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LIONS & TIGERS & BEARS

Meet the one -horned rhinos in the r emote realm of Assam, the elusive snow leopards in nor theast Ladakh and the B engal tigers in the R anthambore wilderness — Indi a’s resident wildlife is as v aried as the v ast subcontinent its elf. Grab your binoculars and head out on a saf ari with a dif ference
Bengal tiger with cubs at Ranthambore National Park
Driving through Kaziranga National Park
IMAGES: GETTY; SUPERSTOCK

ONE-HORNED RHINOCEROS

KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK, ASSAM

Rain is coming. The tree canopies rustle in anticipation. The long elephant grass starts to sway. Birds burst from high branches, wings fanning through the charged air.

“Now,” whispers Babloo from the driver’s seat of our safari jeep. One, two, three seconds later, the downpour hits us on cue. We’ve taken shelter on the edge of a copse where bearded vines loop between the trees like wild doodles. Out on the open floodplains of Kaziranga National Park, rain drenches creation. But here the water just pit-patters over head. It all feels very cosy. Benign. But that’s just an illusion.

“The monsoon is a deadly time,” says Gautam, my young guide. I’ve arrived in late April — the end of the safari season in Kaziranga. The first rains have swollen the Brahmaputra and soon it’ll burst, submerging these flatlands for the summer months. “That’s when the poachers move in,” he tells me gravely. Their target: the horn of the Indian rhino, rhinoceros unicornis, which fetches its weight in gold on the Chinese black market as an aphrodisiac. “How many did we lose last year, Babloo?” “Seven,” the driver answers. Both men nod. It’s a vast improvement on previous years.

With two-thirds of the entire species living here (2,400 at the last count), Kaziranga is the last stronghold of the one-horned rhino. We spot dozens every day in the park, grazing peacefully in far meadows. I watch them through my binoculars, transfixed, until the blood drains from my arms. In a year when the world mourned the death of Sudan — the last male northern white rhino — I’m aware of how precious these sightings are and how rare they might become.

When the downpour peters out, we head off down the muddy track and hit the jackpot: a female rhino grazing alone at the side of the road. It’s my first close encounter. She’s dumpy-looking with a smiling mouth and beedy, myopic black eyes either side of her horn. There’s tufty russet fuzz around her ears that catches the light like a halo. She sniffs the air in our direction. Then she’s off: a cloud of flies pursuing her as she trots back into the bush. The thick skin of her flanks is folded like fearsome plates of armour, except around her pimpled rump where it looks like she’s failed to hike up a pair of saggy bloomers.

Park rangers are stemming the tide of poaching, due to new surveillance drones and an aggressive ‘shoot-on-sight’ policy — in 2015, more poachers were killed than rhinos. But heavier and erratic flooding combined with blocked wildlife corridors mean a number of rhinos drown each year. Gautam dishes out this heartbreaking information with a hopeful caveat: conservationists are hoping to fix this by expanding the park’s boundaries, and rangers are at work building artificial islands on the plain.

Out on the fringe of the park, on our way back to our lodge for lunch, we detour through some of Assam’s famous, electric-green tea plantations and pause in a traditional tribal village of stilt huts.

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About National Geographic Traveller (UK)

We grab our binoculars and set out to discover the awe-inspiring wildlife of India, scouting out the likes of Bengal tigers, one-horned rhinos and snow leopards in some of the subcontinent’s most dramatic national parks. Elsewhere, we explore the winelands of southern Australia; cross the frozen frontier of the Antarctic Circle; and spend a long weekend in the city of Leeuwarden. Other highlights this issue include the Faroe Islands, Tel Aviv, Manhattan, Tokyo and Santiago, while our photo story takes in the fresh air and Alpine beauty of Switzerland.