Tagore’s lines “দাও ফিরে সে অরন্য , লও এ নগর” (Give us back the forests of yore, take away the cities of today) reverberated in my mind the moment our gypsy entered Kaziranga National Park. The noise of the township, that of vehicles moving at high speed on NH 37 soon faded away and calling of the birds sounded music to our ears.
The sudden transformation does pose some obvious questions though- will the forests survive this onslaught of human population explosion ? or will the forests be sucked into this vicious cycle of human activities otherwise known as “development” ? As always, there is no definite answer to this but one thing seemed definite to me -Kaziranga is beautiful . It is unique when compared to other protected areas or national parks in the country. Kaziranga can be thought to be a combination of dry forests (similar to what we have in Central and Western India) in some parts with that of swamp, marshlands characterized by vast expanse of tall elephant grass with numerous natural water bodies that lends uniqueness to the park. Very few things in this park are man-made apart from the watch towers and camps meant for forest department and visitors (in some cases). This is in sharp contrast to other protected areas where human intervention is notable in form of roads, man-made water pits or solar powered pumps and this contrast made me fell in love with Kaziranga.
Kaziranga -100 year old heritage
Love made me delve into the history of Kaziranga and therein I came to know about the role of Mary Curzon, wife of the infamous Viceroy of the then British India. In 1904 when Mary Kurzon visited the area, she did not see a single rhinoceros, for which the area was renowned. It is said that she persuaded her husband to take urgent measures to protect the dwindling species which he did by initiating planning for their protection. On 1 June 1905, the Kaziranga Proposed Reserve Forest was created with an area of 232 square km (90 sq mi). So Lord Curzon did something positive in sharp contrast to the evil intentions of dividing Bengal province in the same year!!
In 1908, Kaziranga was designated a “Reserve Forest”. In 1916, it was redesignated the “Kaziranga Game Sanctuary” and remained so till 1938, when hunting was prohibited and visitors were permitted to enter the park. The Kaziranga Game Sanctuary was renamed the “Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary” in 1950 by P. D. Stracey, the forest conservationist, in order to rid the name of hunting connotations.In 1954, the government of Assam passed the Assam (Rhinoceros) Bill, which imposed heavy penalties for rhinoceros poaching.Fourteen years later, in 1968, the state government passed the Assam National Park Act of 1968, declaring Kaziranga a designated national park. The 430 square km (166 sq mi) park was given official status by the central government on 11 February 1974. In 1985, Kaziranga was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its unique natural environment. In 2006, the park was designated as a Tiger Reserve and some reports label the park as one with some of the highest tiger density numbers per 100 sq km in the country
Greater one-horned rhinoceros symbolises Kaziranga. Wherever you go you will see Rhino picture that is synonymous with the park.No wonder that you get to see the Rhinos (even before you get close to the zone gates) grazing on open grasslands when you are moving through NH-37. It has the world’s largest population of the one-horned rhinos and we saw plenty of them . But emotions on display is what struck me – they are almost sleeping like humans (I thought they are dead!) when you enter the park early morning, swiftly moving for cover when with youngs, coming straight at us making us stop on our tracks!! They are everywhere and needless to say picture of Rhinos grazing against the backdrop of forest cover and cloudy sky or one painted painted with the hue of setting sun is a prized possession of any wildlife photographer!!
Herds of Asiatic water buffaloes and elephants are the other large mammals that have significant presence in Kaziranga. During the course of our safaris we came across buffaloes both single and in herds grazing away or cooling themselves in the waterbodies. Their horns make them look formidable -to the photographer that’s an asset that needs to be clicked at every possible opportunity. Herds of elephants can be seen gingerly marching through the forest consuming vegetation that comes along the way. Mother elephant rushed for cover with her baby when the gypsies spotted them and stopped for pictures -instincts are strong!
