Grassland of the giants
Sun Nov 14 2010, 15:53 hrs
Kaziranga is the land of the megafauna — the rhino, tiger, elephant and the wild buffalo — and the greatest story of India’s wildlife conservation.
Nothing can prepare you for the experience of Kaziranga National Park. You have to visit it to believe it and when I went there for the first time I was very lucky — old friend and colleague S Deb Roy, an amazing man who had put his life into saving Assam’s incredible wildlife, was with me. This was the early 1990s, when the severe crisis that threatens wildlife in general hadn’t set in. Kaziranga was stunning. It is a grassland of immense proportions and dotted around are patches of superb forests with the mighty Brahmaputra river flowing on one side.
My first day was a journey from the western range then administered by a remarkable ranger called Pankaj Sarma to the eastern range under another dynamic character called Bodo. Deb Roy and I spent 10 hours from dawn to dusk enveloped in the beauty of this unique wilderness system. I will never forget that day. Nature wove its spell around me like never before. In that one day, we saw 108 rhinos. At a watchtower called Bahubil in the western range, we sipped some hot tea and suddenly a burst of alarm calls on the far side of the tall grass revealed a tiger striding along the edge of a water body. Kaziranga has the highest density of tigers in India and they are enormous in size. We peered out, as the tiger padded across, oblivious of our presence. Later, when we stopped for lunch at an old forest rest house, a herd of elephants was bathing in another water body.
Kaziranga is the only place in India that reminds me of Africa —wildlife comes out of everywhere. It is the great land of the giants, the megafauna, be it rhinos, elephants, wild buffalos, and even a few gaur with lots of smaller ungulates and a host of tigers that are huge and generally look well-fed. And it is these large animals that guard the grassland. Unlike many other forests of India, you rarely find locals wandering around Kaziranga since the big animals will charge to kill. Even while driving around in a jeep, at least six rhinos tried to charge us. And it is even more frightening when a tiger charges. As we drove around, I noticed that all the forest staff were well armed, unlike in any other national park. They live on forest posts on stilts and eat a jungle menu of cane and bamboo shoots that are deliciously spiced. The human intruders are poachers armed with automatic rifles who come mainly to kill rhinos for their horn. Big gun battles rage between the forest staff and poachers and every year there are injuries and fatalities. This is a rare example of how wildlife can be saved. Protection at its very best and a lesson for the rest of India.
For me, Kaziranga is a veritable Noah’s ark and has been India’s greatest story in wildlife conservation. Let us never forget that in the early 20th century the population of rhinos was down to 12 and today it is between 1,600 and 1,800, if not more. And it is not just rhinos or other megafauna. The bird life is among the finest to be found anywhere in India, as lesser and greater pied hornbills screech through the air and an endless array of fishing eagles swoops into fish-laden water bodies and red jungle fowl dart in and out of lush green foliage. Thousands of pelicans fish the water in abandon and near the swamps the swamp partridge waddles in its exquisite finery.
If you are lucky, you can watch otters scamper across the land into water, with heads bobbing up and down as they start to fish. A grey-headed eagle swoops into the water and comes out with a fish caught firmly in its talons. Pockets of forest within the grasslands are a frenzy of green and so much of what grows is coiled, looped and encircled in an endless embrace.
In the hilly forests nearby are troops of hoolock gibbons and capped langurs and there could even be the elusive clouded leopard. Emerald doves and imperial pigeons dive in and out of the forest canopy. The smaller grasslands are dotted with hog deer and swamp deer. Hundreds of thousands of hog deer once roamed the flood plains of India. Now they are only found in places where their habitat has survived the exploitation by man. Small herbivores in these grasslands follow in the steps of the giants. It is interdependency at its best. The elephants and rhinos make inroads into the high grass and create areas for smaller animals to graze. The sambar hide in the evergreen forest glades. What a magical assortment of life it is.
The peace is suddenly shattered by the sharp calls of the hog deer. And, lo and behold, from the grass emerges that mesmeric image of a tiger, catching the rays of the setting sun.
Will Kaziranga survive the pressures of today? Will there be enough political will to keep this unique paradise alive? I’m not sure, but this is more than a World Heritage Site — it is a true wonder of the world and needs all the support we can give it. Future generations must be able to witness its magic for it is the true jewel in India’s wildlife crown.
(Valmik Thapar has been involved in wildlife conservation for over three decades and has written extensively on the tiger)