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Chanchal Kali and the Elephants of Chitwan, Nepal



NEW The World TTEO Judyth Gregory Smith

ELEPHANTS DO NOT LIKE cooked vegetables. Chanchal Kali turned up her trunk at cauliflower, marrow and carrots – which was a shame, because they were grown deliciously in the garden of the Travellers Jungle Camp at Chitwan in Nepal.

Her mahout, Prem, apologized on her behalf, but explained she didn’t like the spot of oil that was dropped into the boiling water that had cooked them. And why, you wonder, had we (shamefully) left some vegetables? Because Ram and his wife Sushila; the owners of Travellers, are too generous with the size of breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Chanchal Kali not hungryelephant cropped

Of course, it is possible Chanchal Kali was just full. She might already have drunk her daily 200 litres of water. Or maybe eaten her 14 kilogrammes of padi and who knows how many kilogrammes of elephant grass and simply couldn’t fit anything more in.

It was a surprise for us to learn that elephants eat padi, barley, wheat, molasses and salt. Prem, who prepares her food, (as do all the other mahouts, who care for the 100+ elephants in Chitwan) spends hours each day making up what they call bundles. Taking some elephant grass in his hand, he rolls it around to make a little basket. In the middle of this go the ingredients above. Chanchal Kali eats hundreds of these every day.

Teeming wild and free

There are elephants all over the place in Chitwan. They used to be owned by royalty and officials then, in 1963, they were transferred to His Majesty’s Government of Nepal. The huge male elephants are used by the army, which has several posts in Chitwan National Park to patrol and discourage poaching of rare or endangered species. Currently there are more than 400 rhinos and about 59 tigers. There are bears, deer and crocodiles. In all there are 56 mammals, 49 reptiles not to mention 539 birds and some fresh-water dolphins.

At first we were upset to see giant male elephants chained inside open-sided sheds in camps called hattisars, where they live each with three men phanit, pachhuwa and mahout to look after and ride them. We thought how bored they must be. But after four days interacting with elephants we changed our minds. The elephants go into the forest for six hours a day. Mounted by their mahout, they are free to graze all this time in lightly timbered forest.

Wild males, wild mating

A kingfisher contemplates lunch as it swims by below
A kingfisher contemplates lunch as it swims by below

Formerly, the elephants came from India, but now there’s an Elephant Breeding Centre. You would think it would be more fun for the captured males to be allowed to mate these females, but no, wild elephants come courting and when each female is receptive, it will be a wild male that fathers her offspring. Two years ago, twins were born and are now the most photographed inmates.

One morning we went in a canoe to see Gharials (small crocodiles with amazingly numerous white shiny teeth). We also saw: the Open-billed Stork, Green Bee Eater and the Stork-billed Kingfisher with its scarlet legs and bill. The call of the Indian Cuckoo ‘one more bottle, one more bottle’ reminded us not to get dehydrated, because here the temperature climbs higher than 35 degrees Celsius.

After canoeing, we walked through open forest and saw a peacock. Obligingly, he walked into a sunlit glade and shimmered his turquoise tail feathers.

Got it! Yum!

Our knowledgeable guide, Som, gave us handy hints for how to escape an attacking rhino or bear, should we happen across one.

Tips on how to escape charging rhinos and bears

The rhino’s hearing is good, but its eyesight is not. So you should run as fast as you can zig-zagging all the way, ripping off your red tee-shirt (preferably red, but orange would probably do). Or you could throw your bag. This might be better as you could throw it further. Then you zig and zag off in the opposite direction as the rhino whistles past you.

You escape a rampaging bear as follows: two adults, two children, one driver and one guide (and it would be good to have some tourists too) huddle together and scream. It frightens off bears and you’ll probably feel like screaming anyway.


Bathing the elephant way

Judyth, the writer and elephant-rider, takes a bath with Chanchal Kali and her grandchildren
Judyth, the writer and intrepid elephant-rider, takes a nice long shower with Chanchal Kali and her grandchildren

The highlight for us (after seeing rhinos so close we could almost have touched them) was bathing Chanchal Kali. She was disporting herself in the river among seven other elephants having their daily bath. At the urging of Prem, she came out of the water and knelt down for grandson Jeremy (nine), granddaughter Sophia (six) and Granny (undisclosed) to climb aboard. Time after time she sucked up trunks of water and showered great spouts over us. Then it was time to scrub her using elephant soap, which is sand and mud from the river’s edge. Chanchal Kali rumbled her appreciation as we lovingly coated her with sand and then scrubbed it off. Suddenly, her trunk rose from the water. Had we done something wrong? Was she displeased? No, she just stroked off some sand that had rolled down her forehead into her long, long eyelashes. Clean and comfortable once more, she waited for Prem to climb aboard: then rose to her full height and walked slowly back for her lunch of a 100 bundles.

Judyth Gregory-Smith, nature and travel writer is the author of Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery, Sulawesi: Ujung Pandang to Kendari and Southeast Sulawesi – Islands of Surprises. When not travelling, she lives in Kuala Lumpur and can be contacted at

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