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Rhino sex and other tales
This is ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous, " announced our South African guest. "36 rhinos together. 36 rhinos. Just crazy. " But her delighted smile gave it all away. "You know, in South Africa, if we see one rhino on a game drive, we are so excited. If we see two, we are delirious. But 36. No one will ever, ever believe me. "
And back she went to her binoculars, doing a slow 360 degree sweep of the plain below us, where, indeed, 36 rhinos were having their breakfast, pretty much the way we were. Sitting high up in a machan in Kaziranga National Park in Assam, we were eating our standard game drive breakfast - hard-boiled eggs and cheese sandwiches.
After a dawn start, the hard-boiled eggs went down a treat. As did the fabulous spectacle of 36 rhinos, that were more spooked by an over-enthusiastic wild boar than by our jeep. The wild boar was clearly on its own trip, dashing in and out of the scattered small groups of rhinos, startling them as they chomped happily away. A timid herd of sambhar hovered on the edge of the scene, and as the sun rose higher, we reluctantly tore ourselves away from the rhinos, and carried on with our game drive.
Our final rhino tally, at the end of 5 days in Kaziranga, was a breath-taking 274 rhino sightings - and none of them was knowingly double-counted, I assure you. We were as scrupulous about that as is humanly possible.
This magnificent wilderness area in Assam is truly one of India's amazing places, teeming with game, and our annual pilgrimage there is sacrosanct, a time to rejuvenate the urban soul.
Kaziranga's 430 square kilometres are home to more than half of the world's population of one-horned rhinoceros. There are large herds of elephants and Asiatic wild buffaloes, as well as gaur, swamp deer, sambar and, always a thrill to see, the elusive tiger.
This year was our first time without a tiger sighting, but the rhinos and elephant sightings more than compensated. Rhinos mating is pretty special, let me tell you. Especially when the poor male, exhausted after doing what a rhino must do, had to keep chasing off other young males who were hanging around. Poor chap was dashing all over the place, grunting and snorting, and seeing off all the other Lotharios. Back he would trot to his beloved, only to find another young male rhino sidling up, and then the snorting and chasing would start all over again.
We sat fascinated for well over an hour, watching this noisy, sometimes intimate, drama unfold in front of our eyes. She munched and chomped most of the time, letting him do all the chasing and snorting.
This sighting had a happy ending, unlike a dramatic incident a couple of years ago, when we had witnessed firsthand the dedication and ingenuity of Forest Department officials in trying to save and protect the animals in their care.
We were on a game drive when we heard that a severely injured rhino was struggling for his life. This time the culprit was not a poacher's bullet but a tiger attack. A tiger had severely mauled a rhino and the poor creature, weakened by loss of blood, was unable to get out of the muddy, soggy ground. Injured and exhausted, the animal was slowly sinking into the mud.
A team of forest guards came with chains and a tractor and literally - and at some risk to their lives - attached a chain to the injured rhino and tried to haul him out with a tractor. The chain, however, slipped off the animal, who was too weak to do anything except lie there.
Undeterred, the guards then resorted to a completely different strategy: going perilously close to the injured animal they shouted at it, and literally tried to prise it out of the thick ooze with their long bamboo sticks, goading it into getting out off the mud itself.
The strategy worked. The animal finally managed to raise itself up enough for them to re-attach the chain and drag him out with the tractor. The poor animal later died, we heard, but the bravery of the guards was something to witness.
Recent statistics suggest that Kaziranga is currently home to 1, 855 of the world's estimated population of 2, 700 horned rhinos. On the positive side, this means that sightings are frequent and voluminous - you don't just see one solitary rhino, you see lots of family groups. The tragic downside, however, is that this large concentration of animals makes them a favourite target for poachers. Parks in India are not fenced, remember.
For generations, poachers have killed rhinos for their horn, which some people believe to have aphrodisiac qualities. The horns are also much in demand from the Middle East where they are turned into the handles of ornamental daggers.
The money involved is huge: once the horns are smuggled out of India, they can sell for anything up to Rs 1. 5 million per kilo. Kaziranga was declared a sanctuary in 1940 to counter excessive rhino poaching. Yet, sad to say, over 70 years later, rhino poaching is still a major issue.
Despite this worrying news, you are almost guaranteed rhino sightings.
A marvellous way to see the rhinos is atop an elephant. Every morning at dawn, the forest department organises elephant rides through the park. Wrapped up warm against the foggy winter's chill, you climb up on to the back of elephant, which then lumbers off into the tall grass. Clearly there is some tacit understanding between the rhinos and elephants because the former allow us (on elephant back, of course) to get extraordinarily close to them. You can photograph away to your heart's content, gazing down at these amazing animals from the safety of your elephant.
Sometimes young elephants accompany the trained elephants, trotting happily alongside, or stopping to eat and then running to catch up with their mother.
Or, in the case of one naughty little fellow this time, not catching up with his mother. He played and ran around so much, that, basically, he got lost. He then started howling, baby-ellie style. Lots of heart-rending trumpeting and squealing followed, which disturbed the other adult elephants so much that a mahout climbed down and tried to coax the baby to go back to the mounting point, where his mother was headed. Stubbornly refusing, the baby continued howling and trumpeting and sort of tagging along with our group of adult elephants. Suddenly, he spotted the mounting block, and galloped across the plain, and when we eventually arrived, he was happily scoffing bananas.
We took the same elephant two mornings in a row, and listened to the grumbles of the mahout. He told us that they often go for months without pay, and even after years of service, being treated as casual employees, they are not always entitled to benefits. How much of his moaning was true, there was no way of knowing, but it struck me that if India is serious about protecting its wildlife then holding back the pay of the men on the frontline - the mahouts and the rangers - makes no sense. These are the men who love and protect the park. They are the men who will face the better-armed, better-paid, better-equipped poachers.
That night, back at my lodge, I looked at the board they have on display, where all the names of rangers killed, whether by poachers or in animal attacks, are listed. These men really are the frontline troops.
FROM CHIP TO CUP
If lazing around is something you feel the urge to do on a holiday, that too can be done at Kaziranga. Home to flushing green tea gardens and now also one of India's most picturesque golf courses, Kaziranga has something for everyone. Located about an hour away from the national park, the Kaziranga Golf resort is the the world's first ever 'tea and golf' destination. The 18-hole golf course has been carved out amidst meandering tea gardens and even has a railway track right beside it just for that added drama. A double-sided driving range can cater to as many as 72 golfers at the same time hitting off natural grass and a massive chipping and putting green. Colonial bunglows have been refurbished and make for luxe accomodation.
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