Travel Diaries – Kaziranga: A land lost in time
Just imagine a place where extinct species roamed freely and in abundance. With the presence of the Great Indian One Horned Rhinoceros and Wild Water Buffalo, whose last major surviving world population can only be seen here, Kaziranga National Park comes quite close.
Kaziranga fascinated me while growing up. A trip here was on the cards for ages, but in the summer of 2017, I finally took the plunge. Our online research had revealed that Kohora is the centre of Kaziranga and this has traditionally been the zone for best wildlife sightings. However, while talking to some wildlife experts on their facebook page, Bagori or the western zone was high on their recommendation list, and hence we decided to explore both.
We were up with the first light of the morning and rushed to the boarding point for elephant safari. While climbing the machan to board the elephant, we came across high water level marks, a silent reminder of the deadly floods that ravage Kaziranga every year, yet it is these same floods that support the life-sustaining beels or flood ponds where the rhinos, elephants and buffaloes spend the majority of their time wallowing.
Just as our elephant started on its jaunty walk through the marshes, the nascent rays of the sun broke through the morning mist illuminating the beels scattered across the wetland in a golden glow. We got our first look at a rhinoceros, standing tall and proud next to a much-wallowed beel, giving us an annoyed look at having walked in on him during his breakfast. Its back was slick with mud from its last wallow, and cattle egrets were having a ball hunting for treasure in the mud clots formed on its corrugated grey hide. There are about 3500 Great Indian One Horned Rhinoceros left in the wild today, of which Kaziranga harbors a staggering 2413, a figure that we totally believed after being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Rhinos that we saw over the next few days.
As our elephant moved further into the park, we came across a rhino mother with a newly born calf, barely days old. The baby rhino looked soft and cuddly – like a teddy, its horn a mere stub. It bravely decided to venture out from between its mother’s legs giving us an excellent photo-opportunity, but got scared by the cattle egrets and ran back to its sanctuary.
In our line of sight we could see the marsh stretching across in all directions, and in the distance, there were mountains making for a scenic view. These mountains of Karbi-Anglong are where the animals take refuge when the park gets inundated during floods, but unfortunately, they are not a part of the reserve and this is where the animals become most vulnerable. My thoughts were interrupted by a streak of gold rushing through the grass; it was a swamp deer doe. Sensing that the herd must be nearby, our experienced mahout egged on the elephant to go further, and we came upon a herd of swamp deer resting on their bed of short grass.
From among the nervous females, emerged a huge Barasingha stag. Looking resplendent in its summer coat of bright gold, the stag swaggered and flaunted its showpiece antlers before disappearing in the tall grass with the rest of the herd.
Just where the marsh descended into a small pond we caught the glint of sunlight reflecting from a gigantic scimitar-shaped horn. We were amazed to see four wild buffaloes huddled together in the water. Their massive bodies caked with mud and a huge pair of horns jutting out in all four directions was quite a sight.
I was so busy clicking with my DSLR that I didn’t notice the buffalo nearest to us had started to get up; suddenly my entire frame was covered with a dark brooding face, the zoom totally not helping as I got a close up of its nose hair! It gave a threatening shrug of its massive shoulders, it’s mud facial peeling off and flying in all directions, making us realize to our horror that we had totally ruined its spa session. Before things could get out of hand and the buffalo could charge our mahout sensed the danger and wheeled the elephant towards the safety of the machan!
While the Elephant safari had just covered a small patch of marsh, the jeep safari took us deep inside the forest. Kohora is such a beautiful zone to drive through, with its endless grasslands, lakes, streams and ponds. The rhinos were everywhere, gazing at us curiously, munching on greens or wallowing in the ponds with only their horn visible above the water.
We took the high road which enabled us to get a better high view of the grasslands, and spread across the grasslands in a heartwarming sight were many groups of hog deer. Hog deer are also an endangered species, but you would hardly believe that looking at the hundreds of medium-sized chestnut brown deer grazing peacefully in the Kaziranga grasslands.
Our most memorable sighting was that of the rare Great Indian Hornbill up in the branches, and what’s more, it had a nest in the tree hollow from which naked open mouthed chicks clamoured for food. After a while, the hornbill spread its enormous wings and flew away on its next sortie right over our gypsy, a sight to remember for life.
Our evening safari was in the Bagori zone, where we had a close encounter. Our vehicle got stuck in a patch of slush by the roadside, just then the rhino grazing nearby looked up. The driver revved up the engine to generate enough force, only managing to splatter the rhino with dirt. The Rhino repeatedly snorted and stomped its foreleg, gearing up for the charge, but lady luck arrived just in time giving a much-needed shove to the gypsy and we managed to move to a safe distance.
Now our focus was fully on tiger sighting. Adrenaline was running high; we were standing in our open jeep to scan the forest, braving the bumps just to make sure we didn’t miss anything. Suddenly a high pitched nasal ‘conk’ punctured the silence. Within seconds there were two more answering ‘conk’s, it was the alarm call of the hog deer, and the forest came alive.
Cameras ready, we rushed to the grasslands, but we had a surprise waiting for us. Not ten feet from the road were wild elephants, a full herd. From such close quarters, they were looking gigantic, their grey wrinkled hide splattered with mud that the elephants had themselves coated to ward off flies. First came the young semi-adults, tossing their heads in youthful exuberance and picking off bundles of grass, they were followed by the full-grown females with little calves scampering between their feet, then came the old females lumbering heavily and finally came the big bull elephant, a tusker with sunlight glinting of its magnificent ivory tusks.
The tusker was looking directly at us and was wary of our presence; it repeatedly gave warning signals, flapping its ears vigorously, rearing its head, swinging its trunk from side to side like a pendulum, digging the earth with is foreleg to raise a cloud of dust. Finally, Kaziranga had given a dazzling display of its thousand-strong elephant population.
Suddenly a couple of jeeps in front of us stopped abruptly, we caught excited whispers of “tiger, tiger!!” I tried looking but it was too dark. With the camera stretched to full zoom, I could make out a hazy orange ball of fire moving slowly towards the herd of hog deer; it got very close and hid behind a bush.
I took one last longing look at the scene, endless grasslands stretching away into the pink horizon, a pair of rhinos wallowing in the slush, elephants lounging in the water, their young ones chasing after a trespassing wild boar, hog deer groups grazing with their heads down, a herd of wild buffaloes congregating at the water’s edge to wait for their turn after the elephants, and a tiger in the midst of all this hidden in plain sight! It is a difficult emotion to explain, but for the first time after visiting so many national parks, it felt that this was truly their country; it belonged to the wild animals!
Visit Kaziranga at least once in your lifetime, not just for the tiger, but for its immense diversity of wildlife and concentration of endangered species, it totally deserves the title, ‘Serengeti’ of the east!
Read also: Revisiting the moments in the wild
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