Tiger Tops: The Place for Ethical Elephant Tourism in Nepal

Nepal is well-known for its mountains, but in reality, it offers so much more. While travelling in Nepal, I made the four-five hour trip from Kathmandu down to the Chitwan National Park, on Nepal’s plains. 

The trip from Kathmandu to Chitwan wasn’t quite as straightforward as it should’ve been. Тhere is a serious fuel shortage affecting Nepal at the moment, due to protests in the regions bordering India and an ‘unofficial blockade’ that was imposed by the neighbouring country. But as I was staying at Tiger Tops’ Tharu Lodge, an eco-lodge in Chitwan, I had a pre-booked microbus ticket, departing from Kathmandu’s Kalanki bus stand. I’ve always found it slightly embarrassing how easy it is for a single white woman to travel in Nepal. People treat me with a level of courtesy and care that I’m not sure I’ve earned. There were a lot of people trying to get onto that microbus but the guys in charge made sure to get me on, that I was comfortable, and that I got off at the right stop.

The main town visitors prefer to travel to in Chitwan is Sauraha, but Tiger Tops is situated more in the countryside, among the small villages in which the local Tharu people live and farm. There’s no getting out of the bumpy approach to Tiger Tops’ Tharu Lodge, though. The last few kilometres, once you turn off the main road, are unpaved, and Nepali bus drivers have clearly never heard the story of the tortoise and the hare. But the countryside changes rapidly and dramatically – from dusty concrete towns to ox-pulled, mud-walled, straw-baled farmland. It is a distraction from the brain-rattling juddering.

Tiger Tops is set far, far back from the road, down the privacy of a long, tree-lined path fragrant with purple flowers reminiscent of jasmine. Its luxury tents, as well as rooms in the main building, are designed according to local design principles, so the colours are muted and blend with the natural landscape. Tiger Tops is a ‘luxury’ lodge, but it is also pleasantly simple, so is a peaceful place to change pace in Nepal.

Elephant tourism tiger tops river
Photo by Elen Turner

Stays are all-inclusive which makes visiting the national park across the Narayani River very straightforward. Various types of jungle safari are available – on the back of an elephant, in a jeep, on an ox cart. I’m aware that there are a lot of ethical issues around elephant tourism, and it has become common for travel writers, bloggers and operators to outright denounce elephant rides as unethical. For example, my Rough Guide to Nepal states:

In 2014, both STA Travel and Intrepid announced that they were removing elephant rides from all their tours worldwide; Intrepid’s decision came after considering a three-year study into the welfare of captive elephants in Asia by charity World Animal Protection.

However, much of this criticism is related to Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, where elephant tourism is a big business and not always connected to national parks or conservation. The situation for the animals in Nepal is often different. The Rough Guide goes on to say:

In 2014, UK-based travel agency Responsible Travel announced that Nepal’s national parks would be exempt from its policy of not promoting elephant rides or offering trips promoting them, stating that ‘Chitwan National Park in Nepal is one example where elephant rides (are) a positive force for conservation.’ The national park entrance fees generated by elephant rides allow investment in the conservation of Chitwan and its rare and endangered wildlife – and the wider income generated by tourism encourages local communities to help safeguard the park. One final consideration is that there is really no space for more elephants in the wild (they are in conflict with humans even in the national parks, killing around a dozen people a year), so simply letting them free is not an option.

I didn’t actually go on an elephant-back safari in Chitwan. I chose jeep and ox-cart safaris instead. But I am not reluctant to recommend elephant safaris in Nepal, as long as it is with a reputable organisation that clearly treats their elephants well.

ethical elephant tourism nepal tiger tops
Photo by Elen Turner
ethical elephant tourism nepal tiger tops
Photo by Elen Turner
Elephants sustainable tourism tiger tops
Photo CC by John Pavelka / Flickr / Cropped image

Tiger Tops has 12 elephants. I rode one of them early one morning and helped collect the long grass they eat enormous amounts of each day. Tiger Tops is also in the process of opening its ‘Elephant Camp’, which is a further 12 tents across the road from the Tharu Lodge. Here, guests will stay in close proximity to the elephants, getting the chance to feed them and be involved in their daily care. I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing I would be keen to shell out big bucks for, but I know there are a lot of people who are passionately interested in elephants and wildlife, and for them, this could be a big attraction.

Elephants sustainable tourism tiger tops
Photo by Elen Turner

I found the jeep safari rather disappointing. The vehicle makes such a noise as it crashes through the jungle that it’s no wonder we didn’t see anything, other than beautiful birds. The ox-cart safari, however, was a much better option. Although the carts do make a bit of a noise, the type of noise and smell are less disruptive to the wildlife. We saw two rhinos through the long grass, although at quite a distance. Although the dinosaur-like animals don’t eat humans, they are very aggressive and are very likely to attack if you come within close proximity to them. People are killed each year in Chitwan by rhinos, so it’s not a threat to be taken lightly. This is another reason why it’s actually a good idea to take an elephant safari. The rhinos and elephants have a natural respect and fear for each other. Encounters between these two animals are less disruptive to the whole eco-system and its ambiance than jeeps or other vehicles.

From the cart, we took an early evening boat ride down the Narayani River and were lucky to see two gharial crocodiles. Our guide told us that they are extremely endangered, but he had been seeing them a lot recently. They are a mud-like colour and blend into the banks, so there’s no way I would have spotted them without the guide and his binoculars. I was very impressed by his sharp eye.

I didn’t exhaust all of the excursion options at Tiger Tops because there was so many, but in three nights and two full days, I got a very good taste of Chitwan. There are cheaper ways of seeing the park than with an all-inclusive stay at this luxury lodge, but the convenience and organisation that Tiger Tops provides can really make for a relaxing trip to the Nepali jungle.

(I was a guest at Tiger Tops’ Tharu Lodge. All opinions are entirely my own).

This piece originally appeared on www.wildernessmetropolis.com and is published here with permission.

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