We’re in Kaziranga National Park in Assam, a UNESCO world heritage site which has two thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos and the highest concentration of tigers in any reserve in the world.

Rhinos grazing in Kaziranga National Park, Assam

Kaziranga National Park | Central Assam | North East India

We arrived in Iora, a spacious, landscaped resort, with spa and massages, for three days R&R. I wish all backpacking was like this.

It’s been wonderful these last few days in upper Assam; the pre-monsoon showers have nurtured fresh air and an electric green hue to the undulating tea landscapes and paddy fields. My lungs haven’t felt this good since before the last London winter lurgy.

We are still on the malaria pills as Assam is classified as a high-risk malaria zone especially here in the nature reserve with its swamps and wetlands. The pills have multiple side effects, one of which is having realistic, extended and often bad dreams; since I accused my wife of infidelity (in one of my dreams), and she accusing me of a secret love-child, mine have progressed from the scandalous to the mundane.

Dreaming of ninja peahens? WTF?

Last night I saw my boss in a dream and he gave me a talk on Swedish bus tyres; we walked from bus to bus in a huge garage crouching down and studying them intently. Their diameter, their treads, the type of rubber, the alloys. I didn’t realise it was a dream so I nodded intently, feigning interest. It lasted hours and I was happy to wake up.

In contrast Sarah’s dreams have progressed from scandalous to bizarre: ninja peahens (WTF?) and singing toadstools. Surreal and psychedelic and certainly more intriguing than Swedish bus tyres.

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Sarah’s Assamese is improving. When someone asks her if she can speak Assamese she says moi Oxomiya hikisu (I’m learning Assamese). If the conversation progresses, for example, to kene asa? (How are you?), her second sentence is huti pwaali lage (I want a baby elephant). It’s a bit of a non sequitur but her vocabulary of animals in Assamese is getting extensive and impressive.

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Baby elephants are a weighty matter

On our first day, Sarah got her baby elephant. We took a jeep out to the 430 square kilometres Kaziranga National Park, got our entry passes from the Assam Forestry Department and a knowledgeable guide and stopped at the check-point to the park to await our entry time.

The domestic elephants had finished their rides for the day and were being washed, lying on their sides, in a muddy river. Their baby elephants were trying their luck at a food stall.

We bought some puffed-rice-molasses balls for them and they came charging at us. I didn’t realise when a baby elephant steps on your toe it’s quite a weight. Sure they’re cute and cuddly but a quarter of a tonne is a quarter of a tonne.

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Kaziranga National Park grasslands
Kaziranga and its grasslands. In the distance are the Karbi hills

We drove past tall elephant grass, by the shores of lakes, flood plains and wetlands; we spotted many rhinos, in silver-grey armour looking like mythical creatures, swamp deer, elephants, wild water buffalo and rare migratory birds like the white winged wood duck.

New words from the naturalist’s language

Our guide had a keen eye for spotting creatures and could point out a turtle on a rock, or a kingfisher on a distant branch. I also learned some new zoological words from him like taxon and hoofstock; that the spots on a leopard are called rosettes; that a mugger is a type of Indian crocodile; “Kaziranga,” he said, “was great for ‘birding‘.”

I’d never heard this verb before; birding is short for bird-watching but I like it’s economy. So we spent the afternoon doing a lot of birding, deering and rhinoing from the vehicle, but not tigering, or leoparding. Some people back at the hotel said they had been jackalling but I think they were mistaken and just dogging in a Jeep.

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Rhino poaching is still going on

A few days before we arrived, wardens discovered the carcass of a rhino with its horn sawn off.

Poachers had shot this poor animal, but they also employ other techniques to capture and kill rhinos like digging a disguised pit planted with sharpened bamboo spikes at the bottom or dangling electrical wires down on to rhinos’ corridors.

The poachers are often better armed than the wardens and Assam has started a controversial policy to shoot poachers on sight.

The problem is that Chinese medicine claims rhino horn (which is made from keratin), when ground up and boiled in water, can cure rheumatism, gout and impotence. It is said to be a luxury item in Vietnam and China; there is no scientific basis for these claims.

Rhino horn is valued at $100,000 per kilogram; it’s worth more than its weight in gold. With a horn weighing on average between 2 to 3 kilograms, that’s quite a bounty on their heads.

The biggest concentration of tigers in any reserve anywhere in the world

Sunset arrived in the park. We sat quietly in the jeep. A deer barked a warning call. Perhaps behind the tall grass a tiger was stalking.

“I wanted to see if I couldn’t see a tiger for the seventh time in a row. In the last few years we’ve taken out jeeps in Ranthambore and Kaziranga all to no avail. Not even a tail behind a tree. Zilch. Sweet FA. Not even a tiger turd. Just some scratch marks on a log, a pug mark in the mud and a cow’s skull. Tigers don’t even come out for me in zoos anymore.”

We waited and waited till dusk fell and we had to leave Kaziranga. It always feels such a close run thing. There was a rich air of expectation, the occasional flurry of birds in the trees, as if a tiger was just close by behind a clump of grass, tapping the tip of its tail on the ground and and waiting for us to leave.

Because of the tall grass, sightings of tigers are rare in Kaziranga.

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Seeing rescued animals at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation

When the showers cleared the next morning we visited the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation, We flagged down a taxi for Borjuri and walked down a lane where tea pickers were smiling and giggling as we passed.

Tea pickers in Assam
Tea pluckers at Borjuri Tea Estate, Assam

The centre is a charity which rescues injured or orphaned animals, makes them better and then releases them again. You may have seen the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in the news feeding a baby rhino when they visited this place in 2016.

Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation
Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation

We were lucky because it’s not normally open to the public and we were kindly received by its Joint Director, Dr Rathin Burman.

The centre was started because in the past when the wild animals were in distress, either stuck in drains, attacked by people or stranded in floods, they were sent to the zoo (or “sent to jail,” as Mr Burman puts it) rather than being rehabilitated and released in the wild. Poorly tigers, elephants, leopards, deer, Mr Burman and his team have helped them all.

They had recently hand-raised and bottle-fed orphaned baby rhinos and released them at the age of 2 to 5 years in another of Assam’s national parks, Manas, which has a lower density of animals.

We walked around an enclosure where four beautiful adult leopards, once orphaned so young that their eyes were still closed, dozed on branches; their limbs and tails, peppered with rosettes , dripped like lianas.

In the distance, behind a clump of trees, we spied baby elephants being bottle-fed. We were forbidden to get close to the baby elephants or take pictures of them because it’s important they don’t get used to humans. They had recently released 20 elephants, of which three came back because of the good life they led at the centre and the guarantee of food. Elephants are smart like that.

The rehabilitation centre has a pre-release site, enclosed by an electric fence; when the time is right the animals are tranquillised, have a collar put on them and then released back in the wild. Since they started in 2001 they have treated over 5,500 animals and have successfully released 3,300 back in to the wild.

After hearing about the poachers the previous day, learning about the centre’s work was very inspiring.

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The post ‘Where the Rhinos Roam’ was first published on http://www.heyloons.com and is part of the blog series ‘90 Days in South East Asia’.

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