During my travels through Assam, India, I had several opportunities to observe rhinoceros. The single-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) also known variously as the Nepali Rhinoceros, Indian Rhinoceros, Great One-horned Rhinoceros or Asian One-horned Rhinoceros, is found in greater numbers in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam than anywhere else.
Historically, the species range extended across the northern part of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and into the southern regions of Nepal. The species is regarded as vulnerable largely due to habitat loss due to agricultural development, and the rhino’s now fragmented distribution. By the early 1990s the number of this species left in wild was estimated at less than 1900, today the number is believed to be just over 3500.
A loud encounter!
During the time that I spent in Kaziranga National Park in Assam, I took an elephant ride through part of the park in the hope of sighting rhinoceros. My elephant was one of 4 or 5 which set out through the elephant grass, so named because it’s so tall in parts that you could almost hide an elephant in it. Several of the other elephants were loaded up with families of Indians who were touring their own country, whilst my elephant had the mahout up front, and a park’s ranger seated behind me. It’s mandatory when elephants are used, where rhinoceros may be encountered, that an armed ranger is included in the group. Our ranger was carrying a shotgun.
We set out on what was a very pleasant morning, pushing our way through patches of swampy ground the tall grass being parted by the elephants as they moved along. Every now and then we would emerge from the tall stuff and go through a clearing before encountering more elephant grass. Then we happened across a rhino, an adult female with a half-grown calf nearby. Rhinos have very poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell, whether we were upwind or downwind on this occasion I’m not sure. Rhinos can also be unpredictable and of course dangerous particularly when they have young.
In this case, the adult, having been at a safe distance from us, started moving towards us. Its proximity to us was obviously too close for comfort in the judgement of the ranger, for as I was in the process of raising the camera to get a photo, he raised the shotgun and, without any warning of what he was going to do ….kaboom… fired a warning shot. I’m not sure how many readers have had the experience of a shotgun going off only inches from their head whilst not wearing any form of hearing protection, but my ears were ringing and it’s lucky I didn’t jump off the elephant in fright.
The rhino in response stopped its approach towards us but remained close, so again the ranger, without warning, fired a second deafening blast! The rhino then turned and casually walked away.
The result of that encounter was that ringing in my ears was all I got, no photo of the incident or the rhinos. Fortunately, a little while later we came across another rhinoceros who was happily grazing with a myna bird perched on his back. He looked up, and the photograph above was the result!