and connects with a three-times weekly service to Kathmandu.

For details on Crooked Compass tours of Nepal and other parts of the world, go to