The wobbly toddler was following her mother closely, often getting under her protective bulk of one-and-a-half ton, when it sensed danger lurking in the tall, swaying elephant grass. The mother, seeing the uneasiness of her calf, stopped, cast a probing glance on either side, and sniffed the air frequently. Satisfied that it was just a solitary boar rummaging through the undergrowth that had made the rustling noise, the mother rhino continued with her lumbering trudge, with the nervous calf sticking to her side.
It was still dark when we hopped onto the big domesticated elephant, ‘Joymoti’, in Kohora Range of the famed Kaziranga National Park. The month was January, and the late-night chill rattled us to the bones. The waning moon, with its fading glow, was making a final descent behind the Burhapahar hills, and although dawn was nearing, there was more darkness than light. A thick veil of mist floating over the jungle further impeded our vision.
It took us a while to get our eyes accustomed to the hazy atmosphere and look for the denizens of the jungle. What, however, acted to our advantage was that the animals of Kaziranga -- the herbivores to be precise -- are not as reticent as their counterparts in most other jungles of Assam and hence less elusive.
The greater tourist flow to Kaziranga has probably made these animals more used to human presence. The sheer number of animals in Kaziranga – it has the highest concentration of several animals in the country -- is another factor why the tourist is rarely disappointed here. Anyway, scarcely had we gone a hundred yards through the thick elephant grass into an opening when we bumped into a herd of wild buffaloes. In the mist, they looked more like shadowy apparitions than real animals. There were about a dozen of them -- some standing idly and the rest lying on the ground. They did not seem particularly perturbed by our approach, and allowed us to advance closer. But there is obviously a limit beyond which even the friendliest of the denizens of Kaziranga would not tolerate human intrusion. As some over-enthusiastic tourists tried to venture too near for the animals’ comfort, the herd dashed into the jungle, their thundering hooves shattering the pre-dawn silence of the forest. After some time the shroud of mist gave way to the first rays of the morning sun, which emerged as a fiery orange ball on the eastern fringe of the forest.
With the fog gone, a beautiful landscape started to unfold, enabling us to have a nice view of the jungles that surrounded us from all sides. It was a flat terrain dominated by elephant grass and interspersed with patches of short undergrowth where the herbivores fed. Marshes of various sizes – so essential for Kaziranga’s big herbivores like rhino, buffalo and elephant as also its celebrated avian population -- also dotted the landscape.
In the far towards the north were dense woods but we were not going there because of the distance. The crack of dawn opened up before our eyes not just Kaziranga’s serene landscape but also the bountiful and diverse wildlife thriving in its folds.
Kaziranga is undoubtedly among the best places in India to view animals in the wild, and its abundant wildlife enthralled us. Within just half an hour of our elephant ride, we encountered different animals, and that too, in large numbers. The rhino was ubiquitous and virtually appeared from everywhere -- much to the delight of the tourists on elephant back who generally come here to see this endangered, pre-historic looking animal. Among the many we saw were several very young calves with mothers. Our mahout, a man well versed in jungle lore, pointed to a calf, which he said, was just five-day old. So used were the rhinos to seeing humans on elephant back that they took little notice of our approach. Still, as the mahout told us, it was dangerous to venture too close to mother rhinos with calves, as they are known to make threatening charges at approaching elephants.
Kaziranga happens to shelter the world’s highest population of the one-horned rhino, with a count of 1,855 (2006 census) within its 800-odd sq km (after the six additions to its original area of 430 sq km, even though the final demarcation is pending due to court cases) area. It has indeed been a saga of conservation success, given that less than a dozen rhinos inhabited Kaziranga when it was declared a proposed reserve forest (PRF) by the British in 1905, marking the beginning of a fruitful conservation process more than a century ago. The conservation process, however, has had its share of setbacks, with poaching remaining the most potent threat to the rhino. While the period 2000-2006 saw a lull in the incidence of poaching, poachers struck in a big way in 2007 killing 20 rhinos and again five more till July 2008.
