I had heard about “Shenandoah” in John Denver’s classic song “Country Roads” but I got to experiencethe area only recently. Along the Appalachian trail, a 3500-km-long-trail running through four states American states from Georgia through Maine, Shenandoah valley reminded me of the Churia ridge trail starting from the Kasara in the west to Sunachari in the east across the Chitwan National Park. I call this the “Manchuria” (meaning “satisfying churia“) trail, even with its length of less a percent of the Appalachian trails. The Manchuria trail rises high above the horizon, looking like tidal waves and covering pristine hill forests.
The Manchuria trail is a meandering route with ups and downs, offering great wildlife sightings in between and is an adrenaline experience across the Churia ridge. Historically, the trail had been used by hunters to hunt wildlife and still used today occasionally. We made a seven-day trek across the ridge to experience the Churia within the Chitwan National Park. A universal rule of thumb is that one should never travel alone in a forest; hence our team consisted of six US Navy Seals and we were confident of overcoming any obstacle along the Manchuria. We started our journey from Kasara, the park headquarters.
We would start out early morning but due to logistics and an empty stomach, we would have to set up camp earlier than expected. Fresh and eager to learn more from the trek across the Manchuria, we were busy in setting up camps and gathering information from the area. We realized that water is scarce resource in the Churia. This forced us to set up the camps near a water source, but far enough to keep us safe from notorious wildlife like bears and elephants. Meanwhile, we were cautious about the shy and elusive big cats like tigers and leopards, but confident that if we didn’t harm them they would not harm us either.
We were delighted that mosquitoes were not a problem along the trail until we found out that trails are often being used by wild elephants! This stopped us from camping along the trails, so we had to instead camp along the side of the trail across the Churia hill slopes. In recent times, Chitwan National Park has been experiencing an increase in the number of wild elephants as well as in incidents of human-elephant conflict. We were astonished to observe that the elephants were using such a high ridge trail, which were sometimes just half a meter wide. Our camera trap records also confirmed the use of the trail by both solitary and groups of elephants. To my surprise, I could even trace the plastic in elephant dung found across the trail, suggesting these were raiding the crops and using the trail to travel between places.
Sal was found to be most dominant tree across the Manchuria forests, mixed with other species. But most importantly, I found that the Thakal (Date Palm) were used frequently by elephants as well as local people. Even we would often quench our thirst by eating the bud of the Thakal. Manchuria trail lies in between the elevation of the 200m to 740 m, but I was thrilled to see the KhoteSalla after we crossed the 400 m mark. The presence of this species suggests one is entering the highest elevation range across the Churia.
The late Dr Pralad Yonzon, a noted wildlife biologist, camera trapped a tiger at an elevation of more than 4,000m in Bhutan. As a doctoral student studying tigers in Churia, I was lucky enough to take the first camera trap picture of tiger at an elevation of 600m (the highest so far in low land area of NepalI bet). Sambar deer, the favorite prey for tigers, were found roaming everywhere. This implies that we need to revisit the conventional wisdom of Churia not being an optimal habitat for tigers and other carnivores.
Overall, our trek revealed photographic evidence of more than 25 species of the mammals using Churia habitat alongside the tiger, leopard, elephant, gaur and sambar. Two of these mammals, which we were thrilled to observe, were the wild dogs and the Himalayan Serow. Wild dogs, the pack hunting animals, were competing with tigers and leopards for space and food in the Churia. Damn, it was hard to catch up with these beasts as they clambered up the hills… Our team had not experienced Himalayan serow till the time.
The Manchuria trail borders the two large catchment areas in Chitwan National Park. One is of the Rue River which runs through the Madi valley to the south and the other is the east Rapti River to the north. With geologically unstable features, Churia watersheds were found to be well conserved within this range, thus playing a great role in conserving rich alluvial floodplains within the Chitwan Valley.
Churia habitat covers more than half the size of Chitwan National Park, yet it is one of the least studied areas in wildlife science. There are so many unseen animals yet to be discovered in the Churia. This truly is a forgotten tiger land in Nepal. The Manchuria trail provides a great opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts like me quench their thirst. I only wish this 40 km trail would be maintained at least once, if not regularly. We were so tired by the end of the seven day trail, with tanned faces, tick bites and aching ankles, but so happy to learn about the Churia so closely.
At the end, as the team rested, we all recalled our journey in John Denver style… “Country Roads take me home… to the place I belong…..” Thank you Chitwan National Park and the Manchuria trail for such a great offering.
The author is a doctoral student in wildlife science at Virginia Tech University