They burn them every year after the thatching harvest -- have for centuries. The sale trees remain standing and alive, but the undergrowth vanishes and you can see without the dense veils of underbrush. Soon new growth sprouts, soft and green, and the herbivores return to graze: the rhinos, the deer, the wild boar. The predators follow: the Bengal tiger, the sloth bear, the python. The animals display themselves, and all you can do is stop and stare. The jungle is amazing.
Chitwan and Royal Bardia National Parks are both located in the Terai of Nepal. The terai is the lowland band along the long southwestern edge of the country, part of the plain of the River Ganges. Until the 1950s, most of this region was uninhabited -- too malarial. But then the Nepali government started spraying DDT to reduce the swarms of mosquitoes, and hill people moved down into the lowlands and cleared away the forest to farm. Uncontrolled poaching also erupted. Within ten years, more than half of the forest had disappeared to make room for agricultural fields. Between 1950 and 1960, the human population had risen from 36,000 to 100,000 in the region, and the rhino population had fallen from at least 800 (maybe even as much as 2000) to a mere 100.
In 1973, the Chitwan National Park was created to reverse some of this devastation. 22,000 residents were expelled from its 360 square miles, and a special contingent of the Royal Nepalese Army was deployed to prevent rhino poaching. Since Royal Bardia National Park, 374 square miles, is mostly hill country, and was not as useful for farmland, its creation in 1976 was not as violently traumatic. Both parks now preserve the magnificent flora and fauna of the subtropical woodlands of the Indian subcontinent that have been so tragically depleted by human population pressures. Royal Chitwan is world famous and relatively well-developed. Royal Bardia is the lesser known treasure beckoning to those who don't mind a longer excursion if it means they'll have a better chance of actually seeing a tiger.
Chitwan had always been a hunting preserve, the special domain of the Nepali Rana rulers. A couple of times per decade the Rana would organize hunting parties, inviting both native and foreign royalty. Hundreds of beaters would move through the forest, herding animals in front of the comfortably ensconced dignitaries, who would fire at will. In 1911, King George V and his party which included his son, the prince, killed 39 tigers and 11 rhinos. The last big Chitwan hunt was in 1939. A party that included the British Viceroy killed 120 tigers, 38 rhinos, 27 leopards, and 15 sloth bears. More adult tigers were killed on this hunt than are currently are alive at Chitwan, now a precious 50 breeding pairs. And the current Asian rhino population of Chitwan is about 400, which is a quarter of the worlds' total. A photo taken after a 1935 hunt shows a well-heeled man posing in front of a wide, 3-tiered rack displaying dozens of tiger and leopard pelts.
Whatever you might think about the royal hunting parties, its remarkable that these parties could happen on a regular basis over a long period of time, perhaps centuries. Ultimately, the reduction of habitat is the greatest threat to the survival of wildlife. In fact, setting aside land for hunting can be a boon for environmental preservation. Trophy hunting no longer occurs at Royal Chitwan and Royal Bardia. But both parks are magnificent examples of how preserving environments on the grand scale that was once the privilege of only the very powerful can have social and environmental benefits that last far into the future.