Cover Story Environment

This Kaziranga ‘orphanage’ takes in any wild baby, from rhino to deer to eagle

A rhino calf being rescued from Kaziranga National Park during the floods in 2016.   | Photo Credit: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/ IFAW-WTI

It was the start of a typical day at work for Tarun Gogoi. Pulling on his camouflage-patterned gumboots that warm, humid morning, he took a large white canister in each hand, and began to walk down a grassy path between the trees. His colleague Mahadeo, similarly attired and holding two canisters of his own, followed. Veterinarian Panjit Basumatary brought up the rear. The trio carefully stepped over a low electric fence. Then Gogoi and Mahadeo walked into what looked like an unevenly shaped field whose perimeter was marked by bamboos driven into the ground. There, they stopped.

Gogoi began to call out, a call that to my uninitiated ears sounded like he was trying to emulate a goose. Something quite different answered the call. From a corner of the field, where it had been hidden from view by trees and bushes, a baby rhinoceros emerged, and began to walk towards Gogoi.

It was followed, in quick order, by three more, all of who marched briskly up, in a polite line the likes of which any railway station in India would be proud to witness. There, without any pushing or shoving, they began to drink the lactogen milk from the canisters Gogoi and Mahadeo were holding. Barely a minute later, they were done. Morning feeding was over for the baby rhinos at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) in Kaziranga.

Creatures big and small

CWRC is home to seven rhinos at present, all rescued orphans. They share the centre’s grounds with four baby elephants, orphans like the rhinos, and four leopards with similar personal histories who, owing to their carnivorous, catty dispositions, are kept in wire-mesh enclosures closed on all sides. Other creatures, big and small, keep passing through. There are various kinds of deer, from time to time, and birds, and the odd tiger or snake. The centre has so far treated 5,262 cases, says CWRC head Rathin Barman.

The Brahmaputra’s annual floods are the time when they get the most cases, as the rising waters engulf the wetlands that make up much of Kaziranga. Then, they have to work practically around the clock, rescuing the bedraggled beasts and their offspring.

One of the leopards under lifetime care at CWRC.

One of the leopards under lifetime care at CWRC.   | Photo Credit: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/ IFAW-WTI

It was after one particularly bad flood, in 1998, that the centre was born. “The Kaziranga National Park lost many animals that year, including around 100 rhinos. Many animals were rescued too, but no one knew what to do with them,” says Barman. “There was no proper place or infrastructure. Then the thought of a rescue centre came to the minds of authorities.” They started with one rescue vehicle, one doctor and one animal keeper that year. By 2001, they had enough cases and enough expertise to justify a permanent centre.

On August 28, 2002, with the collaboration of the Assam government, the Wildlife Trust of India, and International Fund for Animal Welfare, CWRC was inaugurated. Although there are other wildlife rescue centres in India, CWRC is the only one that takes in practically any wild creature, from tiger to eagle to snake. Its most unique residents, however, are the ones found only in Kaziranga, the rhinos.

The centre got its first baby rhino in 2002. “This building was still under construction. The baby was less than 15 days old. We knew because the umbilical cord was still attached to it,” says Barman. They had only some small feeding bottles then, the kind used to feed human babies. “We gave it lactogen. In hardly two seconds, it finished the milk and started asking for more… again and again.” Exasperation drove Barman to experiment. “I sent somebody to the market to buy a big, two-litre soft drink bottle. We emptied it, and used the bottle to feed the rhino,” he says. It worked, and that became the baby rhino’s feeding bottle.

Like man babies

An elephant calf came soon after. Gogoi, who had joined the Forest Department as a mahout, was brought in to look after it. They discovered that caring for rhino and elephant calves was rather like caring for human babies. They had to be fed every few hours, day and night, and that meant some people had to stay up all night to look after them. There was also a bigger problem: the elephant calves cried if left alone. “We put in bunks next to them for the keepers, who had to sleep where the elephant calves could touch them,” says Barman.

Animal-keeper Tarun Gogoi with a rescued elephant calf.

Animal-keeper Tarun Gogoi with a rescued elephant calf.   | Photo Credit: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/ IFAW-WTI

However, they had to learn not to give the animals too much love, says Gogoi. It becomes a problem if the animals get too attached to humans because then they can’t handle the wild. Despite that, there are cases of animals, particularly elephants, that form deep and lasting attachments with people. “So far, we have released around 20 elephants into the wild. But some just refuse to go. We have had three such cases,” says Barman. “They kept coming back.”

Now, these elephants are with the Forest Department, working in Kaziranga National Park. “One of them came to us when he was around a month old, and the other two came when they were around six months old,” recalls Barman. He ascribes the return of these three elephants to their personalities. “Every human being has his or her own personality. Similarly, most animals have their own personalities. Elephants, especially, are very intelligent animals. They have large brains. With them you can see personalities easily,” says Barman.

He considers the three that returned to be both gregarious and a tad lazy. “These three love human company, and the food they get… they don’t like the hardships of the wild,” he says. Their character flaws may not be the only reasons for their return from freedom, however. Elephants, Barman points out, move in herds, unlike the solitary rhinos. When it is time to let them go, they are taken out for forest walks with their keepers. There, they come across herds of wild elephants. In time, they get adopted into one herd or another… but the process is not easy. “A wild herd will try to dominate the strangers. They will come and knock these elephants, push them around,” says Dr. Basumatary, who is CWRC’s lead veterinarian. The process of adoption into a herd is easier for the females, he says. The boys have a rougher time of it.

