A WILDLIFE warehouse called Kaziranga National Park now has a showroom. Blame it on the Royal Bengal tiger.
The one-horned rhino was Kaziranga’s superstar for 101 years before the focus began shifting to a carnivore in 2006. That year, the national park was made a Tiger Reserve entailing stricter wildlife regulations.
Last year’s animal census pegged the rhino population at 2,200 (almost 60% of the world’s rhinoceros unicornis). But officials were more elated by the tiger estimate – the 860 sq km Kaziranga recorded the striped cat’s density at 32 per 100 sq km, the highest on earth.
The tiger count put pressure on the Assam forest department to shift tourism activities from Kaziranga’s core area to provide ‘breathing space’ to the animals. Officials were also asked to check ‘mushrooming’ hotels around Kaziranga and promote other wildlife preserves for tourists.
A major beneficiary of this shift of attention has been the 38 sq km Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, 50 km east of Guwahati.
“Though Pobitora has been around for ages, it was targeted for development two years ago. It has really come up to be referred to as Kaziranga’s showroom, and more and more tourists are finding out why,” said chief Assam wildlife warden Suresh Chand.
Pobitora, Chand added, is in essence a microcosm of Kaziranga; the terrain, flora and the setting – kissing the southern bank of river Brahmaputra – are more or less identical. “Everything is almost the same, except the size,” he said.
The ‘showroom’ scores over Kaziranga on other counts too. It is barely an hour’s drive from Guwahati compared to the five hours it takes to reach Kaziranga (250 km east of Guwahati) and its rhinos – 84 at the last count – are concentrated in a 16 sq km area guaranteeing 100% sighting.
“Besides, Pobitora remains open for more months than the October-April schedule for Kaziranga. We now have two forest guesthouses with five rooms, a 16-room tourist lodge and a private resort coming up nearby. We have also erected watchtowers, a new elephant riding point, hanging bridge and a 5km walking trail with a jungle and riverfront view,” said the sanctuary’s range officer Mukul Tamuli.
Tour operators, initially wary of tourist restrictions in Kaziranga, have warmed up to the idea of distributing visitors to lesser known wildlife preserves. “Kaziranga should be for serious wildlife enthusiasts who know how to respect nature, the regular tourists can enjoy their rides elsewhere,” said Jaideep Bhuyan, a tour operator.
According to tourism principal secretary HS Das, the move to provide a showroom for ‘window wildlifers’ was inevitable. “Tourism structures around Kaziranga have become a matter of concern for the park’s fragile eco-system,” he said.
Kaziranga and Pobitora, for the uninitiated, are two angles of the Rhino Habitat Triangle. The 78 sq km Orang National Park is the third and the only major rhino domain on the northern bank of river Brahmaputra.
Rhinos — tigers and elephants too — often use sandbars in the Brahmaputra (during the low-flow months) to hop-wade-stroll across the river for a change of taste.