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The Serengeti of India

Text and Photos By D. K. Bhaskar Email Text and Photos By D. K. Bhaskar
November 2009
The Serengeti of India

At 6:10 a.m. the weather was typically foggy and the visibility less than 20 meters. Ranjan Das, Deputy Forest Officer, sat next to the driver in the Maruti Gypsy with his Handycam, and I sat in the back with forest guard Ganesh Singh, who had a rifle. Silence prevailed all around, except for the noise of our 4X4. The morning breeze had quietened, the tall grasslands across us stood still, and the occasional calls of the red jungle fowls overpowered the mechanical drone of our vehicle. “Let’s turn towards Mithunbari through Halala Road”, Ranjan changed his mind and instructed the driver to change direction.

The new stretch was about 20 feet wide, with no option to turn around for several kilometers. We were surrounded by thick bamboo forests with sharp needles sticking out; at the backdrop were the Bombax ceiba, the silk cotton trees with their red bloom, creating a fuzzy haze through the moisture-laden car window. “I hope we can see the divergent tusker, which was seen yesterday morning in this region,” said Ranjan, when Ganesh screamed out, “Rhino!”

A fraction of a second later, our vehicle stopped! We were all glued to our seats. Ganesh, famous for his many encounters in the wild, forgot for a moment his duty with the gun, as he stared, terrified at the might of the big mammal. The next moment, our alert driver changed to the reverse gear and started backing up, but the massive, 800-kilogram beast had advanced too far and was determined to prove he was mightier. Seconds later, the front of our green Gypsy was completely mangled. I instinctively clicked away to capture the action, until Ganesh came to his senses and fired two rounds randomly, the shots reverberating across the pristine landscape. Stunned by the sound, birds scattered from their perch and the rhino lifted his head with a menacing look, confused, threatened and agitated, all at once. He reluctantly took to his heels, sparing our lives!

A bit unnerved by the incident, we cautiously moved ahead, not sure what else was in store for us. Indeed, it was the majestic divergent tusker itself that ambled across the bheel (lake). He paused on the open grass, and trumpeting warmly, wished us “good morning,” and stood there, as if posing beautifully for a picture.

Sightings such as this would have been rare in the early 1900s, when Lady Curzon, wife of Viceroy Lord Curzon, visited Kaziranga in search of the Indian Rhinoceros, or the Great One-Horned Rhinoceros, a species found only in India and Nepal. To her dismay, she didn’t see even one, for it was on the verge of extinction, and there were only an estimated 30 rhinos scattered all over. Using her powers, she impressed upon her husband to declare the area the Kaziranga Reserve Forest in 1904.

Located along the flood plains on the south bank of the Brahmaputra River on a narrow stretch of land between Nepal and Bangladesh, the Kaziranga National Park today is 105 years old. It is a four-hour road trip from Guwahati, in the northeastern state of Assam. One of the last frontiers for the pre-historic one-horned rhinoceros species, the park today is a jewel in the crown of Indian wildlife, boasting a healthy population of over 2000 (75 percent of the world’s population) one-horned rhinos, according to an April 2009 census.

In my decade-long addiction with the National Parks and their inhabitants across the country, the Kaziranga National Park remains my favorite and undoubtedly a hot destination for over one million others who visit this magnificent wilderness annually. My earliest memory of the park several years ago was of seeing a herd of elephants ambling across National Highway 37. Parking across the busy highway, I had an undisturbed view of a herd of 14 elephants with four young calves swimming, playing, pulling water weeds, and swaying their trunks in harmony, one of my most endearing sights of wildlife watching. Each of my subsequent visits has had a profound influence in my understanding of India’s wildlife inheritance.

Crisscrossed by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries (Diphlu, Mora Diphlu and Mori Dhanisri), the park stretches over an area of 677 square miles. Grasslands dominate the landscape, interspersed with tropical semi-evergreen and deciduous forests. Scattered trees of silk cotton (Bombax ceiba), elephant apple (Dillenia indica) and Queen's flower (Lagerstroemia speciosa), and large water bodies fed by the major rivers resemble the typical savannah landscapes that dot the sprawling wildernesses of Africa and North America. The fringes of the park abruptly break into the vast, verdant expanse of the Mikir hills dominated by tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen trees.

Last winter, on a beautiful November morning, sitting atop an elephant named Mala, I watched over 25 rhinos, herds of swamp deer, water buffalos at a distance, an occasional hog deer and several fawns. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Kaziranga is India’s Serengeti. With the big five—rhino, elephant, swamp deer, water buffalo and tiger— along with over 150 species of other mammals and an astonishing diversity of over 400 species of avian fauna, it’s a live National Geographic Channel show here every day between October and May. Nine of the 14 primate species along with India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon, can be found inside the park. There are 10 other critically endangered species here, not to mention those that are endemic to the region, such as falcated teals, Bengal floricans, white-eyed pochards, spot-billed Pelicans and black-breasted parrotbills. Birdlife International, a global conservation federation, considers the Kaziranga National Park as an “important bird area.”

In addition to its UNESCO World Heritage status (1994), it was declared a Project Tiger Reserve in 2006, which increased its importance and conservation status. A recent survey by Aaranyak, a conservation organization, estimated that over 120 tigers inhabit the reserve. No other tiger reserve boasts of such a large population. The daredevil range officer, D.D. Boro, who has fought off poachers and is hailed as one of the men responsible for the successful conservation of the Great One-Horned Rhinoceros, remarked, “There is an abundance of prey species here, with the tall grasslands making it an ideal camouflage for stalking and secluding their young ones.”

The Deputy Commissioner for Assam Forest Service, Bharat Bushan Dhar, says, “Such close proximity and wealth of diversity is a huge challenge for conservation and protection too. Despite its extraordinary success, the park has been fighting a battle, from poaching for precious rhino horns (which fetch over $30,000 in the international market), tiger skin and elephant tusks to illegal logging, farmland, quarries and construction in the park limits. Also, there are many commercial crop and tea plantations in the periphery, blocking the natural migration of elephants and resulting in increased human-animal conflict.”

“Since 2008, nearly 15 rhinos have been poached”, says Boro, who has played a significant role in the park’s preservation efforts, arresting more than 100 and shooting over 30 in anti-poaching encounters. He, more than anyone else, understands the challenges of protecting this mega-diversity habitat. “There are over 125 anti-poaching camps with over 250 guards, but to protect this nature’s treasure, we have primitive weapons and inadequate staff. There are more tourist guides than forest guards. No one wants to work for saving it, but everyone wants to show it,” he sighs. Of course, tourism has played a big role in the success of the conservation effort. Ranjan Das said, “There is a constant vigil by the public when they are moving around the designated areas of the park and the local guides help us!”

On a late afternoon drive inside the park a king cobra sunbathes, sprawled across the road at the base of a cottonwood tree, unmindful of our presence. Right above, two hornbills preen, exchange kisses and make affectionate gestures to each other. A few meters away, on the back of a dead tree rests a big monitor lizard peacefully, while on a log below in the muddy lake, seven Assam roofed turtles warm their backs.

I am convinced that such exquisite moments of experiencing rare wildlife cannot be had in any other national park in India. It’s a treasure that all of us should protect from poachers. The best way to support Kaziranga's magnificent natural history is to promote tourism to the area and spread the word about your wonderful experiences at the park to others.

[D. K. Bhaskar is a widely published, award winning photojournalist based in Augusta, Georgia]


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