Saturday, October 27, Kaziranga National Park
Today I have a touch of “Delhi belly.” Here, going off to “pick the flowers” (a Cambodian euphemism) is a perilous affair. The guards get really nervous about letting you out of their sight, and hover nearby. They insist that you clap your hands loudly all the way to your “spot.” Thick swarms of mosquitoes descend as you squat. But worse yet, in the still-wet areas, a small army of black jooks (leeches) stand on end, flailing around, jerky bio-sensing devices that hone in on their target—and then inch their way towards you from all sides, a relentless, creepy army. They inspire the same panic in me that I feel watching “Night of the Living Dead” or Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” No matter how quick I am—and believe me, I don’t dally—they are climbing my boots and crawling into my pant legs as I flee.
Late afternoon we headed off to a remote sector of Kaziranga to spend the evening out on poaching patrol with park guards. On the way there, we encountered a small group of elephants: two mamas, two young babies, and an older calf. They stood knee-deep at the perimeter of a pond, placidly munching water hyacinth. We watched, spellbound for nearly an hour.
We four-wheeled it through some mucky, rutted terrain, maneuvering over small fallen trees and through runoff-carved ditches to reach a large lake just before nightfall. Six guards hung around, snacking and talking around the fire (lit to chase off the millions of bugs that swarmed nearby), waiting for dusk to head out. Suddenly, a series of shots echoed across the water. Half the guards took off to investigate. One guard was glued to his walkie-talkie for the next hours, tensely awaiting news. Things were getting hotter in the park: just two nights before, the 12th rhino this year was killed by poachers inside the park. Another six were shot (and de-horned) outside park boundaries.
A heavy moon rises above the horizon, orange and swollen. At home, this is the Harvest Moon, children are preparing their Halloween costumes. Shamanic elders say that at this time of year, the veil between our world and the Unseen World is at its thinnest. Trick or treating children seem many worlds away.
The guards insisted we stay in camp for safety’s sake. Talking around the fire, we learned that they sometimes stay on patrol for two, three, even four months at a stretch. It’s a tough life, living in isolation in a hot climate amidst many dangerous animals. Besides the big ones, the tigers, rhinos, elephants, there are also cobras, kraits, monitor lizards, and a multitude of stinging and biting things. The guards only get a few day’s leave at home with their families between posts. These dedicated men are unsung heroes.
It took over an hour to maneuver our way out of the park. Along the way, we glimpsed a mother rhino and her calf, flushes of night birds, and a water buffalo, ghostly in the silvery light.
We later learned that each of the eight reports we heard that night were warning shots fired by three guards who were attacked by a rhino, a tiger, and an elephant respectively. They must have been close encounters, because budgets are slim here and guards don’t waste bullets. Maybe, like people, wildlife goes a little wild on the full moon. No one was hurt—animal or human.
Back on the main road, Konwar, our amazing guide and driver, deftly avoids a dozen near-head on collisions with pedestrians and vehicles of all sizes. I barely flinch anymore. We hunker down against the wet chill that descends each night with the loss of the sun. It is a magical evening. Each wooded area we pass blinks with brilliant constellations of fireflies. Outside houses and shops, lines of tiny oil lamps twinkle along walkways, fence posts, windowsills. Important festivals mark wintertime, and in this sacred season it an especially auspicious time for puja: prayer, rituals, and offerings to the pantheon of Hindu deities. Tonight’s full moon makes this a blessed night, and everyone adds their own light. I close my eyes and offer a prayer for these people, for these animals, for us all.