No two places could be more diverse in their physical appearance and character, yet the twin sanctuaries of Assam which would form a perfect triangle with Guwahati are together completely representative of the Indian northeast. While Kaziranga is flat country with elephant grass and shallow swamps interspersed with large patches of semi-evergreen forest, Manas lies at the foot of the Bhutan hills and through it flows the Manas river which spills into the plains, splitting into two streams, the Beki and the Hakua. On either side of the Manas river, plentiful wildlife and magnificent scenery combine to form one of the world’s best and most picturesque wildlife reserves.
Like Manas, Kaziranga too lies on the banks of a river — the mighty Brahmaputra. The name, literally translated, means “son of Brahma” who, according to Hindu mythology, is the creator of the universe, but the massive river could just as easily have been named after Shiva, the destroyer. Each year, with the onset of the monsoon, it overspills its banks and the surrounding areas are ravaged ruthlessly. In Kaziranga, the river fofces people and the wildlife to take shelter on whatever high ground they can find, and, according to a local estimate, it washes away almost a thousand hog deer each year. But, when the river withdraws, leaving hheels (swamps) with a shallow spread of water, Kaziranga comes into its own, offering the visitor some of the best views of the Indian one-horned rhinoceros and wild buffalo.
Kaziranga: The monsoon and the Brahmaputra leave Kaziranga with a comparatively short season — January to May. Approachable from either Guwahati or Jorhat, it is sandwiched by the highway to the south and the river to its north. The reserve sprawls over 165 sq miles (430 sq km) of grassland and impenetrable vegetative luxuriance comprising close-tangled and thorny rattan cane, elephant grass and tall trees of the evergreen forests. Until 1908, Kaziranga was a sportman’s and poacher’s paradise, but the rapidly declining population of rhino forced the authorities, in 1926, to constitute it a reserve forest, closed to shooting. Some estimates put the then rhino population at about a dozen and the subsequent revival of this massive and powerful animal, reminiscent of prehistoric ages, has been one of the more notable feats of faunal conservation. In 1940, Kaziranga was officially declared a wildlife sanctuary.
Along the main highway, at Baguri and Kohora, lodges have been built by the forest and the tourism departments, and at Mihimukh, which is two miles (three km) from the lodge at Kohora, riding elephants can be hired to enter the sanctuary.
In almost all wildlife reserves in India, the visitor needs to give himself a few days to have a reasonable chance of seeing wildlife at close quarters. Kaziranga, however, is the exception where one can hope to see most of the mammals for which it is known in a single day. During the day, especially in the morning, Kaziranga has a thin ground mist which blurs the distant horizon and which creates a very special atmosphere in the area — covering its creatures with a ghostly haze; undoubtedly, Kaziranga is one of the few unspoilt valleys of the Brahmaputra.
In the 1930s, Kaziranga was virtually a closed book and the sanctuary was opened to tourists only around 1938. The rhino, the main attraction in the park, was then unused to humans and would quite blindly (they are notoriously shortsighted and charge whatever they perceive as a challenge) take on any intruder. Fortunately, at the last minute they tended to veer off, leaving almost everything in the area badly shaken but rarely hurt. The rhino is now a lot more used to humans, and though a mother with a calf may demonstrate in front of a riding elephant, they often let people get amazingly close to them.
The only natural enemy of the rhino is the tiger of which there is a sizable population in the park. The tall grass and the patches of forest provide excellent cover for the big cats which are therefore rarely seen. Sometimes a tiger will attack and kill a rhino calf despite the mother’s aggressive vigilance, but the rhino suffers more at the hand of man. Its horn, believed to be an aphrodisiac by the ancient Indians and highly sought after by Chinese medicinemen, is a lucrative target for poachers who usually operate from the Darrang district across the Brahmaputra river and sometimes from the Mikir hills where the animals retreat during the floods.
The rhino, being a creature of set habits, follows well-worn trails and even defecates at the same spot each day. Taking advantage of its regular habits, a pit large enough to accommodate its body is dug by the poachers in its usual path and then covered with leaves and grass. The unwary animal falls into the pit where it is killed and its horn hacked off with a dao. Other parts of the body also command sale value. As both sexes carry the horn, the threat is doubly compounded.
