It was pouring when we rolled into the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary. As we passed the huge green gates, I caught a glimpse of a sign through the gloom — ‘Welcome to Rhino Land’, it said. I was six when I first saw a rhinoceros, not in a jungle or a city zoo but in a John Wayne flick called Hatari! A film about men who catch wild animals for a living, it has a breathtaking sequence where a rhino is being chased in an open jeep on the African savannahs. Suddenly the animal stops, feints and rams its horns into the man sitting on the jeep’s bonnet, in the ‘catcher’s seat’. Years later, I was about to spot these fascinating creatures in the wild — though, of course, India is not home to the two-horned rhinos seen in Africa. The one seen here is just as spectacular though — the endangered Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros.
Jaldapara is home to an estimated 60- 80 rhinos. But this wildlife sanctuary has much more to offer. The most awe-inspiring aspect here is the forest itself. Looking at the dense foliage and tall trees that seem to close in upon us, I felt shivers go down my spine — of excitement mixed with some amount of trepidation. My journey began in NJP, where I met my guide and driver Jayanto. Our first stop was the Gorumara National the wrong time of year to visit, I should add. It was raining and the parks had been closed for the monsoons. It was after much wrangling and requesting that we finally got the necessary permits to visit the forest.
The first day, I stayed at the Gorumara Jungle Camp run by Help Tourism, my tour operator. The visit to the park could wait till next morning. After a welldeserved nap, Jayanto and I set off for the Jaldhaka Bridge nearby, which was not particularly remarkable. The light was fading fast, so we decided to return to the camp. We were driving along the highway and all I could see was dark green foliage on both sides. Suddenly the car swerved violently. “Pothole?” I asked. “Pothole! Didn’t you see the elephants?” exclaimed Jayanto excitedly. I had plain missed everything! So we turned around, switched off the lights and waited silently. Sure enough, after a few moments, a herd of seven adult elephants and two calves rumbled over the road and disappeared into the darkness. Early morning the next day, we entered the park. The rain was incessant but we were on a tight schedule. The skies cleared up a bit later and I could then look around. I had never seen such dense greenery anywhere else. There were ferns everywhere and the tall trees were covered with creepers and moss. The place was dank with the smell of rotting vegetation. Every now and then, we could hear the sounds of various insects and birds. There are rhinos in Gorumara too, as well as elephants, bison and deer. But lady luck refused to smile on us and after an unsuccessful visit to Rhino Point, a watchtower, we left the forest.
It was raining again as we set out from Gorumara to Jaldapara and, after an hour and a half, we reached Madarihat, the entry point into Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary. This was where our tourist lodge was located. The halt at the Forest Department office was thankfully brief this time. Word had got around, it seemed, and we obtained our permits in no time. Near the office, I saw an enclosure with small cages, used for the purposes of rehabilitating leopards. I saw a restless, pacing leopard and wondered when its time would come to return to the forest.
The next day, with Ajoy, our guide, we entered Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary. After a while, the dirt road led us to the Hollong Tourist Lodge. This is an ideal place to stay, within the forest premises. But as it was off-season, it was closed. With star-struck eyes, Ajoy told us that parts of the film Mr & Mrs Iyer were shot here. I saw a few Forest Department elephants lazing around — clearly, it was off-season for them too. Unfortunately for me, it meant I could not enjoy an elephant ride, the best way to explore Jaldapara.
Jaldapara teems with plant and animal life. Everywhere I looked, there were trees and trees, the most prominent being the tall sal and shishu trees. Being an ignorant city dweller, I failed to recognise the other flora. The canopy was so dense that hardly any sunlight fell on the forest floor. Here and there, amidst the undergrowth of ferns, shrubs and tall grass, I spotted pretty peacocks. They showed off in front of us and disappeared into the bushes when we approached closer. But I still hadn’t seen my rhino, and I fretted in my seat. Jayanto, the seasoned veteran, had seen it all. Patience and luck are the name of the game, he told me. Silence reigned all around, to be broken at intervals by the calls of various birds. This birdwatchers’ paradise has an estimated 350 bird species, of which the rarest is surely the Bengal florican, sighted only a few times. It’s also home to numerous mammal, reptile and insect species; but the main attraction is definitely the Indian rhino.
After driving around for 15 mins, we reached one of the watchtowers. From the top of the tower, I could see vast swathes of grassland and huge trees beyond it in the mist. The Torsa and Malangi rivers flow close by. Also near the watchtower are interlocking water channels with muddy banks covered by shrubs and marshy vegetation. I spotted the circular salt pits made by the Forest Department where animals usually congregate for much-needed nutrients. But there were no animals to be seen. Feeling a bit desperate but still expectant, I waited for what seemed like hours. And all the while, it was drizzling. Ultimately, it was a no show and I trudged back dejectedly to the Sumo. Our enthusiastic guide urged us to move to another tower. By now, I could almost see the writing on the wall. And sure enough, at the next watchtower, it was the same story. On the way back, as consolation, we spotted two beautiful hog deer, a mother and her calf. No one moved. The deer and the humans in the car eyed each other. Then I reached for my binoculars and, in a flash, the deer sprinted into the tall grasses. I didn’t get to see any rhinos this time — but I’ll be back, when it’s not raining.
About Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary
With two rivers, Torsa and Malangi, flowing through it, Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary offers a mixed tapestry of extensive grasslands along the sandy banks of the rivers and thick forests of mainly deciduous trees. Several streams crisscross the park. The approach along NH31C from the Gorumara NP (see Around Jaldapara on page 153 area to Madarihat, the entrance to Jaldapara, is through vast tracts of tea plantations. The Assistant Wildlife Warden’s office at Madarihat provides information and also arranges permits and bookings for elephant and jeep safaris. A 10-min drive from the gate brings you to the Jaldapara Tourist Lodge (sometimes referred to as the Madarihat Tourist Lodge). The lodge authorities also helps arrange jeep and elephant safaris in collaboration with the forest office. Close to the lodge is the Leopard Rehabilitation Centre, which currently houses eight of these big cats. A short distance past the leopard enclosure is the Nature Interpretation Centre. The Hollong Lodge, about 7 km away, is wonderfully located in a forest clearing, with the Torsa and Malangi rivers not too far away. It also has a range officer who helps co-ordinate permits and elephant and jeep safaris. There are watchtowers and salt licks close to the water bodies, and these of course provide the best wildlife viewing.
State: West Bengal
Location: In Alipurduar sub-division of Jalpaiguri District in north Bengal, past vast tracts of tea plantations in the Dooars region, close to the Bhutan border Distance 133 km E of New Jalpaiguri
Route from Siliguri: NH31 to Dalgaon via Coronation Bridge, Dam Dim, Mal Bazaar and Chalsa; NH31C to Madarihat via Birpara
When to go; The park is open from Sep 15 to Jun 15 and is closed during the monsoons. The most comfortable time to go is Oct to early May
Go there for One-horned rhinos, bison, elephant, Bengal florican, barasingha, pygmy hog
About the Author
Kingshuk Niyogy is a freelance writer and copywriter. Most of the time, he’s jobless and loves reading graphic novels.