In the northeastern enclave of the Indian subcontinent, the pinnacle of winter is felt. The long and persistent monsoon rains have long stopped falling. Even so, dryness is something that doesn't seem to apply here.
We survived the new “always-open” trip of the driver who took us to the route between Guwahati and Kaziranga. Despite the infernal traffic of almost all Tata trucks, we accomplished it in a mere four hours.
When we check into the Hotel Aranya Tourist Lodge at around one in the afternoon, the sun remains trapped behind a dense fog at both high and low altitudes.
In the two days we spent in PN Kaziranga and surrounding region, little or nothing changed: the great star remained a mere glimmer of brightness that sometimes peeked, shy, sometimes disappeared, as the weather dictated.
From Assamese monkeys to Indian rhinos
The prolific fauna of the park, that one, was not begged. We're still settling in our room, with the door open to the verandah hallway, when two pink-cheeked Assamese monkeys emerge from nowhere and sit on the balcony railing, under the suspicious gaze of two passing guests.
Contrary to what had happened to us in Varanasi and other parts of India, the animals do not manifest an attack plan. We ended up ignoring them. We went down to lunch the only menu that that state lodge was serving guests: is with potato curry and some good rice dishes.
Even if in recent times they have fallen into the purview of animal advocates, elephant safaris have been part of Kaziranga's tradition for nearly a century. The recent controversy had the power to make us ponder.
We ended up deciding that the plight of domesticated elephants would not necessarily be one of the most dramatic situations where animal violence would be concerned. We took the idea forward.
Searching for Rhinoceroses, on the Back of Elephants
Elephant rides are very popular. In such a way that we are advised to book as soon as possible the departure time for the following morning. With a lot of effort, especially from the driver-guide who accompanied us, we got a spot taken out of nowhere at 6:15 am, at the crack of dawn.
We've been awake since 5:45. Vijay doesn't ring us at the door until 6:05. We arrived in the nick of time but of little use. Several of the remaining participants appear late.
Adding the time of distribution by the respective elephants and their mount, at quarter to seven we are still on the kinds of towers that the park administration had erected to facilitate the ascent of passengers to the back of the pachyderms, abundant in Assam, like no other state.
Of India's 10.000 wild elephants, more than half are estimated to be in Assam. Of these, around 1200, proliferate in PN Kaziranga.
The delay favors us. Even at the last minute, the morning mist remains so thick that we don't see a hand in front of the nose, let alone animal specimens, however voluminous they were, subsumed in the high meadows soaked by the excesses of the Brahmaputra river that filled much of the 430km2 of PN Kaziranga.
Grasshopper, Fog, Rhinoceroses, Buffaloes & Co.
Finally, we inaugurate the course. At first, along jungle trails that separated the swamp from the surrounding humanized area. A few minutes later, the jungle opens up to a vast expanse covered with large tufts of canita grass. Elephants walk among these tufts, in a row not quite so far. Several restless cubs follow their mothers a short distance away.
The atmosphere is mysterious, with the green of the almost arboreal grass cutting through the heavy mist. Low on the horizon, skimming the tops of the trees, a tiny, faint ball from the sun reddens the open air.
Armed with rifles, the elephant guides and drivers lead them to where they think they are most likely to find specimens of the species that made PN Kaziranga a star in Indian national parks, to the point of UNESCO maintain it, since 1985, on its World Heritage list.
We are faced with a suspicious herd of XNUMX resident wild water buffaloes, the largest population on the planet. We can identify them even from a distance by the size and opening of the horns, well above the yellow-green grass.
We still come across deer barasingha (from the swamp) and with wild boars that are frightened by the greatness of the caravan and stampede in a shriek.
Finally, the Monoceros Rhinoceros of Kaziranga
Subsequent tenants are unimpressed. The two we found remain hidden in the potted grass. They boast a size, weight (between 2 and 3 tons) and a very characteristic pleated leather armor that allows them to contemplate and confront the strange alliance of elephants and humans.
Indian rhinos are the park's star species. They once occupied the entire subcontinent, around the basins of the great Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, from Pakistan to the present. Myanmar, Nepal and even Bhutan. Their numbers and habitat dwindled from decade to decade.
The PN Kaziranga hosts around 1860 specimens, almost two thirds of all that survive on the face of the Earth, now present only in eleven strongholds limited to India and the south of the Nepal.
Rhinoceros see badly. With the gentle breeze blowing in our direction, their nose takes a long time to describe the mounted audience that contemplates them. Finally, with their snouts raised to probe the drenched air, they sense the already exaggerated proximity of the caravan and return to the shelter of the tall grass.
