On a misty February morning, flocks of bar-headed geese were converging on a lake amid overgrown grasslands. Fascinating as the sight was, I was more preoccupied with trying to beat the chill when Ratan warmed my heart with a salute. Standing tall at about 9ft, he was a handsome adult bull elephant with great physical proportions and two wonderfully chiselled tusks.
At his mahout Barua’s command, he knelt down gracefully, allowing me to clamber on to his bare back. The advantages of the position were evident immediately: I now had a 360-degree view of the expanses of elephant grass, marshland and dense jungles that made up the Kaziranga National Park. On the far northern horizon, the magnificent Brahmaputra river flowed silently, only one of the four major rivers to criss-cross the region. To the south, invisible, lay the Karbi Anglong hills.
Awesome as the sight was, I experienced a twinge of disappointment. There was nothing in the vista that I had not seen before. In the three days I had spent in the two-room log cabin at Arimora, in the central range of the national park, I had spotted herds of elephants passing through the bheels (wetlands), several rhinoceros, adult and young, buffaloes, more than 65 species of birds and the posterior of a black bear that chose to lumber into a bamboo thicket at the wrong moment.
Admittedly, my bar was high: I was looking for a royal Bengal tiger in a sanctuary known primarily for the one-horned Indian rhino. But Kaziranga is known for pulling off the impossible. In the 1930s, it had only 30-odd rhinos. Following extensive protection and conservation measures, the 1,900-strong population now accounts for nearly 65% of the world rhino count. The success was responsible in part for Unesco declaring it a World Heritage site in 1985.
The achievement seems all the more incredible in view of the odds foresters face. The previous evening, over cups of tea on the porch of the log cabin, senior forester Gopal Sharma had told me of his many narrow escapes. “A few days ago, I was returning to camp on my bicycle, when a bull buffalo came charging at me. It toppled my bike, knocked me into a thorny bamboo thicket and attacked me repeatedly, tearing my shirt with its horns. I got away with injuries on the torso and the legs,” Sharma said, his eyes far away.
A sudden movement in the tall grass in front of the cabin recalled him immediately to the moment. “There must be a rhino there,” he said, though my ears had detected nothing other than the constant sound of crickets and cicadas in the deepening darkness. “We don’t have enough cover against either wildlife or poachers.”
Sharma’s harrowing tales had assumed a potent dimension earlier in the morning, on a Maruti Gypsy ride with deputy conservator of forest Ranjan Das and guard Ganesh Singh. We had just turned into the Mithunbari road—a track so narrow that about-turns were ruled out for at least a few kilometres—when a bull rhino emerged from the bushes and decided to head straight for our vehicle at a run. So unexpected was its appearance that we were immobilized for a few seconds. Fortunately, before the 1,000-pounder could ram into the Gypsy, Ganesh recovered and fired three shots into the air, scaring parakeets and orioles out of the surrounding bushes and bringing the rhino to a halt. As it reluctantly ambled back into the jungle, my respect for foresters went up manifold.
“Aaj aap sher zaroor dekhenge (today you will surely see a tiger).” Barua the mahout’s optimism brought me back to the here and now. Thirty minutes into my bareback elephant safari, I was aching and bruised all over, holding on to my camera with one hand and clutching on to the towel draped around Barua’s waist with the other. Sensing my discomfort, he said warningly, “Abhi utar nahin sakte (it’s not possible to alight just yet).”
At the precise moment, Ratan came to a stop. My aches and pains fled as we spotted a wild tusker less than 3ft away. A territorial tussle seemed inevitable between the tamed pachyderm and the wild one, but some elephantine eyeballing later, the well-trained Ratan guided us out of conflict zone.
We came to a stop again at the edge of the Brahmaputra, where Ratan drank his fill before getting back on track. “Subah yahan sher aaya tha (a tiger was here this morning),” Barua pointed out pugmarks on the wet sandbanks. “Paani peene ke liye aaya hoga (must have come for a drink of water).”
Disappointed at arriving too late, I was scanning the surface of the river minutes later when Barua gasped excitedly, “Sher, sher!”
Ratan had cautiously advanced only a few yards when a handsome male tiger, ran across the scrub in a flash. About 20ft away from us, it stopped, gave us a look that left us in no doubt who was in charge here, and disappeared into the trees.
The glimpse, however fleeting, strengthened our resolve for yet another hunt. Around 60km away from Kaziranga, forest guards Ranjit and Tej Bahadur accompanied my search for the only non-human primate to have a wildlife sanctuary named after it in India: the hoolock gibbon. “Mushkil hai, lekin koshish karte hai (it is difficult, but let us try),” said Ranjit, as we tramped through forests of hulung, sashi, salakh and kathbadam along the Bagdhoi, a tributary of the Brahmaputra.
The 20.98sq km of the Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary is often overshadowed by its more famous cousin, but its wealth is quite unique. It is one of the 350 important bird areas of the country and also a primate diversity hot spot. On our 4-hour walk, we came across a family of capped langurs, spotted parakeets, green pigeons, drongos, minivets and, best of all, a pair of pied hornbills, as well as three of the seven significant local primates: stump-tailed macaques, pig-tailed macaques and rhesus macaques. But no gibbons.
We had reckoned, though, without Tej Bahadur. Years of experience in scanning forest cover had honed his instinct. “There,” he pointed to a male gibbon resting at the fork of a tree far away. As we observed the ape, the female and the offspring appeared. There was much chattering and tearing about, perhaps in preparation for their midday meal.
As for me, my hunger had already been satiated.
How to get there:
Located in Assam along NH37, Kaziranga is a 4-hour drive from Guwahati. Deccan offers a direct connection to Guwahati from New Delhi (return fares Rs2,250 upwards, plus taxes) and Bangalore (Rs2,000, plus taxes). Jet Airways connects Mumbai and Guwahati with a stopover in Kolkata (return fares from Rs8,300, plus taxes).
Alternatively, fly to Kolkata and use Deccan to connect to Guwahati. Return fares from Rs1,000, plus taxes.
Where to stay:
For administrative and tourism purposes, the 430sq km Kaziranga is demarcated into Kohora, Bagori and Agratoli.
Four government lodges are available at Bagori and Kohora, maintained by the park authorities and the tourism department. I stayed at the Wild Grass Lodge (www.wildgrasskaziranga.com; Tel: 03776-2662085), a rural-style hotel only a few minutes from the park gate of the Kohora range. It has expansive, well-kept lawns, a swimming pool and an excellent restaurant. Safaris can be booked at the front desk. If you get the chance, do have a chat with Mann Barua, a naturalist with incredible knowledge of Kaziranga. Rates begin at Rs7,750 per couple per night, inclusive of a jeep safari.
Bon Habi is another attractive cottage located in the central range of Kaziranga. (www.bonhabiresort.com; Tel: 03776-262675).
For the Gibbon Sanctuary, a good option is the Thengal Manor House (www.welcomheritagehotels.com), a WelcomHeritage property 15km away from Jorhat. A colonial plantation bungalow, rates here start at Rs2,450 for double occupancy.
November to April is the best season to travel to Assam. Both Kaziranga and Gibbon are closed between May and October.
What to do:
Enjoy the wild. Visitors can either hire private Gypsys or drive their own vehicles into the sanctuary. But each vehicle must be accompanied by a forest guard. Contact the joint director of tourism, Kaziranga National Park, at 03776-2662423.
Early morning elephant rides can be arranged from the Kohora range for Rs750/hour. Contact the ranger’s office.
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