Sunday, March 30, 2014

Tigers on the Edge

Greetings All,
After leaving Manus National Park we drove about 7 hours east to Kaziranga National Park.  I couldn't believe the heavy truck and bus traffic along National Highway 37 which parallels the southern boundary of the Park.  All along the route were signs telling motorists to slow down as they were approaching a wildlife corridor.

Road Sign on National Highway 37

Speed bumps or breakers were also installed to slow vehicles down but the buses just cruised over them.  Elephants do leave the park to travel into the forested hills in the south.  I couldn't imagine hitting an elephant while traveling in a car.  Along such a busy highway Greater One-horned Rhinos and Swamp Deer were peacefully grazing.

Greater One-horned Rhinos and a Swamp Deer along NH 37

The next morning we headed out on our first safari into the park.  Kaziranga is a vast expanse of tall elephant grasslands interspersed with tropical moist deciduous and semi-evergreen forests.  There are many bodies of water in the park including the mighty Brahmaputra River which defines the northern boundary of the Park.   Kaziranga boasts the highest density of tigers  in the world but they were proving to be difficult to spot in the tall elephant grass.  Our driver Nekib and guide Gajendra spotted one slinking through the grass but Marc and I could not see her.  We drove down the road hoping to see her as she crossed.  We parked on a bridge and waited.  Marc and Gajendra were looking to the left and I to the right.  Nekib went behind the jeep to take a pee break and as he was returning he exclaims with a muffled shout "Tiger, Tiger!".  She crossed the road right in front of us but we didn't see her.  I couldn't believe that we missed her twice!  We continued to wait hoping she'd show herself a third time when Gajendra spotted her going back across the road.  Finally we all got a good view.

Female Tiger Crossing the Road!

Amazingly, she revealed herself a fourth time while crossing a small wetland.  What luck to get two views of one of Kaziranga's elusive tigers!

Female Tiger Crossing a Wetland

It was getting dark and it was time to leave the park.  Just outside the entrance gate is the bustling town of Kohora.  It's hard to believe that a tiger was on the prowl just a mile away.

Town of Kohora at the Entrance to the Park

The next morning we went on an elephant safari.  It's a great way to see the sunrise and to get close to some animals.  We did encounter two wild male elephants but they wanted nothing to do with their domestic cousins and hightailed it out of the area.


Wild Asiatic Elephants

The Greater One-horned Rhinos were much more tolerant.  They allowed us to get very close.

Viewing Rhinos from an Elephant Safari

One of the other mahouts or elephant riders took my camera so he could photograph us photographing the rhinos.

Us on an Elephant Safari

Kaziranga harbors a staggering 2300+ rhinos, an amazing accomplishment since they were all but extinct by the early 1900's.  Rhino poaching still occurs today but on a much smaller scale.  Nekib told us that 23 rhinos were poached last year.  Rhinos are poached for their horns and the more recent demand is being driven by an unsubstantiated rumor that rhino horn cured cancer in a high ranking official of Vietnam. 

At the end of our elephant safari I got to make friends with one of the elephant calves accompanying his mom on safari.  He was more interested in making friends with Marc who was trying to take his picture.

My New Friend

Little did we know that just on the other side of the road another tiger encounter would take place later that morning.  Right now the area was chaotic with people, elephants and jeeps.

Crowd at the end of the Elephant Safari

We were doing a jeep safari after our elephant ride when we got the call that a tiger had been spotted by the entrance to the park.  We raced off to the location but by the time we arrived he had already moved off.  We decided to wait along the road listening for deer alarm calls to alert us to the tiger's presence.  We heard some calls near a dam that was just across the road from where the elephant safari had ended earlier that morning.  Amazingly a large male tiger appeared on a dirt track just above the dam!

A Male Tiger Emerges
 
We waited for him to come out but more jeeps passed by and scared him back into the forest.  We returned to the area 25 minutes later to see if he would show himself.  Lo and behold, he gingerly crossed the water behind the dam and disappeared into the forest on the other side!

Male Tiger Crossing a Pond
  
We waited for him to reappear and Marc spotted him along the road looking for an opportunity to cross.

Male Tiger Wanting to Cross the Road

He finally got up the courage and crossed the road with a snarl!

Male Tiger Crossing the Road!

On the drive back we stopped at a lookout tower and two jeeps full of high school students from Gujarat (a state on the northwest coast of India) pulled up.  They were very excited.  Had they spotted a tiger?  It turns out they were excited about seeing us!  Each one wanted their photo taken next to us.  This is the first time on safari that I was photographed more than the animals.  Marc went up into the tower and left me with the kids.  They waited to look through my binoculars.  It was a bit unnerving as I feared they might drop them in their excitement to get a turn.

High School Students Waiting to look through my Binoculars

Not all of Kaziranga's endangered inhabitants are as charismatic as the rhino or tiger but they are still great to see.  A group of endangered Assam Roofed Turtles were sunning themselves on a log in the river.

Assam Roofed Turtles

On our last safari Nekib spotted two Smooth-coated Otter pups before they disappeared into a small pond.  We drove to a lookout tower on the other end of the pond to see if we could spot them again.  Marc was trying to get my attention to let me know they had left the water and were walking along the base of the tower.  The park ranger accompanying us got excited.  He had never seen the otters so close.  They crossed the road and disappeared in the forest beyond.

Smooth-coated Otter Pups

Smooth-coated Otters are listed as vulnerable due to loss of their wetland habitat.   Near sunset we approached two elephant cows with a calf on the road.

Elephant Cows with Calf on the Road

At first they were curious but after a few minutes one of the cows became impatient with our intrusion and mocked charged us!  Time to leave the park.

An Elephant Cow Mock Charges Us

The last stop on our Assam wildlife quest was the Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary.  Located about a 2-hour drive from Kaziranga, the sanctuary protects 7 primate species.  The most well-known is the endangered Western Hoolock Gibbon, India's only ape.  Unfortunately, it was raining and made spotting the Gibbons more difficult.  Not only are Gibbons less active when it rains but the leeches start to come out.  I was willing to brave the leeches to see this endangered primate but only after coating my feet, socks and sneakers with DEET.  It took a while but our guide finally spotted a lone male and then a family of five gibbons high up in a tree.


Male Western Hoolock Gibbon


Male and Female Western Hoolock Gibbons 

We were also fortunate to see Pig-tailed Macaques.  They braved the rain to feed on fruit in the trees.


Pig-tailed Macaque

What a fitting end to our one-week wildlife odyssey in Assam!  It's easy to see why Assam is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots.  We feel privileged to have the ability to visit such an amazing place and commend the Indian government for their efforts to protect it for future generations.

We hope all is well back home.
Marc and Peggy 

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