Here conservation is a way of life

Parbina Rashid recounts her visit to the Kaziranga National Park which is celebrating its centenary year

As we drove along the narrow, water-logged road of the Kohora range of Kaziranga National Park in Assam, little did we know that we would soon be face to face with the famous one-horned rhino.

The park, which boasts of 1048 Asiatic elephants, also has 1700 rhinos

The park, which boasts of 1048 Asiatic elephants, also has 1700 rhinos

It was a chilling feeling, especially after we were told that the forest guard, who accompanied us in the open jeep, was allowed only a shot or two in the air and, that too, in an extreme situation.

Bablu Ali, our driver-cum-guide, pulled the jeep, just a few feet away from the rhino standing in the middle of the road, staring straight at us.

Kaziranga is home to the one-horned rhino
Kaziranga is home to the one-horned rhino

As we waited with bated breath, the guide and the rhino kept sizing each other up. Finally, what seemed like eternity, the animal disappeared into the tall grass. We all heaved a sigh of relief.

This close encounter, however, did not rob us of our enthusiasm. Neither did the five-hour journey from Guwahati to Gulaghat district in which the century-old park is located.

A swampy grassland of 428 sq km, Kaziranga is dotted with numerous wetlands and patches of dense forests. It lies between the Brahmaputra on the north and the Karbi hills on the south.

"Kaziranga is the biggest success story in wildlife conservation", the Director N. K. Vasu had told us before we started our jeep safari.

The census figures support his claim. The number of rhinos, which was just 12 in 1905, has increased to more than 1700. The park also boasts of the highest population of the Royal Bengal Tiger — 86 as per the 2000 census, 1,431 Asiatic wild buffaloes — the largest in the world since 2001, 468 eastern swamp deer and 1,048 Asiatic elephants as per 2002 census. With more than 400 species of birds recorded here, Kaziranga is also a paradise for bird-watchers.

"Though we use camera traps and other hi-tech methods to conduct animal census, traditional methods like pugmark are still the best", he said.

As we wondered about the accuracy of the traditional modes of animal census, Vasu hastened to add, "If you have a dedicated work force, it is not impossible".

The Director believes in getting the residents of the area involved in the counting. He also wants them to participate in the maintenance of the park. "We often conduct seminars and lectures to involve the local folk". This explains why poaching has decreased over the years.

Vasu has also been promoting small guesthouses run by the local people. "I am against the concept of big hotels. That will spoil the environment of the park," he said.

Though the park was officially closed due to the rains, it needed a little coaxing to get permission for at least two safaris — one at the Kohora range and other at the Bagori range. After all, we had not chosen the right time to visit Kaziranga.

The roads that criss-crossed the park were totally blocked by overgrown grasses. "Once the rainy season is over, the grass on both sides of the road will be burnt. That is the time for tourists as wild animals, including tigers, can be seen from close quarters", explained our guide.

As if to compensate for not being able to spot any tiger, our guide stopped at one point to show us a tree where they sharpen their nails.

"This tree emits some fluid-like substance that makes it suitable for the tigers to do their manicure", he explained, pointing to the sharp nail marks on the tree trunk. As the marks seemed quite recent even to my untrained eye, I made a hasty retreat to the jeep.

Guides like Bablu, Kutubuddin Ahmed and Kanak Nath are an integral part of the safari. Bablu could even tell the scientific names of all the species, both animals and plants, found at Kaziranga. The forest authorities and the local people, too, have acknowledged the contribution of guides like Bablu.

During the centenary celebrations from February 11 to17 this year, Bapiram Hazarika, a mahout, was honoured along with Lord Curzon’s grandson, Lord Ravensdale, for the contributions his grandfather made towards making Kaziranga a national park.

In 1905, Lord Curzon’s wife, Mary Victoria Leiter Curzon, travelled through the area with Bapiram’s grandfather, Nigona Shikari, when she saw some pugmarks of rhinos. Mary Curzon persuaded the government to conserve rhinos. The then Chief Commissioner of Assam, B. Fuller, declared Kaziranga as a reserve forest in the same year. However, it was only in 1974 that it catapulted to the status of a national park. In 1985, UNSECO declared Kaziranga as a natural world heritage site.

"When Bapiram was honoured along with the Lord, it was a proud moment for all of us", said Bablu. He and his colleagues are not just guides but protectors of animals as well.

"That old Siberian crane out there is an outsider", said Kutubuddin, pointing out the lonely bird. "It came about five years back with a group of migratory birds, but fell sick and could not return. Now it is too old to fly back", he narrated the bird’s story.

As we took a last look at Kaziranga’s adopted bird, it was time for us to go back to the Inspection Bunglow, perched atop a small hillock. Calling it a night amid myriad sounds of wild animals, I could not help but recall the song Bhupen Hazarika had sung years ago. "Kaziranga is not a jungle, the real jungle is out there."