It is a matter of great chance, persistence, fortitude and patience that goes into spotting an elusive tiger. Numbered around 3000 in India, each tiger occupies an area it calls home, often spanning more than 40 sq kms. No wonder, the rarity & the dispersion across a wide area, makes a tiger sighting extremely difficult. Of course, the sheer power & the majestic yet ferocious presence that the tiger exudes coupled with the fear it inspires, makes it an exciting thrill to pursue while inducing a greed to increase the chance encounters.
The One-horned Indian Rhinoceros is different game all together. The Indian Rhino population surviving in the wild is similar to the Indian tiger, app 3000 in number. Much like the tiger, the Rhinos were brought back from extinction as they were extensively poached for their horn which is believed to have medicinal properties. The rhino population is concentrated in the Eastern parts of India, with 2/3rds residing in Kaziranga itself. Hence the rhino population density is quite high, unlike the tiger habitats which are spread across India. The Rhinos are huge bulky creatures weighing up to 4000 kgs. Although they are bulky and look very lethargic, they are known for their volatile temper when disturbed and they charge on the intruder with unmatched anger and a dominating, fear inspiring presence, much like that of a tiger.
Watching this endangered species atop an elephant at the Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary (a World Heritage site) in Assam, should have given me the thrills. It did, on the first sighting. But later it did not. The elephant safari took us quite up-close to a male rhino who didn’t take very kindly to our presence intruding upon its peaceful grazing amongst the tall elephant grass. It gruntled, turned and charged towards us. The mahout was quick to respond and egged on the elephant to intimidate the Rhino by trumpeting and stamping its feet. The rhino quickly chose to disappear. It was an exciting first rhino encounter as I was a bit shaken up to see a Rhino’s anger & its charge. We then spotted a mother and baby rhino walking along a mud trail, oblivious to the elephants parked around them carrying us humans, clamouring for up-close view of the rhinos. As we moved around the sanctuary, we found hordes of rhinos grazing peacefully for as far as the eye could see. It felt like witnessing a scene off a picture post card, the one that shows hordes of cattle grazing in the Swiss meadows!
For rest of the safaris, we rode/ drove past the rhinos, looking for other wildlife in the sanctuary, acknowledging the Rhinos’ existence but not paying them any attention. I tried to make sense of why I felt like that. Rhino spotting should be as thrilling as spotting a tiger. One cannot get to see a Rhino anywhere else in the world or for the matter anywhere else in India as a special trip to northeast is required to see this temperamental animal. There is a reason why every tiger spotting is such a thrill and every Rhino spotting isn’t. The word is elusiveness. It is just human tendency to go after things which are difficult to get, err spot in this case. There in lies the thrill, triggering a great adrenaline rush in the mind of an adventure seeker, forcing him to plot, plan and stalk a tiger trail hoping to get a chance to see an epitome of elusiveness. The rhino, as it turns out, isn’t an elusive animal at all!!
(P.S: The rhino could have turned into an elusive animal but for the conservation efforts to bring it back from extinction to the populous state as one can see today. Almost everyone I spoke to, be it elephant safari guide, jeep safari driver or the forest ranger, passionately spoke about the conservation efforts, be it coming down hard on poachers or clearing up the Rhino habitats from human occupation or the dead grass burning activity that the forest rangers undertake every year so that fresh grass can grow for the rhinos to consume and survive. The Rhinos are the pride of the place).
How to get there:
Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary is a peaceful 5 hour highway drive from Guwahati. Guwahati Airport is well connected with major cities in India.
Where to Stay:
Iora, the Retreat is the best place to stay in Kaziranga. It is located very close to the central gate. The eastern gate is a 20 min drive from here. The resort is well maintained and food is extremely good.
How to book a safari:
There are 2 safaris that are possible: elephant safari & a jeep Safari. Both take place in the mornings and in the afternoons. The resort can book them on your behalf. Advance booking is better. The elephant safari is only confirmed in the evening prior to the ride. Elephant safari allows you to see the Rhinos up-close. The jeep safari can be used for spotting birds, tiger and other wildlife.