Tuesday, 2 April 2013

In search of the Greater One-horned Rhino (Kaziranga)

Elephant safari in Kaziranga National Park.

Chris Raven reports on his experience of going in search of the Greater one-horned Rhino by elephant, in the Kaziranga National Park.

By Chris Raven

After a long bumpy bus ride from Guwhati, the capital of Assam, we arrive at the Kaziranga National Park. Our mission here is to ride on top of an elephant and catch a glimpse of the greater one-horned Indian rhino. Located on the banks of the River Brahmaputra, in the far north east corner of India, Kaziranga National Park was first established in 1908 and is listed as a World Heritage Site. There are over two-thirds of the world’s one-horned Indian rhinos living here, and the park also has the highest density of tigers and large breeding populations of elephants, wild water buffalo, swamp deer and over 200 species of birds.

It's early morning on the day of our elephant safari, and I'm standing at the ready with puffy eyes and a pair of binoculars hanging around my neck. The birds sing noisily in the treetops overhead and the sounds of peacocks and chitals can be heard in the distance. Our open top jeep skids into view, and I jump in the back followed by fellow traveler, Lucy Calder, and my brother, Simon, who will be accompanying me on the safari. 

After a short journey we pass through the gates of the Kaziranga National Park and we're immediately welcomed by the sight of five elephants stood beside a wooden tower. Climbing the steps, we nod a good morning to a group of mature European tourists with extremely large zoom lenses hanging down to their kneecaps. 

One-horned rhino and calf. (Photo © Chris Raven)
Our names are called out and an oldish chap with white hair, who has the appearance of a retired company executive, steps forward with his massive lens and mumbles something about how he's been waiting for over twenty minutes. The ranger with the list smiles and politely asks him to wait his turn.

An abundance of rhinos live in Kaziranga.
(Photo © Chris Raven)
Climbing aboard our trusty elephant with its large white tusks, hairy head and watery eyes, I smile at our friendly mahout and grab the seat at the back. I don’t know if it’s my big feet, long legs or bony backside, but I find it's a battle to get comfortable. The mahout smacks the elephant on top of its head and, with a swish of its trunk, it cuts through the long grass at surprising speed. 

The misty marshland is flooded in golden sunlight. Swamp deer leap across our path and our mahout points out a couple of wild boars wallowing in the mud close by. Bursting out of the undergrowth, I look across the open water meadows and blink in disbelief when I see my first ever sighting of a greater one-horned rhino with her tiny calf. 

The tourists from earlier quickly catch up and surround the rhinos, firing off shots from the top of their elephants. I take a couple of snaps, but lower my camera for a moment and study these magnificent animals with my eyes rather than through a viewfinder. The mother is enormous with thick armour plates of skin covering her hind legs. She's a solid machine. We leave them to eat their breakfast and carry on through the marshy meadows. 

A grey body flashes by. It’s a large male rhino. Our elephant gets a little too close, and in an instant the rhino spins around and begins to crash through the long grass towards us, snorting and waving its head. The rhino stops and eye balls the elephant. Is it going to charge? Our elephant raises its trunk and cries out. The mahout tries desperately to control the elephant, but thankfully the rhino turns sharply and disappears into the long grass. 

A stand off with a rhino and elephant ends peacefully. (Photo © Chris Raven)
We spend the rest of the day exploring the remote corners of Kaziranga by jeep, and spot many more rhinos, wild elephants, turtles and deer. I scan the landscape in the hope of catching sight of the elusive tiger, but sadly there are no sightings. Returning back to the rangers station, we drink hot sweet chai (tea) and reflect on our experience here at Kaziranga. 

We have all visited various National Parks on our journeys around this colourful continent, and have shared the disappointment of visiting a park in the hope of spotting wildlife and leaving having seen very little. The experience of Kaziranga has been different, here the Greater one-horned Rhino took centre stage, and thrived!

Grabbing that shot. (Photo © Chris Raven)

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