Kaziranga National Park in Assam is a haven for wildlife. The grasslands, marshes, and forests are inhabited by elephants, tigers, bison, hornbills, and hundreds of other species, many of them endangered. Among them is the star of the park — the greater one-horned or Indian rhinoceros.

Rhinos are Kaziranga’s biggest conservation success story. The park is one of four protected areas in Assam where rhinos live and thrive.The other reserves in Assam where rhinos are found are Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary near Guwahati city, Orang National Park, and Manas National Park. Interestingly, Kaziranga, Pobitora, and Manas are connected by a chain of riverine islands in the Brahmaputra. This enables the animals to traverse from one forest to the other, resulting in greater genetic diversity.

Kaziranga’s vegetation consists of woodland, and short and tall grasses. Tall ‘elephant’ grass dominates the landscape. This swaying grass provides fodder for large herbivores, and camouflage for predators and smaller animals alike.

Rhinos live off the forest, grazing mainly on tall grasses and drinking from the waters of the beels and rivers of the region. They feed mainly in the evenings and early mornings. They love to wallow in waterbodies and mud holes during the hottest part of the day. The folds in their thick skin allow them to retain some water and keep cool. Photo: Udayan Borthakur

Tourists arrive in Kaziranga between November and May keen to see this powerful but vulnerable armoured beast and other mega-fauna. As rhino numbers have increased, so has the inflow of tourism — over 75,000 tourists visit Kaziranga each year — which brings in revenue that is essential to the success of the park. Tourism that is well managed has the potential to keep this massive area of Assam a protected zone for the one-horned rhino and many other species that inhabit the park. Photo: Anuwar Ali Hazarika - CC BY-SA 4.0

Around February and March Kaziranga begins to get dry. Waterbodies dry up, grass is reduced to tinder, and the forest slowly turns from green to brown. At this time, the forest department undertakes a ritual burning of the dried grass, to make way for fresh growth for the herbivores. Rhinos are rarely harmed during this process. Understandably, this is a controversial practice. “Large mammals benefit from the practice,” explains Udayan Borthakur, conservation geneticist and photographer, “but smaller species like birds, turtles, and insects lose their homes and territories in the process. It is prioritising one species over others,” he says. Others claim it is a numbers game: More mega-fauna means more tourism, which means more funding, and greater acclaim for the government. Photo: Udayan Borthakur

Around mid-May the park closes to visitors. During the monsoon months of June to October the rain arrives in all its fury, and the Brahmaputra River is the highlight of local news and conversation. It begins to spill over into grasslands, villages, and small towns, submerging fields and homes in its vicinity. Flooding is a normal, natural part of the geography of Kaziranga. The Brahmaputra’s overflow is essential to the vitality of the park’s habitat. The floods deposit mineral-rich alluvial soil that facilitates growth of grasses and shrubs that herbivores feed on. In particularly bad flood years, villages around Kaziranga are evacuated. Despite preventive measures there if often loss of life, both human and animal. 
Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Around mid-May the park closes to visitors. During the monsoon months of June to October the rain arrives in all its fury, and the Brahmaputra River is the highlight of local news and conversation. It begins to spill over into grasslands, villages, and small towns, submerging fields and homes in its vicinity. Flooding is a normal, natural part of the geography of Kaziranga. The Brahmaputra’s overflow is essential to the vitality of the park’s habitat. The floods deposit mineral-rich alluvial soil that facilitates growth of grasses and shrubs that herbivores feed on. In particularly bad flood years, villages around Kaziranga are evacuated. Despite preventive measures there if often loss of life, both human and animal. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

When water levels rises exponentially, rhinos, elephants, deer, and other animals in the region move to the Karbi Anglong hills, which offer higher ground and some refuge from the floods. Unfortunately, there’s an important highway running through the area, and forming the southern border of the park — the only road connecting eastern Assam to the rest of the country. This road and the development and construction of buildings around Kaziranga has made it difficult for animals to cross into the hills safely. Occasionally, a confused and displaced rhino lands up on the main highway. It’s probably as frightened as the people it encounters. Photo 1: Dhritiman Mukherjee; Photo 2: Udayan Borthakur

The flooding can be especially confusing for a baby rhino, like this young male that was separated from his mother and found in the backyard of a village house in Kaziranga. Fortunately, it was rescued by a team from the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation, and fostered until the water level subsided. Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/IFAW-WTI

Fostering baby rhinos comes with its own complications. The young calves are fed formula milk meant for humans, as they cannot tolerate cow’s milk. They have to be monitored closely as they are prone to long periods of constipation. Some scientists also say that a rhino’s immune system, for both adults and young, is severely affected by the stress of displacement. Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/IFAW-WTI

Some rhinos are not fortunate enough to find their way to the hills or to a rescue centre. It’s not rare for families find themselves in a precarious situation, mothers and calves hanging on to dear life on a tiny strip of land, in an ocean of floodwater. Rhinos are at their most vulnerable during this time, not just from the flooding, but also from poaching, as the forest guards are unable to reach all areas of the park. These rhinos were photographed in the national park at the peak of the monsoon in 2017 when Kaziranga faced one of the worst floods the region had seen for decades. 
Photo: Debabrata Phukon

Some rhinos are not fortunate enough to find their way to the hills or to a rescue centre. It’s not rare for families find themselves in a precarious situation, mothers and calves hanging on to dear life on a tiny strip of land, in an ocean of floodwater. Rhinos are at their most vulnerable during this time, not just from the flooding, but also from poaching, as the forest guards are unable to reach all areas of the park. These rhinos were photographed in the national park at the peak of the monsoon in 2017 when Kaziranga faced one of the worst floods the region had seen for decades. Photo: Debabrata Phukon

The monsoon draws to a close by October and the water recedes. Rhinos and other animals that may have migrated to higher ground start to return to the grasslands. Kaziranga National Park reopens to the public in November. Rhino country is lush green, the waterbodies are full, and the weather is cool. The tourists return as well. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

With accessibility restored, the protectors of the rhino step up their vigilance. For now, the armoured unicorn of Kaziranga continues to survive and multiply. Photo: Udayan Borthakur

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