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.