“The deer are raising the alarm,” said the man next to me. “Tiger is near.”
Beneath the gateway to Kaziranga National Park, nighttime creatures scuttled and fluttered home to their daylight shelters. Fingers of sunlight lifted the morning mist, revealing slopes of tangled weeds hemmed in by a curtain of tall elephant grass. Damp trees hung in the gloom. When the first bark snapped from deep within the impenetrable grass, I flinched.
“They are warning each other,” said my neighbour.
More rapid-fire croaks followed. Three park workers stopped drinking chai, dropped their cigarettes and listened. A small group of tourists moved closer together, cameras poised, blue phone lights blinking. Everyone peered in the direction of thlarm calls. I searched for tiger stripes in the wall of dark grass, trying to remember what the camp cook had told me that morning.
“Tiger? Nothing to fear from him. Water buffalo is most frightening. If he is angry nothing to stop him. Not even tiger. One wild water buffalo more danger than angry tiger.”
The barks stopped. Either the tiger had gone, the deer had fled or the water buffalo had seen them all off. The workers went back to their sweet chai and lit up again, my informative friend joining them. Then a uniformed guide arrived in a pick-up and asked our small party to accompany him into the park.
Half an hour later I was balancing on the surprisingly bony spine of Rahul, the smallest elephant in our parade of six. I stared over the shoulder of Rangit, his mahout, at the tall grass.
In two years of living in India I had never met anyone who had seen a wild tiger. Friends returning from wildlife parks talked of encountering nothing more exotic than a colourful bird or rare ruminant. To avoid disappointment I had steered clear of animal sanctuaries, relying instead on chance wildlife encounters with snakes, foxes and eagles. Then a friend bet me that in Assam I would see one of the most endangered animals on the planet.
Rangit steered us towards the Brahmaputra River’s flood plains, and I relaxed into Rahul’s lumpy walk allowing his movements to shape my own. On the horizon, the Mikir Hills were taking shape in the weak sunlight. I peered at the marshland. Nothing revealed itself, not even a goat. Rahul, up to his knees in mud, pounded through the grass. Miles from any road, his squelches and buzzing insects provided the only soundtrack.
We traversed a small tree-covered hill where Rangit pointed out fresh tiger scat. Then we found scratches in the bark of one of the trees. Rangit seemed pleased. We stopped to observe a perfect pugmark.
“Tiger is here, maybe one hour,” said Rangit.
We walked on. The sun grew brighter and hotter. Rahul’s rocking gait began to make me drowsy. I put on my sunglasses. An Asian openbill stork glided overhead. A juvenile hog deer observed us before folding itself into the reeds. The blinding blue of a white-throated kingfisher flashed.
Then Rahul stopped.
Standing in a clearing in front of us two thousand kilos of armoured perissodactyl, descended from the Miocene age more than twenty million years ago, was chewing grass. A rhinoceros. Primeval waves of apprehension swept through me, the body’s flight or fight responses kicking in.
A row of white egrets stood on the rhino’s back, pecking at the parasites living in its hide. After chewing for a few more minutes, it turned away and disappeared through an invisible door in the grass. Too transfixed by the experience to take photos, I blinked hard to imprint the image onto my eyelids.
Rangit moved Rahul forward and within minutes we came across more rhino. Then, in a gap deep within the grass, we saw a female and tiny calf.
“The calf is young, maybe three months,” said Rangit.
The mother stopped eating and raised her head. Then she turned square on to us and took a few quick paces forward, signalling her intent to charge. Rangit called out a command and reversed Rahul out of danger. And for a few unforgettable minutes, on a lip of land judged by Rangit to be acceptable to the rhino, we watched the calf play in the shadow of its vigilant mum.
My friend won her bet.
Notes on India’s one-horned rhino
Kaziranga has a high density tiger population, but is most famous for its efforts to save the largest species of rhino in the world: Rhinoceros unicornis, commonly known as the greater one-horned rhino. Around 75% of the world’s population live in the park’s 430 sq km. And with Kaziranga accounting for 2,290 out of 2,505 individuals worldwide, visitors have a good chance of spotting one of them.
At the time of writing (24 June 2014) 19 rhino have been killed for their horns this year. News reports say that armed guards have shot and killed two poachers. Despite these losses, the Kaziranga rhino population has continued to grow. The last census, carried out in April 2012, showed a 9% increase since 2009, and in 2013 a further 39 animals were recorded.
In 2012, India’s Supreme Court banned tourism in core tiger parks in an effort to safeguard endangered animals. But after a vociferous worldwide campaign, opened them again three months later, accepting the argument that sustainable and considerate tourism is good for wildlife and encourages conservation.
Of the five species of rhino left on Earth, three are designated ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN. The greater one-horned rhino is officially “vulnerable”. The IUCN has declared the Javan rhino to be ‘teetering on the brink of extinction’. In Africa, the western black rhino has become extinct, and the northern white rhino is expected to disappear by 2020.