Daniel Adler Safaris Kaziranga National Park

one horned rhinoFor the past three days I’ve been in the Northeast Indian state of Assam with no internet, no phone, and no tv. Three months ago I wasn’t even sure this was part of India, the part east of Bangladesh. Since all India is on the same time zone, and since this state is so far east, dawn comes at five in the morning and it gets dark at six at night. It’s not only the strange daylight hours that make Assam feel different from the rest of India. Local Assam terrorists want it to be its own state, because the government neglects the northeast compared to the rest of the subcontinent. For example, there was an accident the other day involving a bus and a truck filled with new Hyundais. Our safari guide and naturalist, Dintu, was at the resort sleeping when he heard the crash at 430 in the morning. He and his pal hopped in their car and drove to a giant conflagration, where there lay a man on the side of the road. He was still breathing so they took him to the local hospital and called 108, the Indian 911. Dintu was transferred to another office where they asked for details, then to the local office, where they said the police were on their way and the ambulance was going to fill up with gas. The police arrived an hour later– on motorcycles– and the ambulance came another hour later. The driver of the tourist bus, carrying 17 people, had been drunk and along with the the other driver, died on impact. Now there’s a lot of anti-police sentiment in the neighborhood, since the three other dead could have been saved if they’d had proper treatment in time.
The population is very mixed– Tibet conquered the region in the 14th century and ruled for 600 years until the British brought in tea, and Central Indians to farm it. So some people have Dravidian dark chocolate skin, while Dintu, whose family has been here for a long time, has chestnut colored almond-shaped eyes and honey colored skin. He grew up around the park; his uncle used to be a park ranger. Used to because the rangers patrol by foot, and a herd of Asiatic water buffalo charged at him. While his colleagues were able to run away in time, he was not. The buffalo gored him twice, once through the belly, and once under his jaw, and through his brain.
For our jeep safari, we had to pick up a permit and a ranger from the office. He came with a shotgun, and rode shotgun. Dad asked, “Why do we get a guard and the other cars not; why are we special?”
Dintu smiled, “Because you’re white.” And we were. The other tourists are Indians, from Kerala or Kolkata, here on vacation to see the wildlife for a week. It made me feel better about being a tourist than being in the big cities, because here the locals are so unused to us that if they don’t wave and smile it’s like they’re ignoring us on purpose. But seriously, the ranger was with us to scare off rhinos in case they charged. Dad asked me if I’d ever seen Durer’s rhino, which I always thought was a silly medieval depiction until I saw the the Indian one-horned rhino. Its redundant skin like patchwork, it hangs over the rhino’s limbs like a skirt, in neck, torso, and leg plates. This is in contrast to its African two-horned counterpart, which uses its  large, sharp horn to fight. The Indian rhino’s one horn is often worn down, sometimes gone altogether. To fight it uses its razor-sharp teeth.
Dintu told us about a photographer from National Geographic who was shooting a special on one-horned rhinos.  For a shot of the rhino’s hard to see (and imagine) teeth, the photographer sat in the jeep and shook a stick at the rhino until it charged the jeep, snapping at it and badly scratching the vehicle with its pre-molars, All I could see were a proboscis like lip and lower jaw chewing the cud. But those teeth, not the horn, have killed over 200 people in the past eight years, compared to the five killed by tigers (which are harder to spot, and generally mind their business). We came across one large male rhino with a bloody gash in his side from a fight. Birds perched on his back and ate the bugs that would lay eggs in his wound. Sometimes it’s not enough though, and wounds fester. Or, worse, the Indian crow, that wretched bird, instead of eating the bugs, goes for the flesh instead. And the poor rhino can do nothing– a lot like trying to scratch the middle of your back for a bad itch. Since he’s a solitary creature and he weighs two tons, he can’t be expected to call for help, nor can he stand on his hind legs to frighten unwanted birds away.
Fascinating creatures, the one-horned rhino, especially considering how docile they were when we rode elephants in the morning and came across a mama and baby staring at us, as though inviting us to pet them, the baby looking like a really thick bull terrier. They walked to a quieter spot to graze.
