May 13, 2016
The following obituary was written by Lisa Choegyal, New Zealand Honorary Consul to Nepal.
Dr. Charles McDougal PhD passed away peacefully on 11 May 2016 in Kathmandu. Always known as Chuck, he was a leading tiger ecologist, conservationist, researcher and writer, who pioneered responsible wildlife tourism standards in South Asia. He is survived by his devoted wife Margie, and children Robert, Juan Carlos, Malcolm and Linda.
Originally from Colorado USA, Chuck first came to the subcontinent as an anthropologist studying the Juang tribal peoples in Orissa in eastern India and undertook the definitive study on the Kulunge Rai in Nepal. Inspired by the jungle life of Jim Corbett’s books, Chuck switched his attention to tigers, initially to hunting then soon to research and conservation, based in Nepal since the early 1960s. Chuck was a dedicated and self-effacing man with a gentle and modest manner, widely respected for his uncompromising approach to tiger conservation, and exacting standards for wildlife tourism.
As Director of Wildlife of Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, Chitwan National Park was Chuck’s base for tiger research since 1972, giving him unrivalled access to the study and long-term monitoring of the world’s most powerful predator. Working with the government of Nepal’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, the Smithsonian Institution of Washington DC, and teams of locally recruited trackers and naturalists, Chuck pioneered tiger census methods and introduced camera-trapping techniques to photograph and record tigers.
His painstaking research followed generations of individual animals in Chitwan National Park, resulting in one of the largest and longest-running data sets of any tiger population in the world. Chuck’s decades of work uncovered the secret world of tigers and what they need to survive in their forest habitat, providing today’s wildlife managers with the vital information required to protect these iconic animals. Chuck’s work has raised considerable donations and helped authorities develop anti-poaching policies that put many tiger poachers in gaol.
Crucial to the data collection was Chuck’s innovative development of camera-trapping in the 1970s. I vividly recall his uncharacteristic excitement when the first tiger successfully photographed himself. Chuck's Nikon F2 camera had an accessory electronic shutter release, which he wired to a switch in a homemade pressure plate, strategically placed on a path known to be used by tigers patrolling their territory. Built from two wooden planks, compression springs held the electrical contact apart. The pressure pad was buried in a shallow depression so that when a heavy animal stepped on the wooden pad the battery-powered circuit was closed, triggering the camera and its flash. Over the years he photographed hundreds of different tigers and also an impressive inventory of other creatures including sloth bears, leopards, jungle cats and the rare honey badger.
Chuck’s authoritative book, Face of the Tiger, was published in 1977, the result of thousands of hours of observation and tracking that examines the life of the tiger. Senior scientist Dr. George Schaller much admired Chuck’s work, and wrote: “His well-documented book … presents the best available account of the tiger’s social life.” Always generous by encouraging fellow researchers as co-authors, Chuck published many scientific papers himself and with colleagues, notably Professor J.L. David Smith of the University of Minnesota with whom a major work on the tiger is being published by Harvard University Press. Chuck recently completed a collection of jungle tales that will be published posthumously, which perfectly capture his abiding passion for nature and love for life in the wild.
Chuck’s interest in Asia dated back to childhood when, aged 11, he and a school friend set off walking to Tibet to meet the Dalai Lama, as part of a school project. They planned to head up through Canada to Alaska, across the Bering Straits through Russia and China to Lhasa, only to be picked up by the Chicago police on the shores of Lake Michigan! In the early 1950s he was commissioned into the US Marine Corps, before leaving military life in favour of academic studies at the University of New Mexico and at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) University of London, studying with the renowned Himalayan anthropologist, Dr. Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf.
Having made his way to Nepal he soon teamed up with English-born A.V. Jim Edwards, an enthusiast then working for Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) in New York, to found Nepal Wildlife Adventures, an early hunting company in the Nepal Terai. A winning partnership of entrepreneurial energy and wildlife acumen, the pair realised it was time to abandon hunting and embrace conservation ideals. In February 1972, Jim and Chuck took over the management of Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge from the two Texan millionaires and big game hunters, Toddy Lee Wynne Jr and Herbert W. Klein, who had started the venture in 1964 in what was then a Terai rhinoceros sanctuary. Wildlife attractions in Chitwan include tiger, rhino, gaur (South Asia’s imposing wild cattle), leopard, deer, wild boar, monkeys, crocodiles and over 540 bird species, against the backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks.
Together their brand of purist wildlife expertise combined with commercial realities to set global standards for the adventure tourism industry. Whilst Jim Edwards took care of business and marketing from the Kathmandu office, Chuck avoided the limelight. Preferring to be based in his natural habitat of the Chitwan jungles, he established Tiger Tops’ awesome reputation for high quality wildlife experiences, skilled naturalist guiding, and fierce wildlife integrity – “no bullshit” was Chuck’s creed. The evening slide show educating guests about the flora, fauna and environmental issues was written by him, narrated in his soft drawl. With a strong emphasis on nature interpretation, at its height, Tiger Tops wildlife lodges and tented camps extended throughout India as well as Nepal, with activities in Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Tibet and beyond. Tiger Tops formula of responsible wildlife tourism and conservation synergy was an acknowledged model long before ecotourism became an established concept and buzzword.
Chuck not only mentored scientists, researchers, naturalists and ornithologists, but worked with many wildlife filmmakers, including cameramen from BBC and Survival Anglia television who relied on his unrivalled field expertise to get their shots. Wildlife operations throughout South Asia today are still managed and staffed by Chuck McDougal-trained specialists, who regard the quiet American as their guru and inspiration. He had an uncanny gift for imparting information without being didactic or overbearing, always supportive to acolytes, and with a twinkle in his eye for those ready to appreciate it.
Chuck retired from Tiger Tops in 2001, and devoted himself to travel, research and writing, continuing his tiger monitoring programmes in the Nepal Terai through the International Trust for Nature Conservation of which he remained an active Trustee. Co-author of the first tiger conservation strategy for the Royal Government of Bhutan, Chuck also observed the unique tiger population of the Bangladesh Sundarbans. Among other accolades, his work received awards from Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation in 1997 for his “lifelong dedication to tiger conservation in Nepal”, from WWF the Abraham Conservation Award in 2006, and from Himalayan Nature the Brian Hodgson Award in 2012. The Nepal Tiger Trust recognised him in 2014 “… for passionately mentoring ad coaching a younger generation of conservationists”.
In later years, Chuck developed a pessimistic ambivalence towards the more rampant impacts of tourism, advocating that benefits only accrue when tourism is more carefully controlled and channelled as a positive force for conservation. However, he leaves behind him legions of tourists forever grateful to him for revealing and interpreting the wonders of the subcontinent’s wildlife and jungles, and a generation of trained South Asian scientists and naturalists with unparalleled guiding integrity, skilled at showing visitors a glimpse of the wild tiger world that he so loved and valued.