“Tomorrow we’ll see the rhinos up close”, said my guide, Sanjoy. We were in a jeep, ambling down the road bordering the Kaziranga Wildlife Preserve in northeastern India. Elephant, wild buffalo and tigers roam this 260 square mile preserve of tall grasses, marshes and the mighty Brahmaputra river, but the prize sight was the rare Indian one-horned rhino, brought back from near extinction in the last 100 years.
Kaziranga, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, is in the province of Assam, which is unfamiliar even to most Indians. It lies in the un-touristy northeast of India, near Bangla Desh and Myanmar. Half the tea in India comes from this area, but it has only been open to tourists since l995 because of separatist violence. But here all is peaceful and lovely. In the summer, orchids, sprout from trunks, I saw mango, tamarind, teak and pepper trees. Bird watchers are drawn to the 500 species of birds, including the rare hornbill. The birds here tend to be big: egrets, herons, storks, fish-eating eagles and pelicans.
If there is any danger it comes from poachers who kill the rhino for its mythically potent aphrodisiacal horn (even in this age of Viagra). Powder made from the horn is worth two to three times the price of gold, and the animal’s skin, fat and even dung are sold. That’s why the other guy in the jeep is carrying a rifle. If anyone is heartless or desperate enough to poach a rare one-horned rhino, they are warned; if they persist, they are shot. End of story.
It was almost the end of the rhino story a century ago. In 1905, Lady Curzon, wife of the then British Viceroy to India, visited the area, expecting to view the great Rhino. What she saw was a few hoof prints. Fast forward a century, into one of conservation’s greatest success stories. Now the rhino population has grown to l600, by far the largest in the world.
The best way to see the one-horned rhino is up close – and high – from the back of an elephant. And a big part of the Kaziranga story is about elephants. Wild ones in the game preserve, and tame ones who carry passengers while the driver, or mahout, sits on the elephant’s neck. At first I was wary – tamed suggested abused. But in the land of the elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesh, elephants are regarded with a certain reverence; these elephants, at least, are treated decently and not overworked. Young ones keep close to their mothers, some trotting after them on the rhino-viewing rides.
It starts at five and six in the morning; when everything, including the distant Himalayas, are covered in mist. There are several tourist lodges and guesthouses in the area. I stayed at the Aranya, large and somewhat spartan. I awoke to the soft knock on the door and was served tea. Then I was driven to the outskirts of the preserve. Except for one British bird watcher I was the only non-Indian. .We waited around while the elephants, looking ghostly in the dim light, were saddled. Then we walked up the stairs onto a bare concrete viewing platform and climbed onto the elephant’s back. It felt like a very large horse – with a very primitive saddle.
From my perch high up on the SUV of the animal kingdom, I was above the tall grasses and could see the plains beyond. And then the heart-pounding first sight of the prehistoric-looking rhino. There he was, with his skin looking like droopy pieces of armour. We got so close that I could see his rheumy eyes and grumpy expression. Munching on the tall grass (rhinos are vegetarians), he didn’t seem to mind the elephants moving closer. Then we saw another rhino and another, a group of them chewing like cattle. And then out of the mist appeared wild buffalo, with their large horns in the shape of handlebar moustaches. There were deer, too. In this other-worldly garden of Eden, all the animals seemed to co-exist peacefully. Even the humans were benign, silently aiming their cameras.
The rhino is formally called rhinoceros unicornis, and there are some interesting links to the fabled white unicorn. The one-horned animal was first depicted in the earliest Mesopotamian pictorial art thousands of years ago. It was referred to in myths of India and China. When Marco Polo, the famous 13th century traveller who visited Asia, wrote about the unicorn, he was probably writing about the great Indian Rhinoceros.
Whether or not I was seeing what Marco Polo saw, getting up close to the one-horned rhino was like travelling back thousands of years into the past.