Coming back home

Life in the wild is hard for every creature, big and small. The relative safety of the centre has made a great impression on at least one female barking deer. “We hand-raised her,” says Barman, “and eventually released her into the wild with an ear-tag (for identification). A year later, we found her back here. She had brought her baby! After three or four months, when the baby was relatively grown up, they disappeared. The following year, she was here again, with another baby. And this year again, with the latest baby!”

Feeding time for the baby rhinos at CWRC.

Feeding time for the baby rhinos at CWRC.   | Photo Credit: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/ IFAW-WTI

The smart deer had not been put off by the presence of the four leopards, one male and three females, who live in two adjacent enclosures in the centre within what probably constitutes sniffing distance for both species. The male leopard is a big, sleek fellow, fully grown at five, and he was pacing up and down when I spotted him. “He is very tame now,” says Dr. Basumatary, although he didn’t look anything like tame to me.

The enclosure next to his is much bigger, with thick undergrowth and many large trees. As I walked closer to it, I saw some dappled yellow and black in the green of the branches of a tree, a good 20 feet above the ground… and then spotted the face of a snarling leopard baring its fangs. Looking around, I saw two more in the branches of nearby trees, eyeing me warily. These three female leopards, now two-and-a-half years old, were hardly three or four days old when they came to the centre, says Dr. Basumatary. They had been found in a hole in the ground in a nearby tea estate; their mother had been killed by humans.

The most dangerous animal in the forest or outside it, even for animal rescuers who have to quite literally wrestle the beasts on occasion, is man. There is unanimity on this among the animal-keeper Gogoi, the vet Dr. Basumatary, and the centre’s head, Barman. “There is only one problem during rescues. That is managing crowds,” says Barman. Around Kaziranga, people see wild animals all the time, he says, but even then, a sight as ordinary as an injured deer is enough for a crowd to gather.

The size of the crowd grows with the hierarchy of the animal in the food chain. A tiger is sure to draw an entire village or two. “Once a tiger strayed out from the park. It was hiding in a small bush, probably confused. Hundreds of people came out and surrounded it. The villagers wanted to see the animal,” says Barman. CWRC was called, and a vet went to tranquilise the tiger. By then, a crowd of over a hundred, including security guards armed with guns, had gathered. Suddenly, the cornered tiger burst out of the bush and charged. The guards let loose a volley of shots, and managed to hit the vet. He was fortunate to survive, but has since quit the job and now teaches in a college.

Wrestling a leopard

Almost everyone on the staff has his own tale of close calls and misadventures. The portly, genial Gogoi had his moment of reckoning during a leopard rescue. A sub-adult leopard — the equivalent of a human teenager — had come out of the forest and attacked villagers near Kaziranga. When CWRC got a call, Gogoi went to check on it. By the time he reached the spot, a mob had gathered, armed with sticks, and people were baying for blood; they wanted to beat the animal to death. Gogoi spotted the leopard, and was forced to act immediately; he had to either catch the animal or get out of the mob’s way. “So I went and caught the animal with my bare hands,” he says. “It bit me here,” he points to his arm, “and scratched me.” Gogoi was able to wrestle the leopard into submission. Apart from being one tough nut, Gogoi was also fortunate; a sub-adult leopard is big enough to do serious damage.

Hoji, one of the younger elephant calves at CWRC, mingles with other jumbos.

Hoji, one of the younger elephant calves at CWRC, mingles with other jumbos.   | Photo Credit: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/IFAW-WTI

Dr. Basumatary had his lucky escape when he went to rescue a grown elephant that had fallen upside down into a trench near a tea estate. It would have taken at least 3-4 hours for a tame elephant from the park to arrive to tug the trapped jumbo upright, he says, and he reckoned the animal might not survive that long. So he simply went close to the animal, ran a rope under it, and told the inevitable crowd to pull. It worked, but of course, the wild elephant charged right at them the moment it was upright. They had only a small lead and were fortunate to outrun it on the wet, slippery ground.

Sometimes, the luck runs out. One animal keeper who answered a call to catch a snake did so with ease, but was bitten while trying to release it back into the forest. “I would say it was because of overconfidence,” says Barman. It was a black krait, one of the deadliest and most poisonous of snakes in the Indian jungle. “Doctors said, he’s gone… within a few minutes he will be gone. For three days, they kept saying that. He survived though,” he says.

The animal keepers are the most important people for the centre, says Barman. “They are our backbone in the field.” He rates them, and the people from the surrounding villages — despite their unfortunate habit of gathering into crowds, which he does not like — as the biggest supporters of Kaziranga. “The animals from Kaziranga come out and destroy their paddies and their houses, kill their animals and sometimes even attack them,” he says. “With city people, for instance, if a monkey steals something from them, they say, remove all the monkeys from here.”

He is non-committal, like the rest of the staff, about the famous visit of Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton to the centre, when they were photographed feeding baby rhinos and elephants.

The stars whose tales are told with relish here are the guests for whom the place is built: the rhinos, elephants, leopard and tigers, who make CWRC their temporary home.

The writer is an author and journalist. Twitter: @mrsamratx

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 12:53:19 PM |

Next Story