With a quick coffee and a bit of cake in our bellies, we find ourselves again on the back of an elephant and out into the early morning mist. Despite the lack of visibility, we see a lot more wildlife this time round: nervous herds of spotted deer are joined by a dozen or so snorting one-horned rhinos. They might look a bit threatening coming out of the gloom, but in the face of an elephant, they all go a bit biscuit-arsed.
Kalu Ram sheepishly admits that he has been working at Tiger Tops since 1974, before hastily adding “I was very young when I arrived…” In his 36 years at the park, he has seen all kinds of cool shit including, while he was on the back of an elephant, a tiger come out of the grass and grab a baby rhino, only to be chased off by its outraged mother.When the going is good, he says he averages around two to three tiger sightings a week. So good is his eye – combined with a ridiculous number of hours in the park – that he has grown to know individual tigers over the years. Fiercely territorial, a significant number of tiger deaths these days are from natural causes – typically other tigers. One of the more charismatic dominant males also died from a wound sustained in hunting a baby rhino. After an entire night of stalking, the tiger struck at dawn, but not before receiving a nasty gash on its lower jaw. Some days later a virulent infection led to the creature’s demise. When local authorities found the body, Kalu Ram was asked to come and identify it, just like on a cop show.
We get back to the Roundhouse for a quick breakfast, then follow the diminutive Nepali into the jungle for a nature walk. The high, hard Sal trees are spread out enough to allow light to filter through to ferns, younger trees and fungus below.
There are thousands of smooth, fruit-like rocks too, prepared to make their annual journey in the monsoon rains when the time comes. Once in a while, the floor clears to small patches of sand, beds of tributaries formed in the rains. These dusty spots capture the footprint of any animal walking through, whether it be man, tiger, bear or any one of the park’s five types of deer.Kalu Ram shows me clear evidence of tigers in the region: enormous gouges on tree trunks around 10 feet from the ground, evidence of a tiger standing on its hind-legs and marking its territory; fat, deep paw prints in the sand.
It then dawns on me, that there is nothing in the jungle that makes as much noise as a human, save perhaps the elephants. And I certainly don’t have their size or strength – nor do I have the fleet of foot, or lightning reflexes of a deer. Meanwhile, tigers have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to be apex stealth predators.
After lunch we head off to the nearby river for a brief cruise in a raft. On the way, the Jeep skids to a halt: the jungle alarm call is ringing out. A collaboration between the barking deer, screeching monkeys and squawking birds, it's an ancient racket that means: “Someone saw a tiger: A F**KING TIGER IS OUT THERE!” (Or maybe a leopard. Either way, something badass.) We stop and stare into the bush. There's no chance that anything would go for us in this big armoured car, but the tension is unreal. I've no idea how long we all sit there, stock still, shiting ourselves, but eventually we move off without seeing anything. Still, seeing my first crocodile from the boat a few minutes later is a decent consolation.
They're not the only thing that eats people around here: man-eating tigers are not a myth. “Conflict has been a major issue in the last decade,” explains affable American conservation student and tiger expert Neil Carter in the dark of the Roundhouse later. The 28-year-old has chosen Chitwan as the world's best place to study tigers in their natural environment. “They've always had some attacks on people, but based on a pretty recent paper, since 1998 the number of attacks on people has increased dramatically. It went from 2-3 per year to 9 or 10, and it's been pretty steady since then.”Initial attacks are often driven by accident or desperation from sick or ageing tigers. If they then go on to become a man eater, then the villagers had better not stray too far from the light. “It's very rare that it happens, but when it does, they go and eat humans as regular prey,” says Carter. “It's incredibly damaging. Just last October, they had three people killed by a man eater. That happened in just a month. I've also heard – and this is kind of gross – that human flesh is saltier so when tigers taste it they become kind of drawn to it.” My face must screw up at this point. “How could you possibly know that, right?” Laughs Carter.
Kristjan, Tiger Tops' owner knows. Apparently, cannibals who have tasted human flesh and pork say they taste kind of similar. As pigs, like humans, east basically any old shit, the logic seems sound.
This, though, is one of his more ordinary stories. We're all sitting around the dinner table enjoying some surprisingly excellent food as Kristjan tells us the amazing tale of his life, the vast majority of which has been spent here in Nepal. In fact, until he was seven or eight, he thought he was Nepali – Nepalese was his first language. Despite the fact that he sounds like an old Etonian, English was only his third, after Icelandic. And odd triumvirate and perhaps unique in the world.
His dad founded this place after driving from