Friday, February 14, 2020

Kaziranga's Grand Rhinos

Kaziranga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northeastern India, is among India’s finest national parks. The great Brahmaputra River flows through it, bringing annual cycles of flood to replenish the swamps and grasslands along its shore. The park holds a vast expanse of marsh, tall Elephant Grass (in which an elephant can hide!), and tropical broadleaf forest.

A Greater One-Horned Rhino with Wild Water Buffalos, Bar-headed Goose, egrets, and distant Eastern Swamp Deer in Kaziranga National Park, India 
(All photos by Narca)

On this Naturalist Journeys tour, our first visit to Kaziranga National Park was in late afternoon, when the mellow, slanting light revealed vistas of a big, shallow lake, surrounded by patches of forest––and chock-a-block with Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros, small Hog Deer, rare Eastern Swamp Deer, massive Sambar deer, wild Asian Elephants, Wild Water Buffalos, and hidden Tigers. As the afternoon passed, the glow lighting the rhinos and the wildlife-filled lake intensified. 

From some vantage points, it was possible to count 20 or more rhinos! They waded far into the water, foraged on the shore, and haunted the thick brush. Alluvial grassland is their habitat of choice.

Alluvial grassland habitat in Kaziranga National Park

Once these rhinos ranged across the entire plain surrounding India’s major rivers––the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Indus––but now that range has dwindled to only 11 sites in northern India and southern Nepal. It’s thought that about 3000 of the animals remain. Over 70% of the entire population of this rhino lives at a single site, right here in Kaziranga National Park. We were privileged to witness this ancient beast, flourishing in its natural state.

A close Greater One-Horned Rhino, with attendant mynas

Another afternoon brought a very close encounter with a One-Horned Rhino, which seemed nervous at first, but then returned to its foraging. Not all are so easily soothed. Apparently rhino encounters support an entire local industry of fixing cars which have been damaged by their charges.

In addition to the magnificent rhinos, Kaziranga also holds thriving populations of wild Asian Elephants.

An Asian Elephant bull at Kaziranga National Park

An extended family of Asian Elephants, foraging in tall Elephant Grass

Deer diversity at Kaziranga is high, with three species.

 A small Hog Deer, one of three deer species at Kaziranga

The Eastern Swamp Deer, a recent split from Barasingha, is found only in swamp grasslands of the Indian state of Assam. It is even more endangered than the rhino. Until recently, this deer lived in several locales, but poaching extirpated all the populations away from Kaziranga. At the penultimate hour, a recovery plan for the deer was developed and implemented, and a herd of 19 deer was translocated to Manas National Park, later augmented by a herd of 17. Those translocated deer have survived at Manas, and their numbers were recently estimated to be 80-100.

 Smooth-coated Otters also lounge and play at the water's edge.

Smooth-coated Otters in Kaziranga

We climbed a tower to overlook some of the extensive wetlands.

Our leaders––Carlos Sanchez of Naturalist Journeys and Avijit Sarkhel of Vana Safaris––scope the wetlands from the tower.

Next installment: the birds of Kaziranga!

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