Great Indian one-horned rhinoceros graze peacefully along the
Brahmaputra River here, wallowing and sometimes swimming in the
cool water on hot days. They are unknowingly indebted to a
British noblewoman for the beautiful national park where they
came back from the edge of extinction.
Indian rollers are often unnoticed perching motionless in open country until a frog, butterfly or large
insect is spotted. Then with an explosion of flashing blue wings, purple breast and throat and turquoise
crown, lower wings and tail the roller takes out in pursuit. Females get a similar show with different
purpose when males perform rolling courtship flights for which they are named, flying steeply upward,
then banking and spiraling downward. Pure white eggs are laid in a tree-hole to which the pair may
return yearly, anywhere from Iraq and Iran through Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Southeast Asia, Tibet,
and parts of China.
Lady Curzon learned from tea plantation friends in 1904 that
only about a dozen remained of these prehistoric-looking
two-ton (almost 2,000-kg) beasts up to 13.3 feet (4 m) long,
whose deeply folded gray skin makes them look as if they
are wearing coats of armor. Once thousands roamed the
Indo-Gangetic plains. (Marco Polo thought when he saw them in
1271 he had found the fabled unicorn.) Tea clearing had wiped
out many of them; merciless shooting had done the rest. Lady
Curzon told her husband something had to be done and in 1905,
this inviting riverine forest and grassland was set aside for
them; shooting was banned in 1908.
Now Kaziranga National Park is a U.N World Heritage Site,
261 square miles (675 km2) in the Assam district of northeast
India, protecting the world’s largest population (at
recent count 1,129) of these great, lumbering but agile
creatures which can trot along at 20–25 miles an hour
(35–40 kmh). In the process many other species were saved
as well, including more than a dozen of India’s most
threatened mammals and some near-extinct bird species.
Tigers and leopards find shelter and food, sharing the mixed
short and tall grasses and woods along the Brahmaputra River
with capped langurs, hoolock gibbons, leopards, and the sambar,
swamp, hog, and muntjac or barking deer. If hungry enough,
tigers will even take on formidable wild boars or water buffalo
(largest herd in India is here). Working as a team, tigers have
even brought down enormous gaurs—largest Asian oxen, up
to 11 feet (3.3 m) long, 7.2 feet (2.2 m) high at the
shoulder—or, rarely, a young Indian elephant.
Gray pelicans have a noisy nesting colony, and more than 300
other bird species find permanent or seasonal homes, some from
as far away as Siberia. In moist forests are green imperial
pigeons and multihued peacock-pheasants, around the river
lesser adjutant and black-necked storks, and overhead,
Pallas’ and gray-headed fish-eagles. At recent count some
25 Bengal floricans were here.
Insectivorous sloth bears work on termite mounds. Gangetic
dolphins streak through river waters where dragon-like,
yellow-spotted black monitors up to eight feet (almost 3 m)
long are propelled by rudder-like tails at a more stately pace.
Playful otter families enliven interconnecting streams and
numerous small lakes or “bheels.”
King cobras, world’s largest venomous snakes up to 18
feet (5+ m) long, make brushy nests, leading secretive woodland
lives—luckily, since their bite can kill an elephant in a
few hours, a human in 15 minutes.
Kaziranga is flooded every year when the Brahmaputra River
overflows during monsoon rains from June to September. Formerly
many animals drowned, but islands have been built where they
now can safely retreat during rising water. Poachers still kill
rhinos every year to satisfy a demand for horns (not true horns
but compressed keratin and hair) used in high-status dagger
handles or ground up for aphrodisiacs and other Oriental folk
medicines to treat ailments from strokes and convulsions to
nosebleeds. Rhinos’ regular habits, using the same paths
every day, make them easy prey for pit traps or ambush
shooting. But determined efforts on several fronts
(including shoot-to-kill orders to rangers) have been
effective. Demand is gradually decreasing, rhino numbers
Many South and Southeast Asian countries have banned trade
in rhino products. The World Wide Fund for Nature has funded
anti-poaching units. The Rhino Foundation for Northeast India
has provided guards’ supplies. Kaziranga is now
considered the safest homeland for Rhinoceros unicornis,
and a landmark in India’s conservation history.
Another rhino problem poses special difficulty—how to
protect these vulnerable, shortsighted vegetarians against an
increasing number of encounters with an equally endangered and
more dangerous animal, the rhino’s arch-enemy in the
natural world: tigers.
Best times are November–March, mild and dry, becoming
warmer, more humid as May–September monsoons approach.
Park is closed May–October.
Best way to move around the park is by elephant, which can
be hired at Mihimukhi (book ahead).