Back to India!…After our wonderful Christmas in Meghalaya, we and Gavin, said our goodbyes to his parents and headed to the neighboring Northwest state of Assam. Here, we had one plan, to visit Kaziranga National Park, which is famous for its Rhino Safaris. Once again, Gavin and his mother had taken all of the pain out of planning our excursion, and had booked us two nights in a “fancy-for-us” resort. We briefly watched a local Assamese dance and music performance, before partaking in an ah-mazing feast of fish and vegetarian Assamese cuisine, which featured dishes cooked in bamboo joints and sour tangy sauces. It was so damn tasty, that we returned to the same restaurant our second night.
Early in the morning, with the sun just rising, and mist still on the neighboring, yellow-flowering, mustard fields, we headed to the meeting point for safari number one. We were all bundled for the morning chill, giddy with excitement. Stella and Gabriel were particularly thrilled because this safari would take place upon the backs of elephants! Bushes slowly parted as drivers directed almost a half-dozen Asian elephants through the fog and toward our group and the raised embarking platform. We experienced immediate awe at the sheer size and magnificence of these creatures, reflecting on how they evoke thoughts of dinosaurs and prehistoric ages. Following our trained escorts, were the baby offspring of the herd, adorably curious little pachyderms who were free to move about where they pleased. They approached the humans in their midst with feeling trunks and inquisitiveness. Our kids (and Dan) were delighted to pet them and shake a trunk, as they roamed around our group, never too far from their mamas.
Once we had all boarded the backs of these mastodons, our trek into asian/indian rhinoceros territory began. Some quick facts to share: The greater one-horned rhino which is featured in Kaziranga, was nearing extinction when a successful conservation effort boosted their numbers substantially. There are now over 3500 of these mammoths in India alone, with Kaziranga as home to two-thirds of the entire world population of rhinos!!! Although there are still poaching concerns, as long as there is a black market for their horns, another major threat is human encroachment on their habitat. Unfortunately, Rhinos are considered an extremely dangerous mammal, with several people dying from attacks each year in Asia. Usually, any safari to see these animals would be from the safety of a car, at a fair distance. However, elephants and rhinoceros have a healthy respect for each other, without any true social mingling, which allows them to coexist with close proximity. By riding atop a tusker, we were able to get very close to multiple rhinoceros, including their youth. We were also able to see them well above the high grasslands as opposed to them being hidden from our view.
It truly was an amazing experience, which made our jeep safari, later that day, pale in comparison. Overall, we must have seen over 20 rhinos, many up close, in addition to water buffalo, a vulture, many marshland birds, and deer. Thankfully, we never encountered a tiger, unlike an unlucky group of forest rangers.
*We did question the ethics of riding an elephant on safari. I must be honest and report that we did not do any advance research as to how these particular elephants are treated. I do not know if they are overworked, physically abused, chained up in tight quarters, or given the best nutrition and medical attention. We, like many others, sought our own excuses to permit the experience. I.E. We argued that “how different or ethical is it to ride a horse?”, and concluded that if we would do one, why not the other. I do have to say that I never watched the drivers strike the animals with a bull hook, and that there were no sores on their ankles that might indicate chained captivity. I was also heartened by the fact that the elephant babies joined our expedition without riders, and freedom to mill about and choose their own encounters with humans. I don’t claim to have made the right choice, but will now leave that argument to others.