Saturday, April 13, 2013

Kaziranga - Rhino and so much more


Think Kaziranga and you automatically think rhino. But if you go in exclusively focused on the one-horned wonder, then you run the risk of missing out on so much. Yes, it is definitely the finest place on the planet to see this magnificent pre-historic beast, but it's also home to a staggering array of  attractions. For one, it has the highest density of tigers amongst all national parks in India (and I dare say the world) It is also home to vibrant populations of elephant along with the rare water buffalo, hog deer and barasingha, plus an incredible variety of bird-life. Along with the adjoining Panbari wildlife sanctuary (sadly closed to tourists owing to an accident) it makes up a paradise for any wildlife lover.

When I started my Wander, Kaziranga was always on the itinerary, but for some reason or another, it never happened. Finally this March, I decided I couldn't end my travels without making it there, along with the Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary not very far away. So with my brother Sridhar (a 20 year veteran of the park) I set out into east India for the first time. The rhino was top of my list of course, but I was also keen to get good sightings of two raptors - the grey headed fishing eagle and the Pallas' fishing eagle. But this trip would give me so much more!

Red breasted parakeets mating
Kaziranga is divided into four zones, with the central Kohora zone being the most popular amongst tourists. The first morning, we decided to head to the eastern (or Agaratoli) zone, quieter and with the best chance to see my two raptors. But before that, we were stunned by a head-turning number of birds. We started with scarlet minivets and spangled drongos, but they didn't care to be photographed. Then we settled down to watch a beautiful male red breasted parakeet. And to our delight, his companion joined him and they proceeded to mate right in the open, in front of us; no inhibitions whatsoever. And we didn't even stir till they finished, lest we disturbed them. Impeccable bedroom manners, even in someone else's bedroom!

Alexandrine parakeets courting
As we headed further, we saw a pair of alexandrine parakeets beginning their courtship as well. And just beyond, our guide Gokul (and excellent young chap) saw something big and grey lumbering through the bush on our right. Rhino! We stopped and waited to let the big fella cross and he duly obliged. Even at a fair distance, I still couldn't fit all of him into the frame. Truly magnificent animal and my first quality sighting of this pre-historic giant. We moved on and almost immediately saw another rhino, a bloke wallowing in the water with a darter as passenger. Then we saw a group of beautiful smooth river otters, first swimming through the water and then sunning themselves on a little island. Incredibly cute little fellas! Further ahead we saw more rhino, a herd of elephants and a large brown fish owl. And on our return we saw a couple of grey headeds and a Pallas' eagle (not great pics though!)

Python
That afternoon, we headed to the central zone, where there were frequent tiger sightings. My brother had never ever seen a tiger in Kaziranga and it was a burning desire for him. He'd had a couple of desperate near misses and this time too it seemed like one more. As we drive past, we saw a jeep driving to and fro looking for something in the thick grass. Now rhino and elephant are unlikely likely to go completely invisible in that grass, so it had to be the striped wonder. And as we neared them, they said they saw a tiger cross the road a couple of minutes earlier. We all waited and looked and searched, but he'd vanished. Here I go again, said my brother sighing. Up ahead we saw a pair of beautiful khaleej pheasants, but the highlight was a large python lying by the side of the road. He seemed immobile so a few concerned (but misguided) souls tried to get him to move off the road, but save for a brief stir, he remained static. Perhaps he was too full, or maybe just feeling lazy.

Tiger! Even at this distance he drew quite a crowd!

On our return late that evening, my brother got his long-fulfilled wish. A tiger in Kaziranga. We saw this bloke, really far away (nearly half a kilometer away) sitting in the open, near a sounder of wild boar. He seemed quite chilled out, impervious to both the boar as well as the excited but well behaved humans (quite a crowd had gathered there) around. We left him 15 mins later, still in the same place.



