The most westerly and least visited of Nepal's major wildlife reserves, Sukla Phanta covers an area of 355 square kilometers of forest and grassland. It proviedes a natural habitat for over 500 species of birds, reptiles and mammals including what is thought to be the world's largest population of swamp deer. In appearance it has been likened to the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa.
Formerly open forest, it was first given protected status as royal hunting reserve in the 1960s, then redesignated a wildlife reserve of 155 square kilometers in the following decade. The 'extension area' to the east and northeast of the original reserve was subsequently incorporated to bring it to its current size. The name probably derives from the colour of the flowering grasses: sukila is a Nepali and Tharu word for white, while phanta is the Tharu term for grassland usually occurring in sal forest. It was first mentioned in Western literature in the early 20th century by Baden-Powell in Indian Memoirs. The Mahakali River flows to the west of the reserve and is flanked by swamp land.
Unlike any other park in South Asia, the reserve is unique for its grasslands which comprise almost 30 percent of its total area and is the last major area of unspoiled grassland in Nepal. More of the Terai's former forest belt is likely to assume savanna-like form if illegal logging both within Sukla Phanta and, more seriously, beyond its boundaries continues to be tolerated, a practice resulting in accelerated erosion, consequent silting up of rivers and a reduced supply of irrigation water for farmers.
'Tula Hatti', also known as 'Rajaguj', said to be the world's largest Asian elephant and the subject of a 1990 TV documentary, is perhaps Sukla Phanta's most famous occasional resident. The reserve itself has only a handful of permanent elephants, though herds of up to 24 regularly trample through.
A smaller number of leopards are found, but these are generally even more elusive than the tiger. Various species of deer, notably the endangered swamp deer and also the spotted, barking and hog deer, abound with sightings of several hundreds at one time a real possibility. Monkeys, especially the common langur (black face, hands and feet, silvery coat and long tail) and the rhesus macaque (reddish face and red-brown body) constitute the reserve's largest population of mammals.
Reptiles include the gharial and marsh mugger crocodiles present in prominent numbers in the marshy areas around Rani Tal and along the Mahakali River. There are plans for an FAO sponsored development project to increase the number of both. Its proposed conservation center will include a hatchery and the young will be reared until they can be released back into the wild. Otters are common in swampy areas and along river banks where they hunt with speed and great agility for fish, including the large catfish (so named after the whisker-like barbells around the mouth).
Birds Most prominent is the reserve's stunning array of bird life, the most diverse of any park in Nepal. The forest, grassland and riverine environments attracts a total of almost 500 species, both permanently resident and migratory. They include many exotic, prey, coloured, singing, wading and rare species. The sights as well as the raucous sounds are truly memorable. The reserve is considered by many to be a birdwatcher's idyll; indeed, several species new to Nepal have been identified here.