The omnipresent rhino apart, hog deer, swamp deer, and buffalo were the animals that we encountered in plenty. It was quite a spectacle when a big herd of swamp deer bounded off into the jungle, apparently alarmed by the presence of some lurking carnivore. The Park has the biggest swamp deer population in Eastern India, with a count of nearly 500. Wild boars also came to our view in good numbers, as did samba’s. We were unlucky in not coming upon a herd of elephants, often associated with Kaziranga. With some 1,200 elephants, Kaziranga has the country’s highest number of elephants in a single protected area.
Our disappointment, however, diminished to a great extent when subsequently we saw two solitary elephants in different locations. Two more buffalo herds obstructed our passage, as we marveled at the lazy elegance of the huge beasts.
Kaziranga, incidentally, has the maximum number of the Asiatic buffalo, with a population of over 1,500. The tiger, the most sough-after animal for all wildlife enthusiasts in India, however, remained elusive despite the fact that Kaziranga has a fairly healthy population of 86 tigers, which is among the highest in India. In view of the thriving tiger population, Kaziranga was declared a Tiger Reserve in 2007, making it the third Tiger Reserve of Assam, after Manas and Nameri. With the tiger population plummeting drastically in most of the protected areas of the country – thanks to rampant poaching and widespread habitat destruction – Kaziranga continues to hold hope for the beleaguered big cat as being among its last few strongholds. Although we missed out on having a rendezvous with the king of the jungle, encountering this “big-hearted gentlemen” as immortalized by Corbett, is always a distinct possibility – something corroborated by the increasing incidence of tiger sighting in Kaziranga in recent years. The elephant safari coming to a close at a point near the main jungle road after an hour, we got onto a jeep and proceeded slowly towards Mihimukh, the entry point of Kohora Range where we had started the elephant ride. An elephant that had appeared from the sparse vegetation by the right side of the road made this short traverse memorable for me. It was a big male without tusks (makhana) and was in musth (sexually active condition), as evident from the secretion from the gland above its cheeks. Continuing with its unhurried, regal march, the giant came near to our vehicle as it crossed the road. For the first time in my life, I was able to take a good photograph (by my modest standards, of course) of an elephant in the wild.
Next we opted for a jeep safari in the afternoon at Bagori Range. Kaziranga has four ranges – Kohora, Bagori, Agoratoli and Burhapahar. It was a quiet and pleasant drive along the narrow and occasionally bumpy jungle road. Among the animals we saw were deer, a huge buffalo with an incredible span of the horns taking a nap, a lone elephant helping itself to a rather noisy afternoon meal, and varieties of birds. Our jeep driver was a local youth, who also acted as the guide. He was a knowledgeable man, and could identify many of the birds we saw. The flourishing tourism in Kaziranga has made the locals important stakeholders in its conservation process. Our sojourn included a stop at the Donga beel (small lake), a large water-body that is home to a number of water birds, both resident and migratory that feed on the beel’s perennial supply of fish. Kaziranga has an enviable avian population with over five hundred species – the second highest for the country after Corbett National Park -- recorded so far. The view from the watch tower on the bank was stunning. From atop the tower we saw birds – some in the water and others circling above it looking for unsuspecting fish. The glistening silvery backs of big chitol fish as they surfaced and turned and twisted in the water made quite a sight. At Donga beel, we had a chance to interact with the forest guards manning the camp there. These unheralded men always remain in the forefront of conservation, braving the harsh jungle life and having little access to even the basic amenities. After half an hour we left Donga beel and were on our way out of the enchanting forests. On the way we saw marks left by last year’s floodwaters on the poles of a watchtower.
Floods occur almost every year in Kaziranga, and although on a few occasions they had caused considerable damage (as in 1998 and 2004), floods are critical to its survival. The floodwaters replenish the marshes and swamps that are intrinsically linked to the thriving of innumerable life forms, including animals, birds and reptiles, of Kaziranga. We were nearing the end of our journey, and as we kept looking back to the woods, the sun was slowly descending on the western horizon, bathing the forest in pale yellow.
Kaziranga certainly cast a spell on us and our hearts were heavy with a feeling that emanates only when one establishes a contact the powerful and mysterious ways of nature. Although we were leaving the jungle behind, the imprints it left in our minds were sure to stay with us for the rest of our lives.