chitwan national park,nepal, tourism destination

Chitwan National Park, in Nepal, is now known as a popular safari destination for tourists, offering and guided tours through the jungle, and boasting many, many plant and animal species. But this is also a park with decades — and beyond — of rich history.

Located in south-central Nepal, this 932 square kilometre (360 square mile) area is actually Nepal's first national park and was the first protected area in the country. It was declared a national park in 1973 — then at 543 square kilometres (210 square miles), before expanding in 1977 — and was made an official UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Almost a half-century later, the park continues to flourish, making it one of Nepal's most popular and unmissable tourist attractions.

But through the 1800s, right through to 1951, the Chitwan National Park was quite the opposite of a wildlife refuge: it was at that time a private hunting reserve used by aristocrats and royals. In a roundabout way, the area wound up with an unusual level of environmental protection. Since the decimation of natural habitats is the biggest threat to wildlife in the area, it is still thought that having the area protected for hunters probably saved more of the now-endangered animals than would have otherwise been the case.

While it was originally quite treacherous to reach, in the 1950s, human settlements moved in closer to the park, increasing poaching and sparking the need for wildlife preservation policies — particularly in order to protect the area's rhinos, whose population dropped substantially between 1950 and 1960. Until 2006, the park was known as the Royal Chitwan National Park, the name only changing at the end of the decade-long civil war during which Nepal's centuries-old monarchy was overthrown.

Today, Chitwan National Park is home to the single-horned Asiatic rhinoceros and Bengal tiger, both highly endangered species at this point in time. The Wildlife Display and Information Center, Tharu Cultural Museum, the Bird Education Society, and surrounding villages are all popular sites visited alongside the park as well. Given its size and offerings, visitors are encouraged to stay for two or more days to truly experience the park.

The plant and animal populations of the park are vast: hundreds of bird species, well over 100 fish species, as well as many types of reptiles, insects, moths, and butterflies. The near-70 mammal species found within the park include leopards, jackals, monkeys, wild boar, and the sloth bear (yes, sloth bear — evolved from brown bears and known to hang upside down, like a sloth).

Sal forests occupy 70% of the park, with grasslands making up 20% of the remaining space. Situated in the subtropical lowlands, in the districts of Nawalparasi, Parsa, Chitwan and Makwanpur, tthere are eight entrances to the park in total — the two most used are located at the edges of the Sauraha and Meghauli villages, on the east and west sides of the park, respectively. The park is thought to be Asia's most well-preserved conservation area, as well as one of the best places on the continent to see wildlife.