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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : June 2000 : Land of the rhinos

Land of the rhinos

By Rob Penn
The Times (London)
June 17, 2000

- IT TOOK precisely ten minutes atop an elephant in Kaziranga National Park before I came face to face with a one-horned rhinoceros which eyed my mount and me through the morning mist with a steady, slightly psychotic gaze before turning his armour-plated rump away. I was feeling quite satisfied with the excursion when my mahoot waved his spike to indicate several more rhino surrounding us.

Sixty-five per cent of the existing population of the great Indian one-horned rhino lives here in Kaziranga. They are one of the most endangered species in the world and the park is fundamental to their survival.

"The late 1980s and early 1990s were a bad time for rhinos," BS Bonal, the park director since 1996, told me. "Poaching was heavy, but we now have 130 manned poaching camps throughout the park and we have taken the lead in anti poaching. The rhino population has increased 40 per cent in the past five years."

The park has natural as well as human foes. Every year the waters of the Brahmaputra flood, swelling the bheels, or shallow lakes, with water, forcing the animals to the high ground. "You can't think of Kaziranga without the monsoon floods," Bonal said. "They restock the bheels with fish, replenish water supplies and cull some of the old animals. But high floods, like 1998 and 1999, are hell."

In 1998, a serious flood killed many animals, including 39 rhinos, and destroyed the core of the anti-poaching infrastructure within the park. A financial crunch in the past few years meant that it took the park until the end of 1999 to recover completely. There is now an emergency plan that will operate when serious flooding occurs.

I visited Kaziranga in February - a good time as the burning back of elephant grass made the game more visible, the wild cotton trees were in glorious red bloom and the weather was mild: cold at night with English summer days. I found organising safaris chaotic - but, at the crumbling park HQ, I was swept up by a Jeep-load of Indian tourists in their winter mufti and taken to Kohora gate for the dawn elephant ride.

There are three ranges in the park. The central Kohora range has the greatest game concentration, but the other two have more birds, fewer people and a different balance of grassland and deciduous forest.

In the Angartoli range, my ranger, Budha Hati Baruwa, and I sharpened our wits when a rhino, half-submerged in a bheel, tried to charge us. We saw a community of more than 150 birds, including pelicans and adjutant storks, fishing together, we watched otters, and we tried in vain to find a tiger - although we found paw marks in the sand and a buffalo carcass, there was no sign of that big striped cat.

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