Tiger – Saw Once Missed Thrice
The nature of forests makes it difficult to spot the king who rules -to me it seemed he rules silently. There were almost no alarm calls , no pugmarks so we have to rely heavily on our untrained eyes and our driver who scanned the landscape with the pair of binoculars. Yes some news of movement poured in and the excitement was back again. But the wait got longer as we desperately looked on through our lenses – but we could only spot Rhinos , Buffaloes and Deers grazing. The familiar silence of the forest was interrupted by a child voice –“Tiger” ! He was there with his parents in the gypsy infront of us and as our lenses turned towards the path that lay infront us , the familiar black and yellow (can I say orange ?) stripes appeared before our eyes. Adult tigress or may be a semi-adult cub -I was confused but delighted to see the elusive ghost that filled in the missing piece on our Kaziranga canvas.
Picture 1: Tiger walking past Rhino -Clicked by Dr Sanjay Bhattacharya; Picture 2: Tiger walking amidst grasslands -Clicked by Santanu Roychowdhury;Picture 3 : Tiger crossing forest path -clicked by Niladri Kundu
Next day we extensively scanned the landscape by visiting watch towers (there was a buffalo kill by a tiger 3 days back near one of them) with the hope of catching glimpse of the elusive tiger again.
Again it was an endless wait . We marvelled at the diversity of the forest where a group of otters approached the water to swim across, swamp deers that grazed on- every now and then glanced around ( we watched them keenly should they pick something in the air), herd of buffaloes that for long lay in the water picked themselves up and moved on and the rhinos . Suddenly a growling mother rhino with her cub behind her suddenly charged towards a dense bush -is it a tiger?? We zoomed in but the tiger probably had gone deep into the forest. Why would the mother growl so loudly and charge towards a bush ? Excited, we looked for every sign of those stripes amidst the dense cover but the tiger was nowhere to be seen.
When we came back from Kaziranga, couple of pictures revealed the tiger passing by . One picture near the same spot where the mother rhino had charged- the tiger slowly walked past a grazing rhino. Another was a silent walk amidst the tall grasslands. So the tiger was missed three times during our Kaziranga trip !!
Home to a variety of migratory birds, water birds, predators, scavengers, and game birds, Kaziranga is also a birder’s paradise. We spotted beautiful Indian Roller, ever alert Pallas’s fish eagle, grey-headed fish eagle , a winking and yawning brown fish owl , pied kingfisher, storks, barbet and what not!! An Eagle caught a fish and before it could start its meal , a group of otters emerged from the water chased it and forced the eagle to abandon its catch !!! Not sure why the eagle didn’t fly away with its catch? As the otters feasted on it another eagle emerged and tried stealing a portion but couldn’t do so!!! This amazing drama went on before our eyes for around 10 minutes or so. I wondered how many such incidents happen everyday here and before I came back to my senses , there was the oriental darter with its prized fish catch in the water infront of us. It was trying to swallow the fish and presented moments to cherish for.
As we made our way back, great Indian hornbill nest was spotted where a female was waiting (we could see its beak only) for the male to come and provide food. Description in Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds matched to what we were witnessing. The male did not come though but we did spot a hornbill in its full glory and pride on the tree. Sanjay da , my co-traveller remarked –“Look at its eyes , it is so expressive!!” Indeed they were – I felt sorry that this bird is hunted like so many of its co forest dwellers every year.
Before we left the forest for one final time, a Rhino had come right on the road to bid us goodbye. A roadblock different from the Central and Northern Indian forests where Tigers carry out the same.
Kaziranga- Conservation Success or Natural Wonder
At the end of the tour , I glanced at the pics once and with close to 2000 pictures , I realized the richness of the flora and fauna that Kaziranga or for that matter north-eastern forest ranges has to offer. Over the years it is really unfortunate that such a heritage and rich bio-diverse forest has been the target of several natural and man-made calamities. Every year floods caused by the overflow of the river Brahmaputra, cause significant losses of animal life (we saw the levels marked against one of the pillars of a camp) . Then there is the encroachment by people along the periphery has also led to a diminished forest cover and a loss of habitat (we saw boys playing cricket on one side and rhinos grazing on the other !!!) .
