One-horned specimens easy to spot in India national park

By Jean Pier
A male rhino commandeers the park road. Armed guards accompany jeep safaris to protect visitors from rampaging animals. JEAN PIER / SPECIAL TO THE EXPRESS-NEWS
A male rhino commandeers the park road. Armed guards accompany jeep safaris to protect visitors from rampaging animals. JEAN PIER / SPECIAL TO THE EXPRESS-NEWS

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Location: Central part of Indian state of Assam
More info:
Getting there: JetLight and JetAirways are two airlines that fly from Kolkata to Jorhat Airport, 53 miles from the park. Contact the park about bus and rail service.
When to go: The park is open to visitors Nov. 1-April 30. The best time to visit is from December through April as visibility of animals improves after the grassland burning. The park is crowded during the Christmas/New Year’s holiday period.
GUWAHATI, India — Seeing a rhino in the wild isn't exactly easy. I know. I have visited some of the best rhino haunts in Africa and have not had even a distant glimpse of one.
But if you're willing to settle for one horn instead of two, there is a place in India where rhino sightings are almost guaranteed.
Kaziranga National Park is approximately 720 miles northeast of Kolkata (Calcutta) in the Indian state of Assam. It lies in the flood plain of the Brahmaputra River, which meanders lazily across the central valley of Assam after a torturous descent from the Tibetan Himalayas.
The spring snow melt and summer monsoon bring yearly floods to Kaziranga that enrich its grasslands and tropical forests, enabling the park to support healthy populations of Bengal tigers, elephants, various deer, wild water buffalo, boar, monkeys, reptiles and birds (both migratory and local). The park's most famous resident is the Great Indian one-horned rhinoceros, which is every bit as big and burly as its African cousins.
Like African rhinos, the Indian rhino has been hunted extensively for its horn, which is still prized in the Chinese and Vietnamese medicinal trade. Early in the 20th century, fewer than 200 Indian rhinos survived in northeast India and lowland Nepal. Today, through habitat preservation and protection from hunting, that population has risen to more than 2,800. Seventy percent of these animals are in Kaziranga.
Our first Kaziranga safari was to the west end of the park in an open jeep that collected us from the Wild Grass Lodge around 2:30 p.m. We popped into the back of the jeep, which had facing bench seats, unpadded roll bars, and no seat belts. This was one of those times you just have to accept that if your time has come to exit this life, then so be it! We had come to see rhinos and subliminal messages from the National Safety Council about the dangers of riding in this vehicle were not going to stop us.
After a 30-minute drive along Assam's “major” highway, we arrived at the western gate to the park. Unlike other Indian wildlife parks we have visited, we were required to take an armed guard with us into the park.
His job was to protect us from any animals that should charge our jeep. The policy is to shoot over the animal three times, and if it continues to charge, shoot to kill.
I hoped the guards were good at this routine because rhinos can run very fast and I didn't relish the thought of a dying rhino in my lap.
It is almost impossible to avoid seeing a rhinoceros in Kaziranga — they are everywhere: robust males, moms with young, and just ordinary rhinos.
They can be spotted threading the tall elephant grasses or just strolling down the road. At the end of the day, we had seen so many rhinos, we gave up counting them. We had also seen elephants, buffalo and many deer. Kaziranga was alive with animals. Standing in the jeep as we drove back to the gate in the setting sun, my spirits soared with the warm wind. How lucky we were to be in this special place.
At 5:45 the next morning, hot chai was delivered to our room to fortify us for our elephant safari. Our jeep was waiting in the predawn fog to take us to the central park entrance, which was only a short ride from our lodge.
We joined the other safari members at the elephant boarding platform, a raised area accessed by steps that enables riders to step directly onto the elephant. This is the first time we have ridden astride an elephant, which is a rather uncomfortable position for folks unaccustomed to doing the splits. Our convoy comprised eight elephants, each carrying a mahout (driver), who sat on the elephant's neck and gave it commands, and two or three riders, who straddled a long saddle affair strapped to the elephant's back.
An armed guard rode along on one of the elephants, but I am not sure how much he could protect us from charging rhinos or leaping tigers as we were soon widely dispersed in the fog, appearing like shadowy beings gliding over the elephant grass on magic carpets.
In contrast to jeep safaris, elephant safaris are not confined to roadways and are better accepted by the wild animals as a natural part of their environment. This allows riders to observe the park's fauna at close range without disturbing them. Thus, one can stroll beside a rhino for awhile or stand in the midst of a herd of endangered swamp deer and watch the young males butt heads.
We returned to the lodge via a dirt road that traversed a long string of tidy small farms. This was a pleasant change from the highway and an opportunity to see life around the park. We were welcomed by smiling adults and laughing children who all wanted their picture taken. I felt like we were as much of a novelty to them as the rhinos were to us.
Behind the smiles and laughter, controversy is brewing over Kaziranga's recent designation as “critical tiger habitat.'' Kaziranga's rich environment presently supports more tigers per square mile than any other protected area in India. The new designation would require acquisition of more land to increase the size of the park and the closing of large sectors of the park to tourists. Although these changes may benefit the tiger, the locals believe they will suffer as many may be forced off their land. Tourism, which supports their economy, may be reduced.
Our last safari was an afternoon jeep tour of the eastern end of the park. In contrast to the western sector, the eastern sector, also a 30-minute highway drive from our lodge, is primarily lush jungle abutting the Brahmaputra River. It has abundant animals, including rhinos, but is noted for its river dolphins and rich birdlife. Returning to the lodge in darkness, we were followed most of the way by a wildly honking SUV over-stuffed with an exuberant wedding party.
Our toast over a Kingfisher beer that evening was especially joyful. We had survived our last jeep ride and had seen enough rhinos to last a lifetime. Who cares if they only had one horn?
Jean Pier is a freelance writer based in Sequim, Wash. Email