Kaziranga: a managed forest

The famous grasslands of Kaziranga are not a self-maintaining system. This fact came as a shock to me. I’d thought of it as a nature preserve, where the balance is naturally maintained. I should have been aware of this, since the rhino-springback, for which it is famous, is a success story more than a century in the making. Nor can it be entirely natural, since it lies on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

On one of our drives through the park we reached the banks of the Brahmaputra. A shallow slope led down to the deceptively low waters. In recent decades the park has lost almost 14% of its area to erosion from the annual flooding of the river. Flood plains have their own ecology, which is often lost when rivers are dammed, or other “flood control” meaures are taken. However, the flooding of the Brahmaputra is a danger to the animals in the park.

We saw an ameliorative measure being taken. A few massive earth movers and trucks were going back and forth between the banks of a stream and a spot inside the woods. When we passed it, we saw an enormous earthen plateau being built up artificially. We asked our jeep driver what this was for. “Refuge area for animals,” he replied. With more questions we could tease out a detailed answer from him: the forest department was constructing an immense high ground where the animals could retreat in case of flooding. This was the first major piece of ongoing engineering we noticed inside the park.

Another thread was not at all obvious. I saw silk cotton trees with fruits and seed pods hanging on them. Many had fallen off the tree and burst open (see photo above). The winds were lifting the silk parachutes off the ground and wafting it about. It took many conversations for me to realize that this was a problem. Apparently, give the large areas of grassland, the seeds often fall on fertile ground. As a result, there is a spurt in the growth of these trees, leading to a shrinking of grasslands.

The solution that the forest department has adopted is to identify patches where the trees have taken hold, clear the larger trees and set a small controlled fire to kill the shoots. We saw little circles of blackened stumps rather often in a relatively small area. It would have left us mystified if we hadn’t had that conversation.

Many years ago I’d read a short story about a bridge being built on Jupiter by tele-operated robots, and disaster after disaster being averted by some quick action. Kaziranga reminded me of that. It has been one of the successes of wildlife conservation in India: with the rhino, elephant, numerous birds, several species of deer, and tigers being brought back from the edge of local extinction. That story ended badly, with several problems striking together. One hopes that Kaziranga can work things out better.

Crossing the Brahmaputra

trucks

As our flight came in to land in Guwahati, I peered over The Family’s shoulder at the lush greenery and little ponds brimming over with water below. The flight was on time. As we collected our baggage and walked to the exit, The Victor pointed out a kiosk which said "Arunachal Tourism". Our plan was to spend a couple of days in Assam, and then cross the state border to Arunachal. That requires a permit. We were very happy to find that it could be obtained right at the airport. We collected the permits, and went out to look for the man who would drive our rented car for the next ten days: Mr. Avatar Singh.

It was midday as we drove out of the airport parking lot in a large Innova. I had the seat next to the driver. As we negotiated the traffic in Guwahati I thought we had a taciturn Avatar. Only when we hit the highway did Mr. Singh start to talk. He told me the route he was going to take, south of the Brahmaputra, crossing it near Tezpur. He was radiated happiness when he saw me looking at the map on my phone. He thought he hd found a kindred soul, and told me more details about the route. Suddenly I found he had crossed to the wrong side of the highway. Twenty meters on he drove into a petrol station. He grinned at me and said that this side of the highway was in the state of Meghalaya and petrol was cheaper here. Clearly, from the number of trucks parked in a bay next to the pump.

adjutant

Very soon The Family screamed us to a halt. Even Avatar had to pay heed to her command to back up. Not having done any birding before, Mr. and Mrs. Victor had little idea of what was going on. When the car had backed up enough, I followed The Family as she walked a little further back. There was something interesting and enormous on a large nest at the top of a tree. The Victors had followed us, and we gazed at the bird which resolutely turned its back at us. Having seen things like this before, I knew it was an adjutant. As I focussed my camera, I heard multiple gasps: another adjutant had raised its head above the foliage. As the two birds glared lovingly at each other, we completed our identification: they were lesser Adjutants (Leptopilos javanicus). Our holiday had truly begun.

taxi

The highway is part of the Golden Quadrilateral which connects India with a continuous four lane highway. Here it passes numerous little towns and villages. There were many state transport buses plying the highway, but clearly not enough to take care of all the people who needed to travel. The road was full of multi-utility vehicles, with people packed in as densely as a black hole. Our car kept overtaking them too fast to photograph. Avatar kept up a non-stop stream of highly personalized information on whatever we passed, for example that these MUV-buses went so fast that it was clear that the drivers could not care less for the state of their cars. As I tried to photograph the vehicles we passed, I realized that the Avatar was not one who slows down for a passenger. On the other hand, he did slow down at every speed breaker on the road.

brahmaputra

As the shadows began to lengthen, our long eastward drive turned north on to a well-surfaced two-lane road. We reached the Brahmaputra. This river arises in the Tibetan plateau, where it is called the Tsangpo. As it crosses into India its name changes to Siang. In Arunachal it meets another, almost equally large, river called the Lohit. The meeting of the two creates the incredibly wide river which we crossed as the sun was about to set. In winter it is a braided stream flowing around huge sandbanks, presenting a tranquil picture in the sunset. But every year during the monsoon it floods, and the human cost is tremendous.

night

Night fell as we passed the town of Tezpur and continued along the highway. There seemed to be deep jungle around us. Avatar Singh knew the eco-tourism lodge that we were headed for, but he wanted me to look at my GPS for the correct turn off. We found it, and drove a couple of kilometers in. It wasn’t the jungle it had seemed to be just a few minutes ago. We passed a few huts and soon we were driving through a large village: there were small fields and clusters of houses. Eventually we came to a signpost which assured me that Avatar knew where he was going. Soon enough we came to a gate I remembered. Our dash across India had come to an end. We were two time zones away from Mumbai. The dark night would have been early evening at home; we might not be back home from work yet.

We found our tents and gathered for an evening’s tea. Permits were needed for a walk into the forest the next day. A river rafting trip had to be arranged. But most important: we had to find someone with a knowledge of where to find the local birds. We would wake at sunrise.

Birdlist for NH 37 and 37 A (5 November, 2015)

It is hard to identify birds with certainty when you barrel down a highway; for example, was the bulbul you passed a red-vented or red-whiskered? So the birdlist here is just indicative.

  1. Lesser adjutant stork
  2. Asian open-billed stork
  3. Black kite (formerly pariah kite)
  4. Little blue kingfisher (formerly common kingfisher)
  5. Long-tailed shrike
  6. Oriental turtle-dove
  7. Spotted dove
  8. Little egret
  9. Drongo
  10. Bulbuls