Spellbinding North East
A visit to the vibrant north east including Kaziranga national wildlife sanctuary and Manas National Park charms the first-time visitor.
The North-East is possibly the most neglected and least publicized part of India. Tucked away in a corner, a large part of the country is sadly unaware of the lush beauty, the wealth of biodiversity which enchants the visitor and the overwhelming plethora of flora and fauna which abounds in this secluded part of the country. The simple and amiable nature of the people here, only enhances a delightful experience for the traveller.
We landed at Guwahati airport on October 28, 2018, and sped on a largely well-metalled road to Shillong in Meghlaya. The air turned cool and the climate pleasant as the road curved up the hills of Meghalaya, through dense pine forests, past the beauteous Umiam lake and into the quiet streets of Shillong. We had a quick tea break at Umiam lake, where the view of the lake from the hillside was almost surreal—dusk was falling on the pristine and clear expanse of water which was surrounded by thickly wooded hills. A portion of a hill jutted into the lake with a few lights twinkling on it through the gathering darkness, signifying sparse human habitation.
The next few days were a blur of energy-intensive visits to the Nohkalikai waterfalls, Cherapunjee which generally receives the highest rainfall in the country, a visit to the India-Bangladesh border where the river Umngot flows pure and serene on the Indian side of the border and the Mawlynnong village, the cleanest village in India.
Through this haze of frenzied activity one fact stood out starkly: Meghalaya’s dense jungles are silent forests. In the thickly wooded countryside no animals are seen, nor do you hear the call of a bird. Instead, the forests resound to the sound of crickets which often reaches a shrill crescendo. Puzzled, I asked our driver the reason for the extraordinary absence of animals and birds. “The locals just eat them,” he said simply.
As you descend from the hills of Meghalaya to the plains of Assam, in a glaring contrast with the former state, the landscape comes alive with animals and birds of a rich variety. Egrets, Demoiselle Cranes, the common Kingfisher and Parakeets can be seen in the abundant vegetation along the national highway. We zipped along a road which unfurled like a black ribbon of tarmac through the famed Kaziranga National Wildlife Sanctuary.
We stopped at strategic points on the road to take pictures and were thrilled to see the famed one-horned rhino from a distance, feeding placidly while wading through muddy vegetation, its thick body so well structured that it looked like the endangered animal was wearing armour plate to protect itself from predators.
We stayed at Infinity Resorts at Kaziranga whose staff had an admirable depth of knowledge about environment and conservation. Early next morning we embarked on an elephant safari through the Kaziranga National Park which was enveloped in a light fog. As the fog lifted we saw rhinos feeding peacefully in the wetlands in the distance. The elephant on which we were seated tramped through the tall grass, accompanied by a smaller and younger elephant, who easily followed his older mate. Visitors were seated on the younger elephant too.
Suddenly our elephant panicked and refused to follow the chosen route, heading instead in the opposite direction. His fear was transmitted instantly to the younger elephant; soon both the elephants broke into a frightened trot, with their mahouts trying hard to control them. “But what’s frightened them?” we asked panic stricken. “Most probably the elephants have smelt a tiger close by with his kill, that’s what’s agitated them,” said our mahout stoically. Slowly he calmed our elephant, the younger elephant followed suit and then both the elephants trod the mud track quietly to the base camp!
Kaziranga, as a forest, thrums with life. The park is sprawled out over an area of approximately 830 sq.kms. According to local sources, in the census of 2017 the number of rhinos had increased to 2413 by the direct count method. There are roughly 1200 water buffaloes and 1200 elephants in the sanctuary. The big boost to conservation has been the increase in the number of rhinos from 20 to 2413—this has been achieved with the help of the local population, who are very positive about conservation and the NGOs in Assam who are passionate about preserving their environment.
However, what is disturbing is that the population of elephants is declining due to habitat destruction, which in turn stems from misguided and ruinous ideas about development. Even more dangerous is the rise in poaching activities. Said a source: “The central government must step in and curb this as the same poachers are getting bail easily.”
From Kaziranga we drove to Manas National Park which is close to the border with Bhutan. The park has 25-38 tigers, 32 rhinos, but there is no census of elephants and the Indian Gaur. The jungle is dense but silent, a stark contrast with vibrant Kaziranga. Due to internal disturbances in the area, the park was shut down for many years, but is now slowly being revived again.
The north east must be seen, understood, cherished and preserved, for not many countries are fortunate enough to have such large areas with haunting biodiversity and charm.
Cover Photo: Rhinos at Kaziranga National park | Photo by: Kamal Cheema
Read also: Revisiting the moments in the wild
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