A delicate mist weaves through the clumps of grass. Dewdrops glisten like topaz crystals in the pale dawn. Daybreak at Kaziranga is a breathtaking transition from cold grey to brilliant gold. Swamp deer, graceful silhouettes against the glowing horizon, trot past wild buffaloes wallowing in secluded mud baths. Gilded grass turns to green, and the nip in the air ebbs, warmed by the rising sun. A new day dawns on the grassland.
Our elephants amble on in silence, rustling through the freshness. There is hushed anticipation as we proceed deeper into the grassy plain. “We will see them for sure,” whispers our mahout. A noisy family on one of the elephants is shushed by the disapproving guard, much to our relief. The grass around us gets taller, one can now see why this is called ‘elephant’ grass — if it were not for the people on its back, we would barely be able to spot the elephant ahead of us. I resist the temptation to run my fingers along the graceful dewy blades snapping past me; if you catch the edge, it can slice pretty meanly into your finger. We squelch through a marshy patch, tipping precariously as our elephant yanks one foot out, only to sink another one in. We arrive at a steamy waterhole and, apparition-like, two rhinos emerge amidst the tall grass. While we watch from a distance, they fall back to their playful exchange, one nosing the other gently on the head, a rare gesture among adult rhinos. They seem so at peace; the intimate safety of the mist and the silence of the grassland quieten the voyeur in all of us, 25-odd tourists on elephant back.
The sun is higher and the grassland colours have now come alive. The next rhino we come across has just risen from a wallow and is grazing on tender grass, his hide washed clean. An egret lands on his back to catch an easy snack. Foraging intently, this rhino seems unperturbed by the ring of elephants and humans around him. This time some mahouts oblige requests for a slightly closer view and soon we’re all quite close; cameras whir, little digital blipping sounds go off each elephant back and the moment is safely stashed in digital memory cards!
Later in the day, at the end of our morning jeep safari, we wait to see if a rhino we’ve spotted in the grassland below will cross the road; instead, it decides to clamber on to the road, lower its head and give us quite a chase. It is only in those few terrifyingly exhilarating moments at the back of the fleeing jeep that I actually realise the power and speed these ponderous animals can muster. And Kaziranga is the world’s last major stronghold of these magnificent creatures.
The Kaziranga National Park is much more than just a wildlife destination, it is a piece of history. This UNESCO World Heritage Site turned 100 in 2005. Flanked all along by tea estates, with NH31 running along its southern boundary with a huge refinery at one end, Kaziranga is a fragile island of wilderness dangerously hemmed in by increasing human development. But thanks to the stringent check kept by authorities, the guards on the ground as well as the support of local people, Kaziranga is a safe home for animals.
Kaziranga, in the language of the Karbi tribe, means ‘where the mountain goat has water’. It was a swampy, almost inaccessible wetland, used as hunting grounds by local tribes and shikaris up to 1905, when the British Government, under Lord Curzon, proposed to declare it a reserve forest. This declaration was finalised and the area officially closed for shooting in 1908. In 1950, it was declared a wildlife sanctuary and, in 1974, Kaziranga was given its current status as a National Park.
Flat grasslands with streams and, large, landlocked water bodies (beels) constitute Kaziranga’s terrain. Tall elephant grass covers most of the land, sometimes opening into foraging grounds with shorter grasses, few tall trees and cane thickets. The low-lying terrain naturally rises southwards into the Karbi Hills; the transitional high woodlands was earlier a crucial part of this forest, offering safe ground to animals during the annual flood. This strategic forest area has almost completely been taken over by tea estates in the past century.
Almost every year in the monsoon, Kaziranga is submerged by the backflow of the Brahmaputra in spate — this flood helps rejuvenate the forest, recharges the wetlands with fish stock, clears hyacinth and other debris, and brings in silt to give the grassland new life. However, in some years (as it happened in 1998 and also in 2004), when the flood level rises drastically, there is widespread loss of wildlife as animals cannot get to high ground fast enough. The flood, however, is a natural cycle from which Kaziranga rises resilient, phoenix-like, every year.
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, Kaziranga is internationally acknowledged for its importance as one of the last undisturbed habitats of the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros. Thanks to conservation efforts, today there are over 1,500 rhinos in Kaziranga. It is also home to over 70 per cent of the world’s swamp or wild buffalo population. The rare swamp deer is also found in plenty here. According to a recent census, Kaziranga sustains over a 1,000 wild elephants and 450 species of wetland, grassland and woodland birds, of which 18 are globally threatened. The huge number of rhinos in Kaziranga is actually worrying conservationists, who feel that an epidemic could wipe out the entire population. They suggest that some of the rhinos be moved to other parts of Assam.
About the Author:
Shibani Chaudhury is a filmmaker, travel writer and photographer based in Assam. She is among India’s first women wildlife filmmakers and has been in the field for 14 years. She scripted and was one of three key people to work on ‘The Last Migration and Shores of Scilence’, films that went on to win the Green Oscar awards in the UK. She has produced short films on Assam’s Wildlife.