“How close do the Rhinos get?”
It was misty, mildly chilly February morning and I was sipping my tea, waiting for our jeep to arrive. Perplexed, the manager at our lodge in Kaziranga replied, “I don’t think you want them to get too close!”
We were in Kaziranga to see the famed one horn Rhino, Assam’s greatest tourist draw, second only to its tea gardens. Ensconced by the mighty Brahmaputra and its tributaries, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kaziranga accounts for about 2/3rds of the world’s Rhino population and is the last major habitat of the Indian Rhino, which once roamed the entire length of the northern Gangetic plains. First notified as a protected area in 1905, Kaziranga is a conservation success story with rising numbers of tigers, elephants and most notably rhinos. The numbers for these magnificent beasts have multiplied from a mere 366 in the 1960s to over 2500 today.
It is also one of the most tiger dense areas (protected) in the world. In fact, it is one of the only parks in India where you can see four of the Indian big five.
While most people come for the rhinos, Kaziranga is also home to the Asian water buffalo, the majestic and endangered barasingha or swamp deer, two types of leopards, the wild elephant and despite the fact that you will rarely see one, it’s one of the most tiger dense areas (protected) in the world. In fact, it is one of the only parks in India where you can see four of the Indian big five.
That morning we were taking an elephant safari from Kaziranga’s Bagori Gate. In most parks around MP and other parts of the country, elephant safaris for ‘tiger shows’ have been discontinued, but in Kaziranga, they are still the best way (because elephants can get much closer to the rhino than a jeep can, since there’s less chance of the rhino charging the elephant) of getting up close and personal with the one-horned rhino.
As anyone who’s ridden an elephant knows, it’s at once a languid but slightly unsettling experience. Surprisingly graceful for its size, the elephant sways gently from side to side, plodding through the thicket. As the elephants, at the expert prodding of their mahouts, make their way out of the thicket and into the Kaziranga grasslands, the initial excited chatter dies down, cameras are readied and a palpable anticipation hangs in the air.
Our first sight of the vast Kaziranga grasslands, bathed in the mellow morning light is breathtaking.
Flat and undulating in parts, it extends as far as the eye can see in all directions, broken only by the occasional shrub or tree, creating a sense of vast emptiness. In the monsoons, when torrential rains lash Assam and the Brahmaputra swells and floods the area around, these plains are covered in tall elephant grass, which gets in name from the fact that it can hide even a large tusker, hampering visibility of wildlife and providing cover for the park’s predators as they stalk their prey. It was the tail-end of winter now, and the grass had turned yellow, and served as pasture. From our vantage point this afforded us unfettered views of the lovely landscape.
A sharp intake of breath, and we knew. There it was, hardly a few meters ahead, our first sighting of the Great Indian Rhinoceros; then two and then three!
We’d stumbled on a crash of female Rhinos, rudely interrupting their mid-morning snacking, but they seemed not to mind. With a nonchalant shake of the head, they dismissed our arrival. Emboldened, I urge our mahout forward for a better view, and the elephant slowly inched forward until we were literally trunk to horn.
I revelled in the magnificence of this creature. A squat tank like body, it’s a little over two tons of pure muscle. A single non-threatening horn grows on its snout, giving it it’s name. This gentle giant has fearsome strength – they’ve been known to ram into Jeeps when threatened, so the mahout keeps his distance.
An umbrella species, the rhino population is key to the protection of ecosystems such as Kaziranga. This not only ensures the protection of other species, but generates employment for locals through tourism and allied activities, making the Rhino incredibly important, and befitting its status as Assam’s state animal.
Incidentally, it is only now that conservationists are waking up to the impact of rhinos on their environment. Recent studies have shown that rhinos in their role as grazers in the African savannahs contribute to the diversity of the plant ecosystem by grazing on certain grasses only, while avoiding others, thus opening up the grasslands for other grazers and a number of smaller species.
Kaziranga’s varied topography also offers breathtaking landscapes especially in the eastern range, bordered by the Brahmaputra. During the monsoon, the river floods this region of the park and the water level rises several feet, creating a unique marshy ecosystem ideal for birds and swamp deer – distinct from other wildlife sanctuaries in arid central India. The sheer diversity of experiences and wildlife in Kaziranga makes it perhaps one of the most fascinating parks in India.
Know before you go:
Kaziranga is located in the north eastern state of Assam and is 170 km from Guwahati Airport.
Stay: There are a number of stay options in Kaziranga to suit various budgets from the rustic and charming Nature Hunt Eco Camp to the fancier Infinity Resorts. Most resorts will book your Elephant and Jeep Safaris for you.
When to go: Winter is the best time to visit Kaziranga. The park is shut from May to October during monsoons.