On the political front, ongoing separatist movement in Assam has crippled the economy of the region, but I cannot comment on the impact it has on Kaziranga. It is said that Kaziranga has remained unaffected by the movement; indeed, instances of rebels protecting the animals and, in extreme cases, killing poachers, have been reported since the 1980s.
Kaziranga has been hailed as a conservation success in view of the increase in number of rhinoceros – from a mere handful to more than 2,400, as much as two-thirds of the entire world’s rhino population. It has been argued by some that other conservation parks should follow the Kaziranga model of conservation comprising of heavily armed and trained forest guards (We didn’t spot that many and but yes there were towers at regular intervals within the forests)
Another school of thought believes that Kaziranga National Park is among the most poorly managed and administered conservation parks in the country. It is a story of neglect and apathy. Nothing illustrates this better than the Performance Audit of the park done by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in 2014. The section of the CAG Report dealing with forest guards in Kaziranga is revealing. It states:
‘’Out of the 100 freshly recruited forest guard … 73 were withdrawn within one year resulting in the deployment of aged staff on frontline duties’…reasons for transferring the fresh recruits out of Kaziranga National Park (KNP) despite increase in poaching cases/ arrests of poachers were not on record”.
With respect to the working condition of the forest guards, the report states:
“allotment of uniform, shoes, rain coats etc is irregular, forcing the wildlife guards to arrange these articles from their own sources……some wildlife guards reported borrowing used uniforms of their siblings serving in other forces’’.
The CAG report highlighted severe shortage of funds and highly inadequate anti-poaching infrastructure in Kaziranga. The situation on the ground remains the same despite the indictment by the CAG
It is claimed that killings by forest department staff have increased after 2010 as a result of the so-called immunity conferred on the forest department staff. Statistically, it is true that more people were killed after 2010 as compared to previous years. However, to conclude that this can be attributed to the so-called immunity given to forest guards is too simplistic a formulation.
An analysis of poaching incidents based on right to information responses from the state government shows a dramatic increase in poaching post 2010 in and around the Kaziranga National Park. Almost one rhino was killed every two weeks in 2013 and 2014 (27 each) with increasing trend observed as shown below-
Source : Article “What the controversy over BBC documentary on Kaziranga reminds us about models of conservation”
The article “What the controversy over BBC documentary on Kaziranga reminds us about models of conservation” goes on to state the various factors for poaching as described below-
The increase in incidents of poaching can be attributed to many factors, including increased international demand for Rhino horns and laxity in enforcement. However, in case of Kaziranga National Park, one cannot overlook the close link between the sudden increase in poaching post 2010 and the birth of new militant outfits in the neighbourhood of Kaziranga. Specifically, in 2011, the Karbi People’s Liberation Tiger was formed with the stated goal of an autonomous Karbi State. The Karbi hills adjoins the Kaziranga National Park.
An analysis of complaints and chargesheets filed by the police and forest department in and around Kaziranga National park, between 2011 and 2014, reveals the direct involvement of this group as well as Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front in poaching of rhinos. The complaints specifically mention the chairman of the Liberation Tiger, Ron Rongpi, as well as defence secretary of the Liberation Front as being involved in poaching. There have been direct recovery of significant number of AK-56 and AK-47 rifles in addition to other sophisticated weapons and large stocks of ammunition.
While the debate may still rage on but there shouldn’t be any second thought that we need forests like Kaziranga where wildlife can find its refuge and every time we go there we can feel what Tagore meant by ““দাও ফিরে সে অরন্য , লও এ নগর”
If You Go
Guwahati is the airport near Kaziranga that is well connected with the leading cities of India. It is around 230 odd KMs from Kaziranga and usually takes around 4-5 hours by car/bus.
Various safari zones and their breakup are given below-
Note: Western Zone jeep charge is 1850 INR.
Our sincere thanks to Chandramouli Thakur from Miles Tourism (http://www.milestourism.com/) who made all the arrangements of the tour starting from air tickets to safari bookings. The stay was comfortable and the journey was hassle-free.
-Suddhasattwa Das and Niladri Kundu.