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.