Rhinos at Dawn: Safari in India

Mother and baby elephant. Photo by Annie Palovcik
Mother and baby elephant. Photo by Annie Palovcik

Riding in a jeep to a distant area of the park, we stop to visit one of the outlying ranger posts, a simple house where small teams of men are stationed for weeks at a time. Povi, our naturalist and guide, translates and explains the problems they face. The mighty Brahmaputra River discharges more water each year than the Mississippi. When it floods in the monsoon season, as it does every summer, the roads in the park become impassable, and many of the rhinos are forced to seek higher ground.

When the rhinos spread out, they are especially vulnerable to poaching. Meanwhile, the rangers have to abandon their jeeps and patrol in small outboard-powered boats, which are slower and less efficient, hence the advantage of having drones in the sky. Fortunately, the Indian and Assam governments seem quite aware of the importance of protecting the rhinos, and the need to commit whatever resources are necessary.

It is encouraging that, although the struggle against poaching is difficult, the rhino population has been gradually increasing. In 1910, there were only about 50 rhinos left in India. A 2012 census counted 2,290 rhinos in Kaziranga alone, up from 1,672 in 1999. Today’s global population of one-horned rhinos is 3,300. (Most of the rest are in other Assam parks and in Nepal, where poaching has also been fierce.)

There is no danger to visitors like ourselves, so we feel free to enjoy our days of outings at Kaziranga. Every evening, we return to the comfort and fine meals at our lodge, on a small river where animals come down to drink right opposite our thatched cottage.

After each safari, the mahouts bathe and brush their elephants in the nearby river. Photo by Annie Palovcik
After each safari, the mahouts bathe and brush their elephants in the nearby river. Photo by Annie Palovcik

We ride along the shores of swampy waterways on the back of an elephant, and see dozens of grazing rhinos. We bounce along a jungle track in an open jeep and focus our binoculars and cameras on ospreys, eagles and storks. Agile, langur monkeys leap through vast banyan trees festooned with orchids, while mynah birds flit about. A young water buffalo calf is nuzzled by its hulking mother. There are scratch marks on acacia trees, where Bengal tigers, seldom seen, have sharpened their claws.  We hike through a rubber plantation and a village of the local Karbi tribe in a forest full of green parakeets.

After each safari, the mahouts bathe and brush their elephants in the nearby river. The great pachyderms spray themselves and wallow in extravagant pleasure, a wonderful sight to behold.

The 12-cabin Brahmaputra River cruise ship Charaidew. Photo by Annie Palovcik
The 12-cabin Brahmaputra River cruise ship Charaidew. Photo by Annie Palovcik

If You Go

The 12-cabin Brahmaputra River cruise ship Charaidew and the 12-cottage Diphlu River Lodge are booked through World Luxury Cruises, www.wlcvacations.com, toll-free 877-579-7447. Assam is remote but accessible by India’s efficient domestic airline system. Guests are met at airports by guides and modern SUVs.

A tropical medicine consultation is advisable, as are certain inoculations and malaria tablets. Stomach ailments are unlikely if only bottled water is drunk and if meals are taken only on the cruise ship, or at the lodge, or at high-end hotels and restaurants in the major cities.

Author Bio: Tom Koppel is a veteran Canadian journalist, author and travel writer whose latest book, Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific, can be obtained by writing to koppel@saltspring.com.

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