I stood by the jeep looking out over the grasslands of Kaziranga in the state of Assam watching some swamp deer and rhinos graze in the distance. It was beautiful! Then suddenly the elephant grass in front of me twitched and out strode a rhino, heading straight at me. I froze as it approached, my muscles tensed as my body prepared for flight. It kept coming closer, too close, was it going to charge? Should I run?
When you mention wildlife in India, people automatically think of tigers, leopards, elephants and monkeys, but very few people associate India with rhinoceroses. The Indian rhino, also known as the greater one-horned rhino, is found in the riverine grasslands at the foot of the Himalayas in north India and Nepal. There are approximately 3000 rhinos left in the wild, 2000 of which are found in Assam, one of India’s most north-easterly states, and most of these specifically in Kaziranga national park and tiger reserve. I was fortunate enough to join Sudhir Shivaram, an eminent Indian wildlife photographer, to photograph the rhinos in Kaziranaga and see what else the park had to offer.
I arrived in Guwahati airport, Assam and started the long 5-hour drive to Kaziranga. It is rare that I would say this, but the road was excellent. Some small bits are still under construction, but by Indian standards it is a truly an excellent road. I had read up on Kaziranga and the rhinos before coming (knowing your subject is essential for good wildlife photography), and had heard of rhino sightings along the roadside. I thought, like most roadside sightings, it was down to plain luck if this happens, but our driver said it was pretty much a certainty. Low and behold, he pulled over at a known spot and there it was… my first wild rhino, maybe 100m from the road in a field. This was the start of an amazing trip!
Kaziranga has four jeep safari zones; the Central, Western (Bagori), Eastern (Agaratoli) and the Burapahar range, each of which is a strikingly different habitat and having their own unique feel. I would recommend going to each of them, time permitting, as I did, but if you have time restrictions and have to pick one, opt for the Central range which is the most popular and was where we spent most of our safaris.
The central range is dominated by large areas of elephant grass, rightly called as it can conceal elephants easily, dotted with pools of water left over from the previous monsoon flood. This is where we saw the most rhinos and elephants. It is an amazing sight to see elephants wandering through the grasslands, not to mention the rhinos. The safari follows one track that leads you through the grasslands to a small river where you can see otters, turtles and woodland where if you are very lucky, you might get to see the rare giant squirrel.
Unlike other tiger reserves I have been to, you are allowed to disembark from the your safari vehicle at set points to look out over the landscape in the observation towers. It was at one of these stops in the Central range that I had a close encounter with a rhino. My companions went up the observation tower, but I stayed by the jeep, looking out over the tall grass to the receding water line of the pools and distant images of rhinos and deer. Suddenly a 2000 plus kilogramme rhino appeared out of the elephant grass about 10 metres in front of me. I grabbed my camera and crouched in front of the jeep as it sauntered towards me. It kept coming, closer and closer until it was about 5 metres from me.
I was taking photographs the whole time, but I must admit those shots towards the end where getting blurry as my hands shook. As it got too close for comfort I made a tactical retreat into the jeep, observing it though the passenger window. It looked at me, and I looked back. It appeared to smile at me then turned away back into the grass. Adrenaline pumping and, grinning from ear-to-ear, I counted my lucky stars that it did not charge.
Other than the Rhinos, Kaziranga also has herds of the Asian elephant and the Asian water buffalo. There are also tigers in Kaziranga, an estimated 90 of them. However, as you can imagine, with all that tall grass, seeing one is very difficult. There were a couple of sightings while I was there, but I was not so lucky this time. There are also Hoolock Gibbons, India’s only apes, which also eluded me this trip.
The park has so much to offer so I hope for a return trip.
Kaziranga is a fantastic place to see the last of the Indian Rhino. However, poaching is a big problem, indeed, two rhinos where killed the day before we arrived. The local authorities are working hard to protect them, but they are understaffed and underfunded.
People say the unicorn is a myth… this is false, it exists, except it is fat, grey, loves mud, and is more commonly known as the Indian one-horned rhino. If you need more proof, its scientific name is Rhinoceros unicornis.