ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the Brahmaputra floodplains in Assam’s premier national park in search of the one-horned rhino and other wildlife adventures
Like two Vikings in the sun, the rhinos faced each other, horn to horn, their stony mantles gleaming like armour. Safe from our howdah, we thought a battle would ensue but the creatures just sized up each other and calmly lumbered across to graze in the vast open grasslands. Nearby, a herd of swamp deer and hog deer nibbled away while a few breakaways lay curled, dozing in a cradle of reeds. Along the fringe of a marshy lake, a sounder of wild pigs rummaged for a meal. In the distance, wild water buffalos coated in mud froze like errant children caught in the act by the school principal. A lone Adjutant Stork surveyed the scene from a tall dry tree stump.
Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Eastern Himalayas, Kaziranga in Assam stretches along the flood plains of the Brahmaputra River, which sweeps its northern boundary while the NH-31 runs along its southern edge, flanked by tea estates. The dense network of ponds, streams, beels (small lakes), grasslands, tropical wet evergreen and semi-evergreen forests have resulted in a rich tapestry of life. The unique topography and biodiversity environment prompted UNESCO to declare Kaziranga a World Heritage Site in 1985. Yet, its history as a protected zone goes back to a much earlier date.
When Mary Curzon, wife of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon visited Kaziranga in 1904, she couldn’t sight a single rhinoceros. Utterly dejected, she coaxed her husband to initiate conservation in the area. The Kaziranga Proposed Reserve Forest was created on in 1905 covering 232 sq km. By 1974, it had evolved from a wildlife sanctuary into the Kaziranga National Park spanning an impressive 430 sq km. Often drawing comparisons with Africa for its wide open tracts, rich natural bounty and quality of wildlife viewing, today, this riverine habitat is known as the Land of Giants. Besides being a safe haven for the world’s largest population of the great one-horned rhinoceros, Kaziranga supports a notable number of elephants, tigers and the large Asiatic Water buffalo.
The presence of numerous jungle lodges and luxury resorts, and the option of jeep drives, elephant safaris, river cruises, sightings from machaans (observation towers) to nature walks on the park’s periphery makes Kaziranga one of India’s top wildlife destinations. About 15 species of India’s threatened mammals abound the region. In the leafy canopies of the forest’s southern slopes, animated hoots announce the presence of India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon. Kaziranga supports nearly 450 species of birds including the Bengal Florican, several species of geese, pelicans and teals, while its water reservoirs draw over 100 species of migratory birds from as far as Siberia.
Wild Grass, one of the oldest jungle lodges in the region and the swanky Diphlu River Lodge run by Assam Bengal Navigation, stand apart for top quality wildlife experiences – from bird trails with expert to boat cruises tracking river dolphins along the Brahmaputra. With delicious rustic meals at riverside camps, visits to traditional weaving units and cultural evenings under starlit skies with traditional Bihu dancers and drummers, it’s easy for anyone from six to sixty five to have a good time.
Summer trips with kids can be hot and humid, so don’t forget to pack sunblock, hats, good footwear, earthy-coloured cotton clothes, snacks, water, a pair of binoculars and a good book on birds to identify and tick them off the checklist! The park remains closed between June-September.
Area: 430 sq km
Altitude: 80 to 1220 m
Temperature: Min 5°C – Max 37°C
When to visit: November to May
Where to stay: Wild Grass Lodge, Diphlu River Lodge, Jhupuri Ghar
How to get there: There are regular flights such as Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) and Air India (www.airindia.in) connecting Guwahati to Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. Kaziranga National Park is 215km (5 1/2 hour drive) from Guwahati
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 26 March 2012 in Conde Nast Traveller online.