Assam’s Kaziranga National Park is a stronghold for Indian one-horned rhinos. They share the park with elephants, swamp deer, sloth bears and nearly 500 species of birds
"I make it 24 rhinos!” exclaimed David as we reached the top of the observation tower and scanned the grey blobs dotted across the horizon on the opposite side of the lake. “No – there are 32!” contradicted our guide, Maan, having done his own count.
It was thrilling, but also sobering, to think that within our sight was more than 10% of the world’s population of Indian one-horned rhino – the species that looks like it’s wearing plates of armour, only found in Nepal and India. Assam’s Kaziranga National Park is today its main stronghold, with a population of around 1,850 – at least 75% of the world’s total population.
The park is bordered in the north by the mighty Brahmaputra River. The habitat is a mixture of grassland, forest, marsh and pools, flooded each summer during the monsoon when the river bursts its banks. There is a significant tiger population, but you’d be extremely lucky to spot one in the tall elephant grass. Other mammals include elephant, swamp deer and sloth bear, and there are at least 490 species of birds.
Assam is up in the ‘forgotten’ part of India, one of the seven states comprising the country’s north-eastern region. The area has always been considered politically sensitive, and is home to several militant groups and various tribes. Until the early 90s permits were needed to visit Assam, but now you can travel anywhere within the state. This is a lush land of tea and rubber plantations, agriculture and several important national parks.
I was in Kaziranga with a small group led by David Back, an architect by trade but an ardent conservationist and wildlife photographer in his spare time. Rhinos are his passion and he has set up a charity devoted to their conservation, supporting the planned relocation of some of Kaziranga’s abundant rhinos to Assam’s Manas National Park, where the native population was exterminated by poachers.
David had persuaded Maan Barua, one of India’s most highly regarded young naturalists, to join us as a guide. Maan accompanied Michael Palin through this area for the series Himalaya, and his family own Wild Grass resort, the lodge at which we were staying.
Mark Shand’s book River Dog recounts his journey along the length of the Brahmaputra, from its source in Tibet down to the Bay of Bengal. For much of the route his travel companion was an Assamese dog, Bhaiti, for whom Shand found a home at Wild Grass at the end of their epic. Bhaiti died a couple of years ago, but his slanted-eyed, sandy-coloured descendents still form a welcome committee at the lodge.
It had come as a surprise to find large areas of grassland rather than forest. Maan explained that controlled burnings take place in the dry season (February and March). Silt from monsoon flooding also retards forest growth, while the increasing numbers of rhino also contribute to the environment.
“The rhino is really a landscape architect,” explained Maan. “It’s a keystone herbivore. If you remove it then certain ecological procedures don’t take place. This is a dynamic landscape – it changes all the time. But rhino are very hardy and adaptable. Man is their only problem.”
Just like the rhino, things generally move at a sleepy pace here. The drivers of the jeeps that carry you round the park are happy to stop to let you watch a bird or gaze at a stunning vista. Compared to the frenzy of Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore National Park, which I’d just visited, this was life in the slow lane.
On one drive we paused on a sun-dappled track to watch a dozen or more different types of dancing butterfly, with magical names such as chocolate albatross, plain tiger, blue bottle, puffin and lemon pansy. Further on we stretched our legs at a peaceful spot on the bank of the Daiffalu River, disturbing dozens of terrapins that had been sunbathing on logs that pierced the inky water.
Early the next morning we took an elephant ride. There are 40 working elephants in the park, half of them used for visitors. A mist still sat on the ground, and the light was ethereal, the colours all muted greens and greys; as the sun grew stronger a palette of more vivid emeralds made an appearance. Ten rhino were scattered over an area that had recently been burned, relishing the succulent new shoots that were coming up. They were unperturbed by the presence of the elephants and we could get within yards of them.
Back in 3m-high elephant grass we disturbed a mother and baby, impossible to have seen if we had passed by on foot or in a vehicle. A friend of mine had been on an elephant that surprised a tiger the previous year.
In the afternoon we came face to face with more elephants, this time a wild herd some 27 strong, just 50m away. “It’s an unusually big group,” said Maan. “Look at that magnificent tusker.”
We sat for 30 minutes, watching them as they grazed and browsed through a clearing. Anxious mums and experienced aunts formed a protective cordon around a couple of tiny babies, just months old, while some active teenagers larked about in the way all teens do.
A visibly old female, her skin pale, was eating extremely slowly; we couldn’t help but wonder how long she had left. “She’s maybe more than 60 years old,” confirmed Maan.
Just a little further on, a solitary male rhino grazed close to the track. As the light faded we sat and stared at him as he coolly carried on eating, occasionally pausing to cast a baleful glance at us. “It’s Holyfield,” said Maan. I was astonished the rhinos had names, but Maan explained this was the one rhino who was easily identifiable thanks to a torn ear – hence the boxer’s name. “All the others look the same!” he admitted.
We tallied up the number of rhino we had seen over the course of the day, including the glut we had spotted from the observation tower – an astounding 85. “This is the greatest population of rhino on earth – and yet it has never even been studied,” sighed Maan.
If the national park has been a huge success story, with its healthy populations of several endangered species, it can’t afford to let its guard down. Already there are problems outside the park: buildings, farmland and quarries now block many of the elephants’ centuries-old migration routes, and crop and tea plantations border the park – human-animal conflicts are on the rise.
On our last morning we headed to a small forest reserve at Panbari. Just 18 sq km in size, and bordered by tea plantations, this reserve is home to four troops of endangered hoolock gibbon, India’s only ape.
This patch of wood is amazingly important because during the monsoon, when the park is in flood, many animals cross the main road into this fragment of forest.
Vehicles race along here, hooting their horn and playing kamikaze. They stop for nothing. A local pointed out the spot where a tiger had been run over the previous season. The tigers are so secretive that it was the first one that most of the locals had ever seen and was still a major talking point.
We went looking for a juvenile male gibbon who had been ejected from the family and had been searching for a female for the past 18 months. One guide threw his head back and made calls mimicking a young female gibbon until the male eventually answered. Within a few minutes he appeared above us, swinging dramatically through the trees on his long arms and then calling back hopefully.
I felt horribly guilty that we were the worst sort of tease. “Will he find a mate?” I asked.
The guide shrugged. “There is already illegal logging taking place here. And it’s such a small area already. He may, he may not.”
The gibbon’s haunting call persisted as we turned and walked slowly away.
The author travelled with Wildlife Worldwide winner of the Best Tour Operator category in the 2007 Wanderlust Travel Awards, voted by readers.