Battle of Tusker and Unicorn

Bright sunny day after previous night’s downpour illuminated the jungle with many shades of green. Only tall Kapok (Semal) trees alongside the road were whiter than green. Occasional wind was spreading its white fiber but was unable to overcome the glistening green color of the carpet beneath.

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Situated on the floodplains of the Brahmaputra, and home to the largest population of One-horned Rhinos, Kaziranga is regarded as the Serengeti of India. India’s largest mammal Asiatic Elephant and second largest One-horned Rhino share a large ground here.

May month in Kaziranga is considered beginning of the Monsoon, and sometimes these pre-monsoon shower converts into a never-ending pitter-patter. I was somewhat prepared with my new poncho and lens covers, but I was constantly hoping for at least one or two days of clear sky.

My guide and companion Gokul, a grounded fellow and master of one liner introduced our gypsy driver Ashok by saying: “He was born in this gypsy and he could drive gypsy in reverse for kilometers without even looking into the rear mirror”. Ashok just grinned. With these fellows around only task left for me was to enjoy jungle and look for an opportunity to capture few frames.

After crossing Mori River we were driving slowly by the side of Sohola beel, which is a prime birding location in Agaratoli range and never disappoint any birder. The wetland had an assortment of ducks, waders, egrets, cormorants, storks and raptors. An Indian Roller was making short flights to catch insects and then it was coming back to the same branch.

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A sub-species (Coracias benghalensis affinis) of Indian Roller in found in north-eastern region of India. With slightly large size, un-streaked face and deeper shade of blue in the under-wing coverts, this looks more beautiful than the variety found in peninsular India.

Gokul tapped the back of Ashok to stop the vehicle; he does that only when he senses something unusual. I still remember my first meeting with him, and how he followed his sixth sense to track one tigress when rest of us was having a completely different opinion.

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Tiger sighting in Kaziranga is less frequent as compare to other parks in India. With some good tracking skills you may find them in their absolute pristine environment. This female tiger was from my previous visit and my first tiger in Kaziranga.

Ashok pulled the gypsy under the shade of a large tree. A curious swamp deer who was constantly watching us panicked and fled away.

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Ashok switched-off the engine, and now there was pin-drop silence in the jungle.

Three of us were vigilant and started scanning the area. Gokul took his binoculars, I was behind the view finder of my camera and Ashok put his fore-arms above his eyes creating a shade for a narrow vision.

Few lesser adjutant storks and some cormorants were busy fishing one pied kingfisher was hovering, a black-necked stork that was hiding inside tall elephant grass got alert seeing us and took-off.

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Kaziranga is the best place to see and photograph black-necked stork (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus).Large wings of this tall bird portrays an incomparable sheen under the sun light. The population of this bird has reduced drastically over the last few decades and is now nearing a threateningly low number.

I was still trying to figure out the unusual element…

An instant later there came an earth-shaking ‘Tri-aaa-aaank’… the alarm call of a frightened female elephant. We immediately turned to follow the directing. It was from our right side on the opposite bank of Sohola beel.

Seeing a mother and a calf Gokul said, “there must be some danger for the calf”.

I was thinking what this danger could be, a tiger!! Very less chances because there were couple of swamp deer grazing and they could have alerted if any cat was around. Our magnified eyes were scanning the whole area around.

After that alarm call, pandemonium stopped for a short time and then followed a more frightening prolonged roar from the left side of mother. ‘Ahhhaa-a-a-a-a-a’… A tusker elephant, probably father of the baby had heard the alarm cry of its mate and responded to reassure his family and warn away any potential danger.

Tusker came to his mate, they communicated which obviously I couldn’t understand and then he rushed towards the right side tree line and made few more frightening calls.

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Asiatic elephant is the biggest mammal found in India. They are able to distinguish low amplitude sounds and use infrasound to communicate.

Hearing these repeated calls and a full grown rhino appeared from the bushes ready to face the challenge. All of sudden the haze of confusion was cleared and the threat to baby was wide visible under the sun.

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These gentle giants come face-to-face very rarely, but when they do whole jungle stops and watch them silently.

These gentle giants share a large area in Kaziranga and quite rarely come face-to-face. But when there is threat to their babies, they will never take chance. On the other hand elephants are very unpredictable; you can never judge how they may react even under exactly similar circumstances, so I was not sure what will happen next. One thing was sure if they get into a fight that could be deadly.

Leaving all speculations behind the tusker moved forward and intimidated the rhino with his long stretch trunk and thundering roar, rhino couldn’t do much, maybe he was judging the intensity of the charge. Tusker pushed rhino against a tree towards the wetland. Rhino turned and made some attempt to retaliate but very quickly he realized that he cannot stand this angry tusker.

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Rhino lowered his guard and ran towards the water. Bull chased him but not for long, after a short run he went back to his family.

Such moments are not very common even in Kaziranga, which I regard as the most mysterious and unexpected jungle in India. Excitement was over and now there was a sigh of relief seeing the safe and happy elephant family.

Clocks were striking four in the evening and there was still some warmth in the sun. A Great Indian Hornbill had called it a day and so we did.

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A Great Indian Hornbill flying above the canopy of the trees. Great Hornbills are the largest hornbills in India. March to July is their breeding season and during this time male hornbill works really hard collecting food and helping female to raise its children.

We decided to spend the remaining time enjoying the golden color of Sohola beel before we head back to our night roost…

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Sunset at Kaziranga National Park, Assam.
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