It’s dawn at Kaziranga National Park – India’s Serengeti.
Hog deers are barking their morning calls. Chirping birds have joined to add melody into the mood. The rising sun is slowly taking the darkness away and adding a mosaic of colours across the horizon.
The atmosphere is truly calm, but I am restless while sitting on an elephant rustling through the thick grassland with dew drops still visible on their tips. I am anxious to spot the wild rhinos – the star attraction of this sanctuary, which is nestled in the northeastern state of Assam along the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River.
Soon, luck favours. As the haze fades, a crunch in the grasses ahead draws our mahout’s attention. He moves the elephant towards that direction. Excitement ripples through the air at the glimpse of a greyish mound in the green. Getting closer, we spot a baby and mother rhino burrowed into the vegetation. Later we see many more, but the thrill of the first view, like every other firsts in life, remain unbeatable.
Kaziranga National Park is home to the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinos. That’s why it’s often referred to as “Rhinoland”. Weighing up to 2,000kg, these behemoths display folds of skin hanging from the ridges and a comically tiny tail moving sideways. Their armour is a natural splendour; it’s said to be bullet and sword proof, hence widely used by ancient armies for shields.
By early 20th century, these species were nearing elimination due to the poaching for the illegal horn trade. However, by instituting strong animal conservation and anti-poaching programmes, the authorities have now been able to successfully increase their population, currently estimated at just over 2000. Acknowledging this success, Unesco in 1985 stamped the 430sq km parkland a World Heritage Site.
More recognition came recently when Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton paid a visit, primarily to reinforce worldwide attention on animal conservation.
Because of their abundance today, spotting rhinos is relatively easier. This draws wildlife enthusiasts from around the globe to step in here to see these huge creatures in their own habitat, making Assam one of the nation’s popular tourist destination.
According to Unesco, Kaziranga is one of the last unmodified natural areas in the northeastern part of India. Tall elephant grass intertwined with many streams and large landlocked water bodies called beels covers most of the land, sometimes opening into rummaging grounds with shorter grass, few tall trees, and bamboo thickets.
The Krabi Hills on the southwestern side offer a high woodland refuge for the animals during monsoon season when the backwaters of the Brahmaputra submerge the lowland.
Like any African wildlife parks, Kaziranga also boasts its own “Big Five”. Besides rhinos, others dominating the woodland are water buffalos, elephants, swamp deer, and Royal Bengal tigers. They share the land with leopards, sloth bears, jungle cats, and langurs. Bird lovers have their own happy time when they spy an array of migratory and resident avian, most common being the hornbills, pelicans, rose-ringed parakeets, serpent-eagles, red-jungle fowls, storks and cranes.
There are also large crocodiles crowding the waters of the beels, sometime sunbathing at its edges.
Early morning elephant safaris are ideal to get close to rhinos and buffaloes when they hide inside tall grasses, but to chase the park’s other residents it’s essential to comb through the wider area of the thick forest. So later during the day, I jump on an open jeep with hope of encountering some of them, particularly elephants and tigers.
Luck favours again when pinpointing hordes of deer, langurs, buffalo and even elephants, but no tigers. I was disappointed knowing this nature’s paradise is a Tiger Reserve since 2006 and home to over 100 of the big cats. My driver consoles me, saying tigers are very shy, elusive and always hide around thick bushes. However, he takes us on paths where the jungle king’s presence is felt by way of pug-marks and territorial markings.
At the end of the day the rewards exceed the disappointments; so I depart the Indian Serengeti with a smile like most other visitors do.
Reaching there: Nearest airport is Jorhat (97km) served by Jet Airways (jetairways.com) from Kolkata, where AirAsia (airasia. com) flies direct from Kuala Lumpur.
Accommodation: Resort Borgos (kazirangaborgos.com), is popular with international visitors.
Best time to visit: November to April when weather is dry and not too warm.
Tour operator in India: For all travel arrangements in India contact Far Horizons Tours. They offer an alternative but grand way of exploring Kaziranga by taking their eight-day cruise along the Brahmaputra River aboard luxury vessel MV Mahabaahu, from Jorhat to Guwahati or in reverse direction. In addition to wildlife experiences, this river odyssey provides insights into Assam’s history, culture, people and world famous tea.