Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In Kaziranga

For the last days, we’ve risen at first light, spending long days inside Kaziranga National Park, in northeastern India. We ride in a small, open Jeepsi, with a rifle-toting park guard riding shotgun. Standing up in back, clutching the roll bar, I have a full-sky view. It also keeps me from getting beaten to hell bumping along these rain-mangled dirt roads.

Much of the plain is swathed in 12- to 15-foot high elephant grass, tall enough to conceal even the largest pachyderm residents. Expanses of water appear everywhere: temporary ponds formed during the just-finished monsoon season, lakes, ponds, and the mighty Brahmaputra and its tributaries that cut through the park, swollen beyond their banks.

In some corners of the park, these grasslands give way to bands of lush, tropical woodland, woven with vines as thick as my thigh, blanketed in rattan and ferns, flitted and fluttered over by an endless array of birds, bugs, and butterflies.

There’s rhinos, rhinos everywhere, like gray, prehistoric armored tanks. They’re usually solitary, but we’ve also seen some mothers paired with calves. In close proximity, we have to be careful. These animals can be ornery, may charge unprovoked—and could easily tip the Jeepsi. And even though the big males can weigh in at over 6,000 pounds pounds, they can hit 35 mph over short distances, making them incredibly dangerous. Fun fact: they are the world’s fourth largest land mammal (after three species of elephant).

This park is home to 70 percent of the world’s remaining Indian rhinos. They were hunted nearly to extinction, with perhaps 100 left alive by the early 1900s. Today, about 2,500 are split among six protected areas in India and Nepal, and they remain endangered.

But there’s far more to see than just rhinos. I glimpsed my first-ever tiger in the wild yesterday, crossing the road and slipping into tall grass. Monitor lizards bask in the sun on the road. Uncountable birds flit and soar, storks, pelicans, kingfishers, eagles—and so many species I can’t identify. When I return in January for the huge bird migrations, I’ll bring a birding guide.

Two stories have brought me here: one on a wildlife rescue/rehabilitation center and another on the endangered Indian rhino. My long-time partner, Steve Winter, is here shooting a story on the park for National Geographic. Much of his work on this story is being shot with remote cameras: he’s set up 11 of them throughout the park.

Out at 5:50 AM this morning with an anemic sun peeking over the horizon, headed into the western section of the park. A filmy gray veil shrouds the landscape in morning mist, mysterious and otherworldly. Each day, we check, move, service the camera traps, walking into the grasses or into the forest on animal trails. The thick black mud is imprinted with deep elephant and rhino tracks. Stepping over such massive prints, some over a foot across, makes me almost expect to encounter a stegosaurus languidly munching on a blanket of water hyacinth around the next bend. These trails are also marked with a highway of tiger pugmarks and hoofprints from water buffalo, sambar, and hog deer.

A tiger came through one of the traps we checked today, snapping beautiful self-portraits. But one of the three flashes had died, and another was smashed by passing elephants. So we spent an hour repairing the mess. The entire time we heard nearby rumbling. It seems we had split an elephant herd that was moving through the area (perhaps the vandals that knocked down the flash?), and they weren’t happy about it. The guard was at the ready, all the while banging his knife on the car and barking sharp, guttural noises.

Sending this via satellite Internet…for now, to bed. Wiped. Another 4:30 AM rise looms too soon.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Hello from Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India

Well, I’ve been initiated: when I stripped off my sweaty clothes after an afternoon at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation (CWR), my leg looked like I’d been in a car wreck, rivered with blood. I’d heard that the area was crawling with leeches after extreme monsoon rains that displaced entire villages earlier this month—and sent wildlife fleeing from the flooded national park. I never saw the culprit. I’d heard that they inject an anticoagulent to better gorge on their victim’s blood—and I’m amazed at what an effective chemical it is as I watch my blood still oozing from two small bites two hours after the sucker fell off of me.

I picked up the bloodthirsty hitchhiker while photographing a small herd of orphan elephants at the Centre. A pair of them were under three months old, still scrawny, milky-eyed infants. They stumbled around looking lost, following the older calves and the keeper who had become their surrogate mama, always seeking physical contact. One had been rescued from a 15-foot drainage ditch in a nearby tea plantation. The other had been separated from its herd and kept by villagers until it was so sick that it almost died. Traces of a rope burn circled its neck, and someone had slashed its trunk nearly through. Though it had healed in the two months that the animal had been tended here, the tiny trunk bore a ropy scar and kinked off at a 30 degree angle.

Wildlife here is in trouble. Since the turn of the millennium, Kaziranga’s elephant herd has continued to dwindle, with at least 20 individuals killed so far this year. Poaching isn’t the problem—the big, old tuskers disappeared years back, shot for their ivory. Most of the casualties are the result of run-ins with local farmers. The animals are speared or shot as they rampage through the subsistence plots that barely sustain these people.

But the Indian rhinos are another story. Their horn is worth its weight in gold on the black market as a highly prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicine. So far this year, 17 rhinos have been poached out of Kaziranga National Park, which is home to the largest population left in the world. Huge areas of the park are inaccessible by jeep for whole chunks of the year, and the Forest Service is often outgunned. India has launched an all-out war, with a shoot-to-kill policy on poachers.

One night last month, park guards happened to be nearby when shots rang out. They returned fire, and the poachers fled. But they were sharpshooters, hitting the huge female twice in the head. She stumbled for a kilometer until she fell over and died. When Anjan, the CWR vet came the next day to examine her, he noticed she was engorged with milk: she was a mom. Park staff launched an all-out search, and the 18 month-old calf was found hiding in the head-high grasses. They tranquilized her, loaded her 650-pound frame onto a stretcher and into a wildlife ambulance, and brought her to the Centre. She’s still in shock, eating little, lying listlessly on the grass in her paddock.

She will be raised here for two years. Eventually, she will be released, returned to her own kind. Hopefully, the wild will be a safer place by then.