The elephants are also different smaller their African brethren. Their small brown eyes follow you, their thick gray skin coated in dust and bristly sparse black hair. After the safari, I remembered what Fungi said about them, how sensitive they are, how when she touched the hair on the back of one’s head he stopped and pulled up his trunk in pleasure. When I lightly touched his bristly hair my elephant flapped his ears back and forth, which I hoped was a good sign because all I wanted was for him to like me.
Watching them defecate, urinate, fart was all very interesting. They have no embarrassment. Yes they’re animals, but they mourn their dead, have feelings and emotions. The largest male expelled large blocks of grass-filled shit, unsheathing his long pink and black-speckled penis in the process. It was gripping. When he was finally done, I kept watching to see when his penis would retract. And he didn’t have a care in the world, this intimate and hideous process was as natural as walking, one leg at a time, which we hypothesized was due to his enormous mass, and which, unlike a dog or horse, requires the support of as many legs as possible.
There are wild elephants in the park, but the ones we rode are domesticated. Domestication. The Asiatic water buffalo are highly endangered because they continually breed with domesticated water buffalo. The red jungle fowl, the origin of all chickens, as Dintu said, is another example of the perils of domestication. This spectacular bird with red crest, golden neck hackles, and rufous underfeathers, reminded me of Thoreau’s meditation on the rooster, how primitive man must have heard its “erkel-erkel-oo-rul-ka” from outside the village, seen its shimmering plumage from afar and realized, I want that bird to be mine.
Some animals can’t be domesticated, though. Like monkeys, or snakes. Dad reminded me of the woman from Greenwich who invited her friend over to see her pet monkey and when she tried to touch it, it ripped her face off. And the stories about python owners who come home from a long vacation and wind up being strangled by their snakes. We saw a fifteen-foot Burmese slithering into its nest and Dintu told us that they’re so slow-moving that if prey gets within one or two feet of them, the snake sucks in all the immediate air, and the animal practically falls into the snake’s mouth. Back in the day, Dintu’s dad used to hang out in Karizanga, to fish and whatnot. Once when the family was picnicking, a couple of the men realized that the log they were sitting on had moved. They cleared off the ferns growing on it and realized it was an enormous python, so big that it just lay there, waiting for its prey to come within zero air-pressure distance. Then they killed it, because snakes are evil in Hindu culture (and so are owls).
As Dintu pointed out, birds are some of the most interesting creatures to observe. There are over 550 bird species in Kaziranga National Park, including the migratory ones. We saw many of them: the grey-headed fish eagle, hawk eagle, black-billed ibis, black-necked stork, dappled kingfisher, white-breasted water hen, Indian roller, river tern, common myna, rufous tree pie, spangled drongo, the caucal, osprey, pelican… There’s a science to identifying their colors, calls, and behavior. Whereas with mammals, such as elephants, rhinos or water buffalo, it’s kinda like you see them once, you’ve seen them all. Of course when you see them up close or a mother and baby or a herd, it’s different because they play with each other or show affection, and that’s all well and good, but distinguishing the Greater Adjutant Stork with its pink vultury head, black body, and scavenging nature, from the Lesser Adjutant, which eats fish and frogs, has a yellowish head, black body and gray secondary feathers, can be a delicious challenge.
Meanwhile Dad keeps talking about many animals in the singular. “I’ve heard there are monkey on the other side of the park,” he says, rubbing on anti-mosquito cream. I’m standing in the back of the jeep to get a better view, and because it’s more comfortable than sitting and being jostled by the bumpy muddy road. We pass a high termite mound that looks like an art deco sandcastle. An Indian cuckoo whistles, and the jeep slows to a stop. Dintu points at two large birds coasting overhead. Dad pulls out the binoculars.  “Wow, look at those eagle!”
We’re on a tower overlooking the flat grasslands. I can hear the elephant grass rustling as I watch the sun’s rays shine obliquely through the clouds, falling on a pond where storks float, and nearby rhinos and water buffalo graze. Earlier Dad had said, “Yeah, it’s great seeing all the animals, but we’re not really going to accomplish anything today.” I look at him zooming in 40x with his camera on a stork that is still too far away. The animals don’t think about accomplishing. They don’t think about anything except surviving. Makes me want to be like them.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.


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