The wild buffalo herds in Kaziranga, like the rhino, have also got relatively used to humans and can be approached on elephant- back with little danger. By and large, buffalo herds are shy of humans, and mothers canter off with their woolly calves if threatened. However, solitary bulls are often bad tempered and quick to charge with or without any provocation. If a good elephant holds its ground, the bull will usually pull up short, a picture of wild defiance. These bulls often stay in the vicinity of herds, and sometimes mate with domestic buffalo cows as well. The Kaziranga buffalo have over the years suffered from domestic genes invading the wild stock, and unlike the wild buffalo of Manas, the animals are thought to be feral in most cases.
The presence of buffalo and rhino make walking in the sanctuary a difficult proposition. A third species ensures that visitors enter only riding elephants or in vehicles. Herds of up to 200 wild elephants can be seen migrating from the Mikir hills to the bheels and, like the buffalo, it is again the solitary bull elephant which is prone to create trouble. The large number of untusked males (makhnas) in the northeast often causes confusion, for what is taken to be a large female turns out to be a male. A riding elephant, on occasion, can wander into a herd of wild elephants; on the other hand, a wild elephant will even caress a trained one with its trunk, oblivious of the dreaded human cargo on its back.
As one starts from Mihimukh where nearly 20 elephants are stabled (owing to patrol duties and pregnancies, only four or five are usually available to tourists and it is advisable to reserve a day in advance), the Himalaya, which are more than a hundred miles to the north, can be seen on some days. Small herds of barasingha (swamp deer) and the odd wild boar are usually among the first animals seen. A subspecies of the barasingha of Kanha and of the other variety found in the teral of Uttar Pradesh, these deer of Assam have slightly splayed hooves and are found on high ground in the proximity of water. When the stags are regenerating their antlers, it is not uncommon to find herds in an all-male group.
The chital does not extend beyond the Brahmaputra, its eastern range in India being Manas, but there are plenty of para. as hog deer are referred to in this region. Mixed herds, of both sexes, are often scattered around the various bheels, and these small deer are among the main prey species of the tiger in Kaziranga. Solitary hog deer are often seen.
Among the other animals found in Kaziranga , the wild boar is fairly common. Some gaur (the word gaur in Assamese refers to the rhino, while the gaur is called a bison) are also found here, but they are scarce and rarely seen. Leopard cats and otters are not uncommon, while the odd leopard may be chanced upon. A wide variety of snakes, including the rock python are also found while the prehistoric-looking monitor lizard is relatively easily seen.
Birds: Grasslands are often excellent raptor country, and Kaziranga is no exception — the crested serpent eagle is common, Pallas’s fishing eagle and the gray-headed fishing eagle are frequently seen. Dawn is welcomed by the loud calling of the swamp partridge which shatters the misty silence of the morning while red jungle fowl tentatively step on to a jeep track before taking off at a mad run in front of a jeep. The Bengal alnld oa varrieity- ofc waatern fowl, of which the bar-headed goose and the whistling teal are the most frequently seen, are among the other birds found in the sanctuary. A large number of pelicans nest close to Mihiinukh on a large semul tree and the clumps of forest are alive with the screeching of the rose-breasted parakeet and an assortment of birds common to the northeast. As one would expect, the swamps are home for a diverse avifauna of the shallow watersides. Black-necked adjutant and open-billed stork, egret and heron of all shapes and sizes and other waders can be found around the bheels which are clogged with water hyacinth.
When this once exotic plant first appeared in Kaziranga, no animal would condescend to feed on it except the wild boar which ate the roots during the dry season. Now buffaloes as well as elephants browse on it, though somewhat reluctantly.
Firmly entrenched on the Indian tourist map, Kaziranga has its own peculiar problems. Poaching continues to be a major threat to the rhino population, with over 35 animals being killed each year at an average. A disproportionate increase in human populations along the highway and the sanctuary has created socio-economic problems which are not easy to tackle and Assam is only just recovering from the after-effects of political turmoil. On the other hand, air travel and regular transport links have made the area a lot more hospitable and the northeast is no longer as inaccessible an area as it used to be, even in the recent past.