Kaziranga – Rhino Raj (2003, 2011)

Kaziranga – Rhino Raj (2003, 2011)

The baby elephant comes bounding towards us and thrusts her trunk at us.  Flattered by this unexpected attention, we stroke her trunk tentatively and pat her prickly back, but she pushes our hands away and nuzzles again and again.  We are both amused and perplexed. After a while she turns away rather abruptly and goes after an elderly man carrying a bag. Then it dawns on us. The young animal is actually looking for something to eat, perhaps a bunch of bananas.  She is the baby of one of the safari elephants waiting to take you into the jungle. The mahout shoos her away, but she knows how to wheedle a banana out of him which she swallows in an instant.

Conservation Success Story

We are in Kaziranga National Park in Assam, waiting for our turn to mount an elephant safari into rhino territory.   Kaziranga is one of the few conservation success stories in India where a healthy rhino population now reigns.  Hundreds of years ago, the one-horned Indian rhino roamed the wetlands of the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra, but today, it is confined to the small territory of Kaziranga National Park and the adjoining Manas Sanctuary.   Located at the foothills of the Burpahar in Golaghat district of Assam, Kaziranga located in tall grassland is an ideal habitat for this unique mammal.

It is the early morning hush hour.  Sublime silence conspires with an eerie stillness to produce that near perfect moment of all-encompassing tranquillity. The horizon is still grey with nary a hint of the molten gold that would soon rend it and explode, dripping and splashing streaks of orange.  Mist envelopes the distant mountains like a tulle scarf. The grass is six feet high and can even hide a jeep or a smaller elephant, but ours towers over it. There are four of us packed on the howdah, but the elephant is sure-footed and pads on noiselessly.

Flash of Blue

Our ears strain for that tell-tale sound – of crackling grass, crunching leaves or a grunt. We can make out the silhouettes of other elephants with their howdahs all padding along in convivial conspiracy. And then we see a flash of bluish grey in the thicket. A mother and her cub view us warily as we draw near, but make no attempt to move.  There is barely enough light to make out their contours.

Soon the first rays of the sun struggle through the cracks in the ozone canopy and we can make out the features of the animals. Enormous in size, even a cub can be more rotund than an elephant.  Chiselled folds of are arranged like armour plates and sport a glowing sheen. The size is intimidating enough, but the single horn curves up menacingly, just in case.

And then we see another and yet another and in groups of three or four. Everywhere you turn, there seem to be bluish rhinos all engrossed in a breakfast of succulent tall grass. The ground is littered with their droppings. As the sun travels up the horizon, the heat, the buzzing flies and the raucous shrieks of tourists shooting pictures of rhinos combine to dispel the magic. We turn back.

Supporting Cast

Later, we head out into the savannah in an open-top gypsy.  While rhino is the chief protagonist of the Kaziranga theatre, the supporting cast is no less impressive!  There are herds of wild elephants, wild boars and large groups of graceful barasinghas and antelopes.  Leopards keep out of prying tourist eyes, but the rest of the game is far from being shy.  If you visit Kaziranga in winter, you get a bonus.  Migratory birds with their gorgeous plumage darken the skies over the park while the water bodies sport a variety of birds including the Fishing Eagle, Grey leg Geese, Barheaded Geese, Red Crested Pochard and all those other birds whose pictures in Salim Ali’s books have always fascinated you, are there in feather and beak, fluttering their wings.  Spotting the Oriental Honey Buzzard, Black-Shouldered Kite, Black Kite, Brahminy Kite, and all those exotic  birds pointed out by a very knowledgeable guide, I come away with the satisfaction that there is still hope for wildlife in our densely-populated country.

 (Published in The Hindu on April 11, 2011)


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