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Kaziranga’s Baby Elephants

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

Kaziranga and baby elephants! Not rhinos? Am I mistaken? Though Kaziranga National Park (KNP) is famous for the Great One-horned Rhinoceros, what we cherish most of our visit is the pranks of baby elephants. We were riding on the back of Roopali, Karan, Barsa, Johinder and Joy - mighty high elephants - in the early morning for rhino sighting and shooting (with cameras, of course), though many snaps got shaky because of elephant’s massive swinging movement. The cute baby elephants, unable to match the speed of elders, were merrily running in between the huge legs.  I was worried they would be lost in the grass that was as tall as the elephants itself; though they squandered here and there, the babies were always close to the adults. The grass reaches a maxm. height of 15 ft.! It was funny to watch them tweak their little trunks. They were so tempting that I even started scheming kidnapping plans.

Well, it would be injustice to KNP, which is dedicated to Rhinoceros Unicornis, if I do not sing paeans to the rhinos that were kind enough to provide us liberal sightings. Compared to elephants, the adult rhinos were so protective of their babies; they surrounded the babies and hid them from the sighting of the tourist safari party. The babies, curious always, peeped out and came out of the protective circle for our darshan. In fact, even before entering the actual sanctuary, as we were proceeding the previous evening from Guwahati to the sanctuary area, we spotted rhinos and deers grazing a little distance away from the road. We asked our driver, Shri Tapan, to frequently stop the vehicle for clicking them. He ‘admonished’ us that we could enjoy to our heart’s content at the sanctuary the next day and drove off to Iora Residency. Yes, he was right. The next day, as we went on one elephant safari and two jeep safaris, we noticed the omnipresence of rhinos – single as well as ‘crash’ (group) - grazing, loitering, sunbathing, wallowing!

Kaziranga National Park (KNP) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It spreads across 860 square kilometers of fertile land on the banks of mighty Brahmaputra River and falls within Golaghat and Nagaon districts of Assam. At far end is the Karbi Anglong Hills up to which spreads the wild grass-cum-forest area of KNP. The Park is divided into three ranges – East, Central & West. The woodlands of KNP vary from deciduous to semi-evergreen. The Sanctuary is 240 kms from Guwahati. All types of accommodation are available locally, from high end to low budget.

KNP is also a refuge for tigers. During our afternoon jeep safari we saw an adult tiger lazily lying in the cool waters of a stream. As more jeeps gathered at the site, the excited tourists drew its attention. Disturbed, the tiger moved into the thicket. Our daughter clicked it for record sake though it was beyond the shooting range. We were quite lucky, our driver said. Our daughter was double lucky as she sighted a tiger, though only for a nanosecond, during our early morning elephant safari.  As good parents we tried to silence her bragging by poking that it must be a fox or wild boar but she did not budge from her proud claim.  We could only sulk jealously. KNP was also declared a Tiger Reserve in 2007. A thrilling and at the same time a scary experience was an angry single wild elephant crossing our path in search of its lost calf. The naughty calf, however, was astray at a distance playing hide & seek.

Besides being home to more than 70% of world’s One-Horned Rhinos, KNP also accommodates about 60% of India’s wild buffalo. The Five Big Animals of KNP are the elephants, rhinos, tigers, wild buffaloes and Sambar (Swamp) deer. Besides these Big Five, there are a variety of animals & birds, including endangered species. Again, we were fortunate to sight a hornbill atop a tall tree, on our return from elephant safari. During jeep safari, the expert guide was locating and identifying various birds, including vultures / eagles. Waterfowls in hundreds could be seen lining the water bodies. There was this colourful fowl that walked nonchalantly ahead of the jeep for some distance. The early morning elephant safari and the evening jeep safari provided us an opportunity to watch sunrise and sunset over the extensive KNP. A few watch towers and viewpoints have been provided along the jeep safari route. Getting down of the jeep is strictly prohibited for the sake of safety of tourists. Unaware, and attracted by skulls and horns lying near a guards’ resting place in the midst of the forest, I got down and was scolded by the guards. Alas, only if the alert guards had winked slightly longer, I could have swindled the deer horn!

Our daughter, an animal lover, was loathing about elephants being used for safari. As if to compensate, she joyfully assisted in scrubbing and bathing one of these elephants. Her account was credited with ‘punya’ (good) against the ‘pap’ (sin)! We stayed a bit longer than the other tourists to watch the trained elephants enjoying their early dinner after a hard day’s labour.

Kaziranga sanctuary is open from November to April, and remains closed from May 1 till October end due to monsoon & floods. We visited in March by which time itself the Park was a bit dry. The guards were busy doing controlled burning of the grass to avoid wild fires. Hence it was smoggy here & there. As it was late spring season, flowering trees were a treat. The flood level of various years marked at the boarding point of elephant safari was alarming. It was even above the height of an adult elephant! Such situations would really be miserable for the animals and the guards.

Let us salute the forest guards who, despite several challenges – natural and manmade - assiduously preserve the Park and its inhabitants. We were surprised to see human habitations quite close to the sanctuary and consequent intrusion of domestic animals into the Reserve for grazing. From the point of extinction at the beginning of 20th century, the Indian Rhinos at KNP now number more than 2,000. Though we may pride ourselves as ‘nature tourists’, this also has its own implications.

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