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The greater glory of Kaziranga

Bittu Sahgal
Ranjit Barthakur and I sat on a large log watching otters fish in the Diphloo river. We paused a while to take in the throb of life that is Kaziranga on our way back from Debeswari, where we had seen two Bengal Floricans rise and float down like balloons in a ritual dance designed to impress females hidden in the tall grass. We also noted where a tiger, elephant and turtle had left tell-tale foot prints while crossing a dry, sandy riverbed.

Across the river from where we sat in silence, two rhinos staged a quick entry and vanished into their veiled grassland world. They were followed by a small herd of elephants whose trumpeting we heard long before they revealed themselves. A decidedly fishy smell and silvery scales strewn about a log suggested we were not far from an underground otters’ holt. The whole Assam valley, the entire world, was once this ordered, this peaceful, I thought to myself as I savoured the moment.

Ranjit was born in Assam and it was on his invitation that I first visited Kaziranga almost a decade ago. Visiting and preserving India’s dwindling spaces in the wild has almost become the purpose of my life, and I already knew pretty much all that has been written about Kaziranga before I arrived there. But nothing could possibly have prepared me for the aura of the grassland habitat of the one-horned Indian rhino.

From the earliest days of my involvement with wildlife in the 1970s, I had heard stories of the pristine north-east from the likes of the late Dr. Sàlim Ali and Humayun Abdulali. I had also read E.P. Gee’s Wildlife of India from cover to cover. But seated on that log and listening to Ranjit speak about ‘his’ world while hearing the slosh of rhinos and the yelp of otters suffused me with Kaziranga in a way no book, including Gee’s masterpiece, could ever do.

Kaziranga is a child of the Brahmaputra river valley, which is locked between the eastern Himalayas to the north and the ranges of the Garo, Khasi, Jayantia, and Mikkir, Cachar and Barail hills to the south. This climatic and geographic variation results in an extraordinary mix of plants and animals found almost nowhere else on planet Earth.

Here within a 430 sq km grass and forest asylum which is protected like a fortress, together with the rhino, a whole host of animals have found refuge. I said a silent prayer for all those far-sighted people who had lavished protection upon Kaziranga’s untamed wilderness through the ages. And I hoped Kaziranga’s progress from a reserved forest to game sanctuary, to wildlife sanctuary, then national park and world heritage site, will continue in the days ahead to include the hill ranges of Karbi Anglong which wild animals were once able to easily access to escape the high flood of the Brahmaputra. The park authorities have been working on such ‘additions’ for several years now and their greatest support towards this end comes from the people of Assam for whom Kaziranga is a symbol of pride and culture.

Like a moth to a benign flame, I have returned time and again to Kaziranga over the years only to discover a new facet, a new personality, with each successive visit. No one can be unimpressed by the sight of rhinos, wild buffaloes, elephants, swamp deer and gibbons in this unique national park. This is what 50,000 people visit Kaziranga each year to see. But sometimes I wish they could be persuaded to turn their attention to some of the less obvious delights on offer. From where I sat next to the otters’ holt, for instance, I noticed a uniquely structured preying mantis on a low bush, no doubt attracted to the possibility of snapping up a fly or two from the hundreds buzzing around the remnants of the otters’ fish meal. Watching over the waterways, from the vantage point of a fig tree near us, a Greyheaded Fish Eagle screamed its domination over its domain, as if to remind us that there was much more to Kaziranga than first meets the eye.

When we reached Wild Grass, the residential lodge that Ranjit and A.K. (Manju) Barua had co-founded in a village outside Kaziranga in the late 1980s, I learned still more about Assam, Kaziranga and its life-loving people from lodge managers, caretakers and staff — all Assamese, all friendly and fiercely proud of and protective about Kaziranga. Poaching had once almost wiped out the rhino and stopping poachers and managing the habitat to protect the grasslands so crucial to the survival of the rhino, now occupied most of the time and resources available to the field staff of Kaziranga.

What they achieved in Kaziranga was not just right, but remarkable. Even as rhinos were being exterminated by poachers in the Manas Tiger Reserve, the numbers of this ancient mammal were on the rise in Kaziranga. And that was not all. Following the sage advice of stalwarts such as Stracey, Milroy, Miri, Gee and later Lahan and Deb Roy, they also managed to protect the geographical integrity of the largest representative of the Brahmaputra flood plain grassland, swamp and forest habitat. Nature responded to their efforts by ‘rewarding’ managers with the highest density of tigers per square kilometre found anywhere in the world. Birds too seemed to ‘approve’ and began to congregate each year in greater numbers on this wild and inviting terrain located at the intersection of both the Australasian and the Indo-Asian flyways. We met young Maan Barua, an ornithologist dedicated to Kaziranga’s protection. The future of the park lies in the hands of young people like him.

The field staff of Kaziranga were mandated to "maintain and wherever necessary, restore the demographic features relating to the populations of all endangered, endemic, vulnerable, rare species of animals and plants with special focus on the rhino, tiger and their habitat". They did this and more. In the process they have earned themselves the reputation for implementing the most successful conservation initiative on the subcontinent of the past 100 years.

(Bittu Sahgal is the editor of Sanctuary magazine)

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