Into the Wild

Into the Wild

National pride : KNP was declared a World Heritage site in 1985.  Photo by author

Grunts and snorts reverberated through the high grass from the marsh below. ‘Rhino fight’ whispered our driver Seni Ram. Not to miss the occasion, I jumped out of the jeep without a second thought and ran, followed by the guard Anil Deka who was armed with a vintage 315. We stalked through the tall grass for 50 feet and peeped down. Two combatants both with bleeding cuts were busy biting each other. They stopped suddenly and looked up at us. Perhaps Anil’s whispering to me to return back might have alerted them of our presence.

The one, who appeared to be losing, suddenly disengaged and bolted away straight across the marsh. The other just stood there looking up at us and then rushed towards us.

We both ran as fast as we could to the jeep, for a Rhino can out run the fastest sprinter. I just jumped into the jeep when I saw him in front of us, two tons of fury. He was clearly bleeding from his neck. He looked at us menacingly. Anil’s two shots in the air might have made him change his mind. He crossed the road few paces from the jeep. It was a hair raising experience. We were in Kaziranga National Park (KNP) in Assam, one of the finest nature parks in the country.

Home to varied animals
It was a much awaited revisit for me. It had been quite a few years since I made my last foray into the park. What brings me to this haven, time and again is its abundance of wildlife, many of them endangered and in the last abode of existence.
Apart from the ‘big five’ — the elephant, rhinoceros, wild buffalo, tiger and swamp deer, a total of 52 mammalian and 39 reptile species inhabit this park. The sanctuary is also a bird paradise with a checklist of almost 500 species including Swamp Francolin, Bengal Florican, Great and Wreathed Hornbill, Jordan’s Baza, Pallas’s Fishing Eagle and others. You name an endangered species and its there at the KNP — a dreamland for any nature lover.
The Rhino conservation in Kaziranga is one of the few rare success stories of wildlife conservation in the country. Back in the 19 century, the discovery of an indigenous tea plant in Assam and opening up of rail and road corridors had sounded the death knell for many species including rhinos. British tea planters out for a day of hunting in the late 1800s would casually bag two or three rhinos before breakfast. One Indian blueblood, The Maharaja of Cooch Behar, proudly notched 207 between 1871 and 1907.
Rhinos were saved from extinction mainly due to the efforts of an indomitable lady, Mary Curzon — wife of Lord Curzon, who prevailed upon the Viceroy to put an end to the massacre.

By the time Kaziranga was declared to be a reserved forest and hunting stopped, only about a dozen rhinos managed to hang in the area. On January 1, 1974, KNP was declared a national park while in 1985, a world heritage site. In 2007, it was declared as a tiger reserve. Now, the rhino population has reached around 1600 — more than 70 per cent of the species’ global population.
But, I still had a depressing feeling when I left the park last time. 1600 rhinos is still not a sustainable figure if one looks at the threats, both from nature as well as humans.

Need for better conservation
Last year, KNP grabbed media headlines, all for the wrong reasons. News of poaching of rhinos and tigers was what baffled environmentalists and nature lovers. 10 tigers poached in 100 days! These were just recorded cases. Many till date go unrecorded and unnoticed.

Our wildlife bureaucrats sitting in state capitals are masters in statistical jugglery. We had seen them in Sariska and Panna, both tiger reserves, where bogus tiger figures were published year after year, till the lid was blown off by journalists. A deeper look into most sanctuaries in India brings out the true picture — the decay in various degrees that is setting in. Kaziranga is not different either.
The 240 kms trip from Guwahati to Kohora (Kaziranga) on NH 37 was nothing eventful, other than the sight of mushrooming ram-shackle huts on both sides of the road that our driver told us as belonging to Bangladeshi illegal immigrants. SB Gohain, the energetic field director was a bundle o information and ideas.

I found his deputy, DD Gogoi, equally competent and dedicated. They are supported by range officers, including the legendary Darnidhar D Boro. Despite all odds, rhinos and others still survive here, courtesy dedicated men like them. How long can they withstand the pressures is the question. The park is understaffed with anti-poaching camps and lack of proper weapons and equipment.

All that aside, an early morning trip on Goutham was revealing. He is the steadiest Mukhna (tuskless male) in Kaziranga range and capable of standing up to the most vicious rhino.

I saw at least seven rhinos with calves all below two years. Hundreds of hog and swamp deers were grazing peacefully. It was indeed a heartening sight. I never saw such large gatherings in any other range in the subsequent days of my stay.
In the afternoon, DCF, DD Gogoi, took us to Beguri on the eastern side up to the Brahmaputra river. I was thrilled to see the herds of Asiatic wild buffaloes, with long curving horns. More thrilling were the single males looking menacingly at us through the bushes and grass.

 Large, black, robust and dangerous, Asiatic wild buffaloes, once roamed the entire Indian subcontinent. Now, they are only seen in small pockets of central and northeast India. IUCN’s most endangered species, these wild buffaloes are one of the most formidable animals to encounter. Villagers on the periphery of  the park do not keep male buffaloes as they are invariably killed by these male ruffians.

Dying wildlife
For the next three days, I crisscrossed the sanctuary along with Anil Deka, the guard and Seni Ram — the driver and came across every animal except the tiger. The bheels were full of birds including the bar headed geese and pelicans. We crossed the Bailey bridge on the Diffalo river and went up to Bhengari camp and Dosotti.
On the fifth early morning, we went across tea plantations on the other side of the national highway to visit Panbari in Karbi hills, part of which comes under the KNP, in  search of the only primate found in India — hoolock gibbon, another mammal in the IUCN endangered list. I spent three hours trekking inside the dense forest.
Anil Deka, tried to imitate the ape’s calls, but to no avail. Perhaps these apes may be history, since the other side of Karbi hills do not come under protected territory.
It is also known that baby Hoolocks are caught after killing their mothers and clandestinely smuggled into western countries and China where there is a huge demand for them.  At last, I left Kaziranga with mixed feelings. Will this park survive the onslaught of humans? Nevertheless, it was, to say the least, a memorable experience. KNP is a must visit for nature lovers.

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