North East Part 1

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We had no set plans – no prior bookings – no darts on the map – we just wandered – our only criteria being wildlife. We visited Assam in March 2015 for the sole purpose of indulging in ‘forests reconnoitre’. The anticipation nearly consumed us.

– Images: Kaushik Bajibab

Forests have a way with us humans. A few are open – shrubby, woody and less talkative. Then there are the shy ones with soaring fortifying trees skirting it. Let’s not forget the tough, dense, wet ones, where silence descends like mist. And of course, those that rake up dust, occasionally letting you admire its beautiful waterways, snaking the gnarled frames. In almost all these forests the most salient feature are its trees! A World Heritage Site, the Kaziranga National Park is a stunning forest – displaying most of the characteristics mentioned above and then some. She speaks louder than most forests and yet is often unruffled, at peace.

Kaziranga is not fully grassland, part woodland, part tropical mixed deciduous and also semi-evergreen. Adding charm to her multiple personalities is the rich flora and fauna. In the season we visited her – she was a little dry, often smoking from controlled burning by the authorities (to maintain and fertilize the grassland), with tall elephant grass dominating the Central Zone and flat dry patches taking possession of the West. The East however, shocked us with its excess of green! The gnarly trees arch, reach out, and stand tall often wrapped by creepers of all kinds, anchored firmly by salient buttresses.

There were times when we went on safaris, didn’t really spot much wildlife and yet never left disappointed. Just being able to experience the forest, its rivers, trees and her non-stop chatter post 4 pm can satiate any glutton.

Best interactions

We were mock charged by a fully grown male rhino. He charged, pounding towards us only to suddenly stop a few inches away, and gobble grass! The Malayan squirrel kept moving about two trees, unsure until he pried down on us. Then he knew he had to head away (Just saying). Animals truly avoid us humans and for the right reasons. Moving on, basking on a broken branch, looking a little weak was the monocled cobra. It lay there unmoving amidst all the brouhaha.

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We were lucky to spot tigers – a mating couple. Though they were really far, we saw the male out in the open lying on his back with all four paws up, gently rubbing his back on the sand. One of the best sighting ever – we witnessed otters hunt and consume its catch!

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A few first caught a massive fish (not too sure if it was a cat fish, it was quite far to judge) and then joining the riot were others – a total of 10! As they busily shoved, relished and stripped the meal in minutes, a coucal kept interrupting them. Though threatened a few times it just wouldn’t quit. A tease!

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The East Zone is great for its birdlife – we spotted the elusive khalij pheasant – both male and female, the great Indian hornbill, the grey and the pied hornbills, many pallas fish eagle, the grey-headed fish eagle, crested serpent eagle, osprey, the barred and brown fish owl.

We watched red-breasted parakeet mating and a long-billed vulture, his iconic droop giving him the brutish persona guarding its nest and feeding the little ones.

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Common sightings include different species of munia, bushlark, babbler, bushchat, flycatcher, drongo, woodshrike, kingfisher, woodpecker, stork, pelican, adjutant, dove, duck, bee-eater and pigeon.

Elephant calling

Kaushik and I try our best to visit forests at least once a month – mainly to say hi to our grey giants. We get this all the time, “but it’s just an elephant”, when I insist the safari driver to maintain distance and spend long minutes just observing these magnificent creatures. In Kaziranga – we witnessed some of the best interactions.
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One evening, arching across the wide spread of water and land were wild buffaloes and rhinos.

Joining in was a herd of over 14 elephants. Sniffing her way forward, the matriarch marched ahead, her family of adults and 3 calves tailing. Suddenly, they went taut, quickening into a ring formation. Swaying in confidence and thumping ahead was a tusker. As he moved closer, the herd moved away – until they couldn’t avoid him anymore. With their backs to him, only the matriarch ventured forward – the message was clear. He slowly backed away, and the herd moved on, still on guard.

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Every safari we have been on across the country we always spend time observing and understanding our fellow tourists – Mainly to comprehend their perception of wildlife or most often, the depth of ignorance. It provides a good moral fibre for any awareness campaign to fasten into its essentials. This time around, it was nasty. We spotted a herd of elephants – two calves and five adults. While we were waiting for one of them to cross the road to its family, the jeeps behind grew restless. We quickly moved away to allow the elephants the privacy they needed – as the herd was extremely close to the road and a bit agitated. Unfortunately, the rest of the jeeps didn’t follow. Revving up, they stationed there noisily, nosing closer, with gesticulating and yelping tourists trying to get the herd’s attention. One adult female panicked and accidentally stepped on of its calf, leading to total chaos – the calf trumpeting in pain and the herd echoing in apprehension. It was a very distressing sight – the herd ran amok, and the tourists stood taking as many photographs as possible, still screaming for more action. We were horrified and terribly worried for the calf! It’s very clearly the job and responsibility of safari drivers or guides to prevent such an incident and discourage people from stressing and harassing an animal. We keep forgetting it’s their turf and we are the intruders.

Poaching threat

On our second day at Kaziranga, a part of the East Zone was shut off. Gun shots were heard, and poachers were suspected to have attacked rhinos. Guards on jeeps and on elephants were patrolling the area. Even the locals support the forest department in this war – but the threat is enormous. Nine rhinos have been poached in three months this year. Yet another succumbed to gun shots in April. Two poachers have been killed since – and the battle continues. On March 25 and 26, 2015, a survey showed increase in rhino population putting the number to 2,401 – adding 72 more pachyderms to the Park since the last survey.

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A staggering 54 rhinos have been killed since 2013. They continue to be brutally pursued for their horns. On the black market a pound of rhino horn costs more than gold or cocaine. In April 2015, in response to a RTI query made by environment activist Rohit Choudhury, it was clear that the State Government was not totally honest on the funds released by the Centre for the National Parks and Tiger Reserves of the State. We just hope these issues are resolved and as promised, the Centre helps to establish the Rhino Protection Force soon.

The next leg of the journey

The sandy and dusty trail opens out into the mighty Brahmaputra. Calm and submissive in summer – who can ever say this is the same river that leaps on rocks, and races like hundred hungry predators consuming everything in its way…

Nowhere else on earth will you be able to spot such wildlife and vibrant, living forests like in India – and most often, its true worth and influence are best described by those who are not so lucky. Completely mesmerized and reeling under its charm, a wildlife ranger from Uruguay we met in Jorhat described Kaziranga in three words, “My Jurassic Park.”

The article was published in The Alternative

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