Nepal’s first national park, Chitwan National Park, offers a rich opportunity to study the relations between parks and people in South Asia. Founded in 1973, Chitwan Park falls within the Rapti Valley, an inner tarai valley. The Rapti Valley includes some of most important tall grasslands in the world, and an exceptionally high density of wildlife, including one-horned Asian rhinos, Indian tigers, wild elephants, and several species of deer. The Valley has also been home to a subset of one of Nepal’s largest ethnic minorities, the Tharu, shifting cultivators and cattle herders who had limited genetic and acquired immunities to the malaria that kept hill Nepalis away except in the winter months.

Little of the prodigious literature on the park has placed it in longer historical context. Drawing from the insights of environmental history, this paper will look at the park in the context of a shifting socio-ecological landscape from the nineteenth century onwards, with particular attention to Rana hunting, 1950s US development, and especially the changing regimes of wildlife protection since the mid 1960s, including buffer zones. It will examine how well the strict separation of humans and nature instituted in 1973 served a) the local communities and b) the region’s wildlife populations. Based on documents and interviews both in the U.S. and Nepal, this paper will examine the park from the perspectives of variously-situated actors: Kathmandu planners, American development workers, conservationists from the Western Europe, the U.S., and Nepal, tourism entrepreneurs, migrants to the area, and Tharu of various ages and social positions.