That evening, we were joined by Palash Borah, head naturalist at Wild Grass Resort and an expert all things Kaziranga. He had been guiding a Malaysian photographer to find the blue naped pitta and offered to take me to see it the following morning, before the safari. So, well before dawn, we set out, drove to a patch of jungle (not in the main park, lest anyone believes we were breaking rules) and perched there, all ready for the birds when they come to feed. I'd got my equipment all set for the birds but in my infinite wisdom, I'd forgotten about what else could be there. So the resident swarm of mosquitos refused to look a short sleeved gift horse in the mouth and proceeded to merrily stake claim to my exposed limbs. And face. And all this while, I couldn't even swat them away or move much for fear of driving away the Pittas. A slightly exaggerated movement of my fingers and Palash would nudge me to be still. Thank god I at least had my jeans and shoes on!

Blue naped pitta
As soon as it became light, bird activity immediately intensified. Initially, we heard more than we saw. Puff throated babblers were at it constantly, drowning out all other birds. Then Palash whispered "pitta" and we saw a couple of birds hopping around in the semi-darkness. Then the female came out into a little clearing but in very poor light. And as the light improved, their activity intensified and while the female never came out in the open again, the male flirted around at the rim of the clearing. And finally, he came out long enough for me to get some decent pictures in decent light. Then again, we left them to enjoy their foraging in peace.

Lineated Barbet

Hog deer, showing off that distinctive snout

Smooth river otter

Back to the safaris and back to Agaratoli. This time we saw more rhino, more fishing eagles and more elephants. But the highlights were a bunch of beautiful lineated barbets, blossom headed parakeets, more spangled drongos and a beautiful green billed malkoha. Pictures were possible only of the barbets, the rest of them being far to frisky to pose for pictures. That afternoon, we headed back to Kohora and this time I was looking for some interesting mood pictures of rhinos and elephants. And we got some really interesting sightings - a rhino in classical Kaziranga habitat, elephant amongst elephant grass etc. But again, the lord of the jungle gave us an audience. Another tiger, in the water, surrounded by sambhar. Neither species seemed to care about the presence of the other. Almost as if both knew that they were there only for a drink, so why raise cain with alarm calls and all that jazz? He was again very far away, but even at that distance the excitement of the crowd that had gathered speaks volumes for the magnetism of this wonderful animal.

It is also a reminder to the 'anti-tiger tourism brigade' (most of who by the way have seen their share of tigers and still salivate when they see the next one) that the tiger is and will continue to be top billing so rather than run away from it or put forth counter-arguments, it might be productive to harness the incredible magnetic power that this animal exudes and use that to engage people in the conservation debate. With due respect, I don't see any other animal or bird being able to become the focal point of any campaign. End of spiel.

And that ended a short but extremely rewarding trip to the beautiful jungles of Kaziranga. The next time, I promised to come for longer with a few days in Panbari for some great birding as well.

Adios!


Kaziranga Trip Guide

Getting there

Kaziranga is about 100 kms (2 hours) from Jorhat, the nearest town and airport. Jet Airways/Jetlite and Air India have daily flights to Jorhat from Kolkata. Alternately, you can also drive from Guwahati, the capital of Assam. But that's a 6 hour, 250 km journey.

When to go and how long for

Rains begin in April, so the best time would be February, with Jan and March being acceptable alternatives as well. The park shuts early May and sometimes only opens end October depending on the rains.

2 days are good enough to see rhinos aplenty. But for the birding and other rarer species (like tigers) a week would be a great idea. Especially if you want to cover the Panbari sanctuary, which has superb birding.

Stay

Wild Grass is the oldest, most established property in Kaziranga and is good value for money. (www.nivalink.com/wildgrass) The default choice for most wildlifers,  it is a decent property with a lovely dining area, OK rooms and decent food. The only bummer is that their gypsies are all the side-seat variety, which aren't very comfortable at all. But it's more than made up by their drivers and naturalists, led and tutored by Palash.

Iora resort (www.kazirangasafari.com) is the new kid on the block and is highly rated, both for its stay and facilities. And their gypsies are all the 'theatre seating' variety, hence more comfortable. 

Safaris

There are two types of safaris - jeep and elephant. The elephant safaris start at dawn and take you through the central zone for an hour to 90 mins. You can get up close with rhinos (and maybe even other animals depending on your luck) on elephant-back.

The jeep safaris are available morning and afternoon and you can choose from any of the 4 zones to try your luck. 

The hotel will be able to arrange for your safaris, elephant as well as jeep.

Tusker in musth