We continued through new fog bags towards a lake bequeathed by Brahmaputra with wide margins covered with a grassy carpet, shallow but lush. It is shared by four other huge Indian rhinos, spaced apart, entertained by devouring the hundreds of kilos of grass that feed their prehistoric bodies every day.
The monoceros of the subcontinent and of PN Kaziranga, in particular, are what they are. Safe from poaching, many more could be counted.
The Anglophone History of PN Kaziranga
PN Kaziranga emerged in 1908 on the initiative of Baroness Curzon of Cudleston, wife of the Viceroy of India who visited the area in 1904 eager to see the animals, but in vain. Disillusioned, the baroness persuaded her husband to take measures to protect the Indian rhinos, then rare and on the way to extinction.
At the time the reserve was established, a handful of Indian rhinos remained. Since then, PN Kaziranga has been confirmed as a unique case of success in Indian animal conservation. David Attenborough dedicated one of the episodes of his Planet Earth II series to Kaziranga. And William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited him in 2016.
This Anglophone media coverage highlighted the park's success. At the same time, he uncovered the unscrupulous means by which the authorities hit him.
The BBC, in particular, published an article in February 2017 that angered authorities, long apologists for the primacy of its prodigious Assam park, visited every year by 170.000 people who contribute to the vitality of the state's economy.
Radical Protection of Indian Rhinoceros
The article was titled "Kaziranga: The Park that Kills People to Protect Rhinoceroses”. In that piece, Justin Rowlatt, the BBC's South Asia correspondent, revealed hard facts and figures: among others, “that the park rangers had been given shooting and killing powers equal to those of the armed forces assigned to police civil disorder.
That, at one point, these rangers were killing an average of two people a month (more than 20 a year) and that, in 2015, after two years with more than twenty-five rhinos killed - instead of the usual less than ten years earlier – more people had been victimized by rangers than rhinos by poachers.”
At the root of the problem were (and are), as always, the demand of buyers, especially from China e Vietnam, countries where the belief persists that the rhino horn cures everything from cancer to erectile dysfunction. And where a mere 100g of the keratin that makes it up can be worth up to €5500.
Given the difficulty of combating well-organized poaching gangs that even ambush the rangers, their actions would even be justified. However, the anxiety of the park rangers and the impunity with which they operate has been causing too much damage and keeping the inhabitants in a state of permanent dismay.
The Troubles of Life Around Kaziranga
We had planned, for the next morning, to visit and photograph workers from one of the various Assam tea plantations in the vicinity. At the end of the day, the driver informs us that these plans would be frustrated: “there was an attack by an employer against a worker who demanded to receive a payment in arrears.
Now, out of solidarity, the entire village is on strike. Neither the tea pickers work nor the businesses will open.” As you explained to us, that's how it happened.
We still wander through the village between At Road and Kohora, south of Aranya Lodge. For brief moments. In times of strikes and protests, we quickly realized that we were out of step there.
PN Kaziranga's guides were still active. Okay, shortly after one o'clock in the afternoon we get into one of the many Maruti Suzuki Gypsy jeeps that serve the park and enter through a different portico from the morning one.
New Afternoon Among the Fauna of Kaziranga
Motorized, we covered a much wider area and much more diverse scenarios: marshes that alternated with jungle, elevated paths facing lakes, here and there crossed by all kinds of animals and leading to observation towers. From the top of these towers, we see new swamps teeming with Asian buffaloes, elephants and, of course, Indian rhinos.
Near the end of the day, we see one of these monoceros, solitary, wandering through a shallow lake. The impending sunset produced a large orange beam on the surface. Little by little, the animal crawls towards you and overlaps that shimmering water. It rears its head and muzzle and generates a silhouette that leaves us awestruck.
The wonder wouldn't stop there. Back in the jeep, the guide was already returning to the park when we heard a family of Indians in another jeep shout “tiger!!!”. We only had time to turn around and point the cameras to the grassy path where we sensed the cat was crossing, a few meters cut into the immensity of the canita grass.
Even though PN Kaziranga is home to one of the highest tiger densities in the world, only about a hundred roam it. We had just photographed one of them. The image was far from perfect (we had the cat's full profile, but it wasn't facing us). Still, the “deed” soon ran the lodge. And not only.
At night, the strike had already been suspended. The village had returned to its busy life. Here and there, Indian visitors and even some business owners approached us eager to inspect the pictures of the feline listed. "Congratulations! It's not every day that you get pictures of these!” Two guides guarantee us who are watching them, proud of the trophy we were taking from their beloved PN Kaziranga. Those were just the elusive tiger.
The authors would like to thank the following entities for supporting this article: Embassy of India in Lisbon; Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Assam Development Corporation.