KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK : Assam, in north-east India, is the land of the mighty one-horned rhino. It can be seen both at Kaziranga National Park and at the adjoining Manas Tiger Reserve. In fact, but for these two pockets, a rhino rejuvenation programme in Dudhwa and a large herd in Nepal, the rhino has disappeared from the Indian sub-continent.
Lying along the mighty Brahmaputra river, the Kaziranga National Park is sprawled across 430 sq kms. The swamps and grasslands with tall thickets of elephant grass and patches of evergreen forest make for ideal rhino habitat. You ride through the open country of Kaziranga on elephant back and a day’s outing is sufficient to see most of the species. The visit at dawn is a memorable experience. As the mist lifts and the rising sun lights up the landscape, herds of barasingha and wild buffalo can be seen in the marshes. Rhinos browse unconcerned as tourists gawk at them and strain their cameras to get the perfect image.
Though large-scale poaching of the rhino for its horn has depleted the population, great efforts are on to save this majestic, though ugly, creature. Since the national park is situated along the highway it is easily accessible an animals can be observed from close quarters.
The grasslands are raptor country and the crested serpent eagle, the Pallas’s fishing eagle and grey headed fishing eagle circle overhead. The swamp partridge, the bar-headed goose, whistling teal, the Bengal florican can also be seen at Kaziranga.
MANAS TIGER RESERVE : Though insurgent tribal groups have taken over Manas, it is a sylvan paradise with the mountains for its backdrop and the sparkling Manas river flowing through the reserve. In fact the river serves as a boundary between India and Bhutan. The vast deciduous forests are so dense that they cut out light. Elephant, rhino, gaur an the tiger can be seen in the grassland. Spread across 2840 sq km, Manas is fascinating tiger country.
But Manas is famous for the golden langur found only in this part of the country. Ther are other primates too, the noisiest being the hoolock gibbon. Though its loud whooping call resounds through the forests it is not easily spotted. Manas is also the home of the red panda which lives in the higher reaches of the forest.
Manas is a very special biosphere for it harbours 20 species of birds and animals that are highly endangered and listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red Data Book. These include the hispid hare and the pigmy hog. The lush forests shelter a myriad birds including pheasants and the scarlet minivet.
November to April is a good time to visit both Kaziranga and Manas. The closest airport to Kaziranga is Jorhat, about 84 km from Kaziranga. Manas is 186 km from Guwahati, the largest city in Assam. Tourist lodges and forest rest houses in and around both parks are comfortable but rooms should be booked in advance.
PERIYAR NATIONAL PARK : The Western Ghats are the green lungs of the coastal region of India and a national park in this sylvan setting in Kerala, is exquisite. The picturesque lake in the heart of the park, formed by the building of a dam towards the end of the last century, adds to its enchantment. The reservoir of this dam winds through the wooded hills and is a perennial source of water for wildlife. Herds of wild elephants, gaur, sambar and wild pigs wander to the lake-side to quench their thirst and can be observed quite clearly from the launches that cruise through the lake with tourists. March and April are good months to get a marvellous view of the animals because it is hot and dry at this time of the year and the elephants spend a lot of time near the lakes, bathing, swimming and, like little children, dousing each other with trunkfuls of water. The tiger too stalks down for a drink of water but keeps its distance from the herd of elephants.
But the creatures to look out for in this verdant park are the flying lizards and the flying snakes. Orange and yellow winged, the flying lizard can be seen moving from one tree to the other. The flying snake is also brilliantly coloured in yellow and black with a pattern of red rosettes. Monitor lizards can be seen basking in the sun in the rocky outcrops adjoining the lake. King cobras and pythons can be seen quite easily on a trek through the park.
Like in most other parks of India, the leopard, wild dog, barking deer and mouse deer abound in this park.
Four species of primates can be found here -the rare lion tailed macaque, the Nilgiri langur, the common langur and the bonnet macaque. This is also the home of the Nilgiri tahr, though this goat is difficult to sight. The lake attracts a lot of bird life -darters, grey herons and cormorants and the great Malabar hornbill and grey hornbill can be seen winging through the forests.
A summer palace of the former Maharaja of Travancore, overlooking the lake, has been converted into a hotel and is a fine place to stay in. You could, in fact, wake up to the loud call of the hornbill or the melodious notes of the Malabar whistling thrush.
The best time to visit Periyar is October to April. Apart from the forest rest houses there are several private hotels. The nearest railhead is Kottayam, 140 kms from Periyar, and the nearest airport is Madurai in Tamilnadu.