Close encounters with tigers in Nepal

6 January, 2004. It was a foggy and cold winter morning in the western Tarai. As secretary of the Gauri Community Forest User Group, Bhadai Tharu was escorting a group of 15 villagers into the woods. They are allowed into the protected forest once a year to collect thatch and fodder.

Tharu, now 51, was also responsible for the management of the forests that formed a vital biodiversity corridor for wildlife of the Bardia National Park.

What started out as a perfectly normal day soon turned into a nightmare. The sun had burnt off the fog by noon, and Tharu and his colleagues heard a growl from the undergrowth of the sal hardwood forest.

Before he knew what was happening, in a flash of orange the tigress leaped out of the bushes and went straight for Tharu’s face, swiping him with her mighty paw. The blow knocked him down, and he fell unconscious on the ground.

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His petrified team fled the scene, and the tigress dug her claws into Tharu’s face, gouging out his left eye. She was pinning him down with her forelegs when Tharu came to. Instinctively, he punched the big cat on her face, and the tiger slipped away, disappearing back into the jungle.

He could feel warm blood pouring down his face, and stumbled back to the river crying out for help. Eventually, some nearby grass cutters came to his rescue, and he was rushed to hospital in Nepalganj where he spent a month recovering.

“I would have died if I had run”

Krishna Shah was guiding a Dutch tourist on a day-long walking safari through the Bardia National Park in February 2016. They were tracking footprints and fresh dung which meant there were rhinos nearby. Sure enough, they found the rhinos were grazing and the tourist was busy clicking away, when there was a terrific roar.

The tiger appeared out of nowhere between the two, who both ran for their lives.  “After running for 20m I looked back to find no one behind me. I had lost my guest, and was worried the tiger had killed the Dutchman,” he recalls.

With another guide, he circled back to the spot to look for his guest, who called down from a tree he had climbed to escape. What Shah did not know was that the tiger was waiting in ambush, and pounced on him from behind trying to get his jaws around his neck.

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“Had I chosen to run, the tiger would have definitely caught and killed me, I had no option but to fight back. It was a kill or be killed situation,” Shah, 38, remembers. “The tiger reared up on its hind legs to attack, and I poked it with a stick. It scratched me with its claws and pushed me to the ground.”

The other guide then hit the tiger from behind with a tree branch, so the tiger decided he’d had enough and ran off. The group was rescued by a National Park elephant, and Shah was lucky to escape with only scratches.

Knocked unconscious

Sundarlal Chaudhari’s life has revolved around his cattle that he grazes every day in the grasslands at the edge of the Bardia National Park. That day in February 2004 had been like every other, and as the winter sun started to set Chaudhari was walking home with 40 cattle from the Kailasi Community Forest, on the fringes of the Park.

He did a swift mental count and realised one of his calf was missing. With three other herders, he went into the forest to find it, and spotted a tiger had half-eaten the calf. As Chaudhari got closer, the tiger attacked. His back and hands were mauled by the tiger’s fearful fangs. His companions shouted and yelled, and drove the tiger away. Chaudhari had already lost consciousness, and was rushed to hospital where he was lucky to make a full recovery.

“The water buffaloes saved me” 

Last year, 67-year-old Mayaram Khanal from Geruwa Rural Municipality in Bardia was grazing his buffaloes near the National Park. Suddenly, a tiger attacked Khanal hurling him about 10m away. It then leaped down to finish him off when, incredibly, Khanal’s two water buffaloes came to his rescue. They swung their formidable horns at the tiger, chasing it away and saving Khanal’s life. The buffaloes are now treated like heroes in the village.

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In all of these close encounters with tigers, the lives of the people who survived went through a transformation.

When Bhadai Tharu lost his eye, he was angry at the tiger making him disabled, and was determined to take revenge. “It was fate, but I thought if I saw that tiger again, I would kill it,” Tharu remembers thinking. “I was also angry at the people for not coming to my rescue earlier. But as my wounds healed, my anger diminished.”

Bhadai Tharu is now a tiger conservationist, seeing the forest habitat as a place where animals and people have to co-exist. “Tigers are vanishing as their habitats shrink, and when the tiger attacked me, it was just doing so to protect itself from danger,” he says.

Today, Tharu trains locals in conservation practices, and provides educational material to local schools. He has also persuaded many poachers and smugglers to abandon their profession. They threatened to shoot him, but he seems to have lost all fear. He has even created inspection patrols to curb smuggling of tiger parts.

It was all because of his near-death experience. “If I had not been attacked by that tiger, I would not be saving tigers. I came to understand them better and it became my duty to save them.”

Having worked in indentured servitude as a kamaiya for much of his life, he also gained a newfound respect and self-confidence after the incident. “I lost an eye, but this does not worry me. I found a new path in life and gained respect,” says Tharu, who is determined to continue his conservation activities.

He has received many national awards and the internationally-renowned Abraham Conservation Award for his efforts. In 2010, he was even paid a visit by Leonardo DiCaprio whose foundation supports tigers conservation in Nepal. After their chat, DiCaprio took off his shades and gifted it to Tharu, who still treasures it. Villagers have persuaded him to stay on as secretary of the Gauri Forest User Group.

Krishna Shah is still an active safari guide. He can now tell what kind of tigers to avoid during jungle walks: old tigers, females with cubs, and tigers who cannot find prey because of injuries.

Sundarlal Chaudhari still grazes cattle in the same forest where he was attacked despite the danger. “I can’t keep them tied up, and there is nowhere else to go,” he says. Last week, a buffalo calf belonging to his daughter-in-law was killed by a tiger.

Mayaram Khanal is recuperating at home, and the Bardiya National Park paid his hospital bills. But the debt he owes the buffaloes that saved his life is too great to pay back.

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