Squat rhinos peep from the tall elephant grass, as swamp deer gaze lazily at elephants carrying fascinated tourists. Kaziranga Tiger Reserve offers a unique experience: it is the best place in the country to see the highly endangered one-horned great Indian rhinoceros in the wild, since two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhino population lives here. While the armoured mammals are the main attraction, many birds and animals can be spotted through the dense vegetation, including the wild Asiatic water buffalo, Bengal tiger, hog deer, and Assam roofed turtle.
The Kaziranga Tiger Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is made up of three ranges, the Eastern (Agaratoli), Western (Bagori) and Central (Kohora). While the Central Range is most popular with tourists, the rugged Eastern and Western Ranges are preferred by serious birders and wildlife enthusiasts. Tea plantations surround the reserve, making the drive to and around it extremely green and calming. Apart from a tiny market, there is little activity in the areas around the reserve. This is a blessing for people who want to spend quality time with each other.
The number of tigers (top left) in the reserve is estimated to be around 100; Jeep safaris may not be the best way to spot the one-horned rhino, but are good for elephant (top right), water buffalo and deer sightings; Otters (bottom right) are aquatic animals that are very playful and most active at dawn and dusk; Kaziranga’s dedicated forest guards (bottom left) run 122 anti-poaching camps in the park and play a crucial role in its conservation. Photos: Steve Winter/National Geographic/Getty Images (tiger, otters & guards); Nigel Pavitt/AWL Images/Getty Images (elephant)
Sitting on an elephant offers a more immersive safari experience than being in a jeep. Elephants can walk through the marshes and into dense forests, making you feel like a part of the forest. The Central Range elephant ride is managed by the forest department and is recommended. The elephants go through months of training before they can carry tourists, and the mahouts are experienced and well informed about the animals in this reserve. Security personnel monitor the rides through this forest, which is more diverse than the Western Range.
Rides in the Western Range are privately managed. But because the elephants aren’t put through any formal training, foreign tourists are not allowed here: evidently, it’s perfectly acceptable for Indians to have to face the risks. This ride is not recommended as the elephants here sometimes have wounds, and mahouts may be inexperienced. Hotels tend to send tourists to the Western Range, but do take the extra effort to head to the Central Range instead.
A yellow-crested eagle picks up its prey. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee
After the elephant ride, the jeep safari can be quite underwhelming. Don’t do this safari to spot animals: do it for a rare moment of cruising through dense forests in an open jeep and to enjoy fresh air. The safaris can be booked from all hotels.
The Central Range safari is the most popular choice of jeep safari and has a well-marked route and almost-smooth road. Rhinos, wild buffaloes, and deer may be spotted during this ride but the numbers are very low. Since this route is heavily visited, birds stay away from the noise. The Eastern and Western Range safaris, on the other hand, are wilder. It takes a rather bumpy jeep ride to get to these sides of the reserve but it is well worth the trouble. Both ranges have few tourists. Despite the bumpy rides, birders prefer these ranges because of the greater variety of birds, including bar-headed geese, black-necked storks, spot-billed ducks, and pelicans.
The Dhansiri Eco Camp arranges a three-hour boat ride through the reserve. It’s a great opportunity to spot water birds in the Brahmaputra and small mammals on the banks. Look for deer, water buffaloes and turtles. The river is quite slow moving and the ride is easy and relaxing, perfect for bird and animal photography (98590 50752; ₹2,000 for a boat that fits 5).
Tigers are rarely visible but pugmarks and bark scratches are commonly seen. Photo: Michael Nichols/National Geographic/Getty Images
There is a strip of around 60 hotels and resorts near the Central Range of the forest. Most of these are walking distance from the Kohora town market, which has basic grocery stores and ATMs. The strip is well planned and quite crowded in season.
Aranya Lodge This well-priced government lodge is a no-frills hotel, but it has all the basic requirements of clean airy rooms, hot and cold water and a decent restaurant.
Bon Habi Just a short walk from the Kohora market, Bon Habi is made up of 14 cottages. Each cottage is named after a National Park and has a view of the fields nearby. The staff is friendly, the bathrooms are big, and there is enough garden space for the kids to run around (03776-262675; doubles ₹1,840).
Wildgrass This lodge is extremely popular with backpackers for its affordable price and comfortable arrangements. The staff has been around for ages and is well informed about the animals, birds and plants in the reserve. The lawns are idyllic and have hammocks and comfortable lawn chairs strewn around, perfect for lazing around after a full day in the forest (99544 16945; doubles from ₹2,450, includes breakfast).
The hotels far from the resort strip offer close proximity to forested areas, but also involve longer jeep rides and lack convenience stores within walking distance.
Dhansiri Eco Camp Huts here are made of bamboo and raised five feet above ground level. This camp is owned by wildlife filmmaker Goutom Saikia and his films are screened in the evening. In an effort to be eco-friendly, it doesn’t have electricity. Instead, Saikia has created his own battery that he charges on his safari jeep during rides. At night, it powers the small bulbs in the rooms (www.kazirangaeco.in; 98590 50752; doubles from ₹1,000).
Spring Valley Resort This resort doesn’t require guests to rough it out. It has hot water and televisions, but what sets it apart is a location that is far from the crowds, in the western range (99575 77471; doubles from ₹4,200).
Many eco-resorts around the area mimic traditional houses of the Mising tribe which are built on bamboo stilts. Photo: Nigel Pavitt/AWL Images/Getty Images
Kaziranga National Park is located in the north of Assam, near the border of Arunachal Pradesh.
Air Jorhat (97 km) and Guwahati (230 km) are the closest airports. Guwahati is connected to more cities, including Kolkata and Delhi. There are daily flights from Kolkata to Jorhat. Taxis can be hired from both airports.
Rail The closest train station is Furkating (75 km), which is connected to Guwahati, Dibrugarh, Kolkata and Delhi.
Road There are regular buses from Paltan Bazaar in Guwahati to Kaziranga. Taxis to Kaziranga can also be rented from Guwahati and Jorhat airport, train station or city centre.
The park is only open from November to May. The entire National Park and many villages nearby are completely flooded by the overflowing Brahmaputra River for five months of the year. Visitors must check with hotels on operating dates because they change a little every year.
Appeared in the October 2012 as “The Wild Way”.
Gangetic river dolphin. Photo: Dhiraj Kakati
The rare Gangetic river dolphin (which is also found in the Brahmaputra) can sometimes be spotted on boat rides here. These are the only blind dolphins in the world. They catch their prey by emitting ultrasonic waves that bounce back from surrounding objects to allow the dolphin to create images of its environs. They spend most of their time in deep murky water, but pay close attention to the water surface during the boat ride and you may see some bob up for a few seconds.
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