Searching for The Big Five / by David Johnstone

INTO ASSAM

Friday 30th to Tuesday 3rd April 2018

RECHARGING THE BATTERIES (LITERALLY)

It was sad leaving Dipu. He’s a great guy. By the time we left Daribokgre, the heavens opened spectacularly. Arriving back late into a pitch-black Tura, the power cut completely, we said our goodbyes at my simple homestay, the Shalom, and resolved to see each other again.

Come the morning after a hot, sticky night under the net but with nothing to power the fan, I got up around 4.30am dog-tired to pack my bags and head off. By 6.30am I was in a Sumo heading north to Guwahati in Assam, the largest state in the North East.

My room at the Ginger Hotel, Guwahati

My room at the Ginger Hotel, Guwahati

The Ginger Hotel on the outskirts of town was exactly what I needed to rest, get cleaned up, recharge the kit and relax. I had access to a driver to get me to and from the wine store, an excellent cafe serving great lattes and smoothies downstairs and a decent restaurant too. It was quiet, the staff where great and I was left in peace. It was the Easter weekend too but unlike Christian Meghalaya, the Assamese converted to Hinduism so there was little celebration.

 

Kaziranga National Park

Tuesday 3rd to Saturday 7th April 2018

Assam is known for it’s tea gardens - there’s a lot of them which I’ll come to in another post - along with the World Heritage Site of Kaziranga National Park, a 1000sqkm+ expanse of grassland home to a multitude of birds, reptiles and mammals, made famous by the now abundant One-Horned Rhino.

One-Horned Rhino

One-Horned Rhino

Once numbering just a few dozen animals when the park was established in 1908, there are now more than 2,400 of these majestic animals - two-thirds of the world’s population - a major conservation success in an increasingly bleak picture. It’s also home to the Asiatic Elephant (around 1.8k), Water Buffalo (1.7k) and the highest density of Royal Bengal Tiger found anywhere. Swamp Deer, again in high concentrations, make up the Big Five. With a mix of grassland (68%), woodland (28%) and water bodies (4%) one has a much greater chance to spot wildlife here than in the denser forests I visited in Meghalaya. It’s faintly reminiscent of the great savannah and grasslands of Africa in it’s faunal abundance.

Situated on the enormous Brahmaputra River dissecting Assam in two - it’s source at the Bhagirath Glacier in Tibet, eventually flowing into the Ganges Delta in the Bay of Bengal - the park makes up a tiny fraction of the once majestic Brahmaputra Valley ecosystem, eaten away by centuries of human impact. There remains only 5% of the great forests left, fragmented into a series of small national parks surrounded by agriculture and tea plantations.

I’d inadvertently chosen to stay some distance outside the park, an hour’s drive away in the town of Dergaon at the lovely Villa Shivalay and took a seven hour bus ride east from Guwahati to get there. I arranged everything at the homestay for my visit to the park a day later. It was considerably more costly than I’d hoped for (and should have been) but it’s a must-see destination. 

Access to the park is through 3 main gates: Bagori in the west, Kohora in the centre and Agrartuli to the east. With trekking strictly forbidden, the only way to explore is by elephant (2600 rupees / 30GBP) and jeep safari (4200rp / 45GBP). I decided to bite the bullet and hitch a ride with an elephant first thing, a jeep soon after then one more jeep ride in the afternoon. 

Straddling a full size elephant at 5.30 in the morning is something I’m new to and it was painful. After the one and a half hour safari I descended from the pachyderm as if I’d done the splits. But it was a lovely experience despite being with several groups of wealthy, elderly tourists (the ones with all the expensive and immaculately clean trekking gear).

We immediately encountered several Rhino in the long grass as Swamp Deer and Wild Boar grazed nearby. The place was replete with bird life too frequent to mention though I was happy to see Pallas Eagle, the rather forlorn-looking Lesser Adjutant and the Wooly-Necked Stork.

It felt like the Garden of Eden, a paradise for nature, how it was before, a place of quite wondrous beauty. By the time I’d finished the morning then afternoon jeep rides, I’d ticked off four of the Big Five, a herd of 20 or so Elephants lolling peacefully in the distance and a family of Water Buffalo. But not a Tiger in sight. The wait goes on.

A lone Elephant - my first sighting

A lone Elephant - my first sighting

Water Buffalo amidst burnt elephant grass - the park is managed to provide the best habitat for wildlife and is closed from May to November

Water Buffalo amidst burnt elephant grass - the park is managed to provide the best habitat for wildlife and is closed from May to November

SHOOT ON SIGHT. SHOOT TO KILL.

A herd of around 20 (distant) elephants

A herd of around 20 (distant) elephants

The reason I’ve no zoom lens is the reason I’ve no close up and personal shots of birds or mammals. And it’s the reason for not using my camera. I’m weighted down by it. Something that costs around 1.5-2k I barely use. Silly mistake. Instead I’m choosing to shoot on the iPhone 8 which is good enough though not my original intention. I’m no professional photographer and prefer shooting on a decent camera but I feel uncomfortable pointing a lens in front of less well-off people who I’ve only just met especially in the middle of nowhere and on my own. I shoot pictures just to tell a story.

Shooting is something the guards at Kaziranga are good at. They’re armed and deadly. Their policy to poachers is a simple one. We shoot to kill.

 

 Shooting is something the guards at Kaziranga are good at. They’re armed and deadly. Their policy to poachers is a simple one.

We shoot to kill.

 

The psychopaths that kill highly endangered animals or wilfully cut down their dwindling habitat for short term profit, without a care for the future, leave authorities with no choice but to implement brutal conservation measures.

The skull of a Rhino

The skull of a Rhino

It should have been done years ago. And the imbeciles who believe that using body parts like Rhino horn can give them certain powers may as well eat their own fingernails as that’s the equivalent mineral worth found in a Rhino horn,

Between 1980 and 2005, 567 Rhinoceroses were hunted by poachers. Since 2013, there’s been more poachers killed than Rhino. 

 

WILDERNESS RE-EVALUATED

Despite the hugely inflated cost, Kaziranga was a rewarding experience for the sheer quantity of wildlife visible.

But I have a gnawing doubt about it’s authenticity.

A park this size (and continuing to expand) faces not only threats from poaching and land degradation but risks losing the very nature of its wildness through human intervention and the subsequent wildlife habituation making the park feel like a zoo.

This is the future of our natural world sadly. Wild animals squeezed into shrinking pockets of land, nowhere else to go, completely reliant on the species that got them in this mess in the first place.

Wilderness in name only.