Tuesday, April 8, 2008
In the park
We drive into the western entrance to Kaziranga National Park, stop to pay entrance fees and pick up the armed park guard that will accompany us. He rides shotgun to Konwar, our local Assamese wildlife expert. We stand in the back of a small, open Jeepsi, hanging onto the rollbars as we bounce our way along a rutted dirt track. It’s the end of tourist season, the few months between monsoon downpours and broiling heat. Jeeploads of mostly-Indian tourists pour into the park.
This part of the park is swathed in elephant grass, some low, burned back to keep forestland from overtaking the landscape—and some tall enough to nearly obscure everything but the tallest pachyderms. Within two kilometers, we see maybe 30 rhinos, usually alone, a mother and calf—and in one place, a male pursuing a female.
We finally pass into the restricted area of the park, driving through an area studded with bombex trees, tall, with branches extending out at right angles, geometric and Dr. Suess-like. The forest thickens, woven with groves of shiny, palm-like rattan. We pass within yards of an elephant herd feasting on their favorite delicacy.
We drive down a steep, muddy slope, bear to the right, and we pass a big male rhino, just 10 feet off the road. He lowers his head and tears after us, a careening 6,000-pound tank. It’s been raining and we fishtail in a mire of muck, the rhino gaining until I can almost reach out and touch his huge horn. Hard to believe, but over short distances, these prehistoric-looking behemoths can hit 35 mph. Konwar, our driver and guide, floors it. Then, suddenly, he just stops in his tracks. He watches for a minute, ambles into a wall of grass and disappears. A story on this animal is one of the assignments that has brought me here.
Kaziranga National Park is home to at least 70 percent of the world’s remaining rhinos—perhaps 2,000, according to Pallub Kumar Deka, the park’s western range officer. It’s a 200 square kilometer expanse, bordered on the north by the mighty Brahmaputra River, ringed by a network of paddies, tea plantations, crop fields and villages, with the main east-west highway cutting through a small corner. It’s a tough job to keep both animals and villagers safe.