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ASSAM – THE LAND OF RHINO, BUFFALO AND ELEPHANT

By Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury

On the global biodiversity map, Assam occupies an important position owing to its location in two hotspots – the Himalaya and Indo-Burma Global Biodiversity Hotspots. In India, the highest bird diversity is found in this state while in case of mammals and reptiles also it is among the highest in the country. The physiography of Assam is dominated by the valley of the Brahmaputra River in the north, the hill ranges and plateau in the central areas with the smaller plains of the Barak River in the south. The highest peak is near Laike on the Barail Range, which is 1959m high. The habitat in Assam is also diverse ranging from tropical wet evergreen ‘rainforest’ to the wet savanna grassland as well as wetland, swamp forest, tropical moist deciduous and subtropical broadleaf forests.
Over the years, mainly due to increase in human population, the wildlife habitat has shrunk to a great extent and also become fragmented. Despite these constraints, the state can boast of having the largest population anywhere in the world of the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), Wild water buffalo, Hog deer, Pygmy hog, Swamp francolin among others. Assam still has more than 5000 Wild Asian elephants and a fairly large Tiger and primate population.

Diverse wildlife
Eight species of primates occur in the state including the ‘endangered’ Golden langur and Hoolock gibbon. There are four species of macaques as well as the primitive Slow loris. Phayre’s leaf monkey is confined only to the forests of southern Barak Valley. The Dhole or Asian wild dog has become very rare while the Himalayan or Asiatic black bear is not uncommon in some pockets. The Sloth bear has been recorded from a few pockets in the plains. The Malayan sun bear was always rare with fewer records. All the bears are under serious threat from poaching for their biles and gall bladder.
The Tiger is still widespread in the forests and grassland, from floodplains to the high hills but in small numbers except for places such as Kaziranga and Manas. Kaziranga has the highest tiger density in the world. The Leopard is relatively more abundant and occurs even in Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. The Clouded leopard is very rare. Among the smaller cats, the Fishing cat, Asian golden cat and Marbled cat are rare.

Assam has a sizeable population of Asian elephant. For the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros, about two-third of its world population is confined to five protected areas in Assam. It is under heavy pressure from the poachers who sought for its horn, believed to have aphrodisiac value. Its estimated population in the state is around 2200. The Pigmy hog has been listed as ‘critically endangered’ by IUCN. Its known world population is now found in Assam, especially in Manas National Park. Its confinement largely to a single area is its main problem as any intervention in its habitat will jeopardise its survival. A captive-breeding centre has been established near Guwahati where successful breeding has taken place. The Eastern swamp deer is now confined to Kaziranga National Park (around 500) only with a few survivors in Manas.
The Wild water buffalo has its stronghold (82% of the world population) in the plains of the Brahmaputra River where it is found in six protected areas. The Gaur or Indian ‘bison’ is still widespread although its population is declining. The rare Hispid hare’s main stronghold is Manas although scattered populations are found in other areas. The Gangetic dolphin is ‘endangered’ and is found in the Brahmaputra and the Barak river systems with a declining population. It is poached for its oil while there are accidental deaths due to strangulation in fishing nets.
With more than 800 species, Assam has the richest bird diversity in India. The Pink-headed Duck is in all probability extinct, however, many rare and threatened species such as the Spot-billed Pelican, White-bellied Heron, Greater Adjutant Stork, Lesser Adjutant Stork, White-winged Wood Duck, Baer’s Pochard, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Bengal Florican, Swamp Francolin, Pale-capped Pigeon, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Black-breasted Parrotbill and Yellow Weaver or Finn’s Baya still occurs. Blyth’s Tragopan is localised in the easternmost corner of North Cachar Hills while the Green Peafowl has vanished from most of its known range in Assam, last seen in Cachar. The Greater Adjutant Stork’s bulk of the breeding population in the world is confined to the Brahmaputra plains of Assam including some busy urban centres. The White-winged Wood Duck or deohanh is also very rare but still found in the evergreen forests. It is also the State Bird of Assam. The White-backed and Slender-billed Vultures were plentiful even in early 1990s, however, they are now threatened with extinction.
Among reptiles, the Gharial is now extremely rare. Narrow-headed softshell, Elongated tortoise, Three-striped roof turtle, Assam roof turtle, Asian brown tortoise and Keeled box turtle are noteworthy endangered turtles.

Kaziranga National Park – the Rhinoland and a tourist paradise
A world heritage site and a tiger reserve, this famous national park is known all over the globe for its exceptionally rich biodiversity. It covers about 850 sq km of floodplains of the Brahmaputra River. This park accounts for about 65% of the world population of endangered Great Indian one-horned rhinoceros and about 58% of the world population of endangered Wild water buffalo. The Eastern swamp deer is now mainly confined to Kaziranga while more than a thousand Wild elephants are found in winter. The densest Tiger population anywhere in the world is in Kaziranga, 32 animals per 100 sq km. More than 500 species birds occur in the park at some time or the other.
Kaziranga is also the largest savanna grassland left in the north-eastern India. Nearly one lakh tourists, mainly domestic but many foreigners visit the park every year making it the most visited site in the region. The park has a good range of accomodation and is well connected by National Highway. Visitors can see wildlife from elephant back as well as vehicles – and even from the National Highway!

Manas National Park – a scenic heritage
Also a world heritage site but listed as ‘in danger’, this 500 sq km picturesque park is also a tiger reserve under Project Tiger. Once a major destination in Assam, the disturbance in late 1980s and early 1990s had had its impact on the park. Bulk of its Rhinoceros and Swamp deer population have vanished but it still has Tiger, Elephant, Wild buffalo, Gaur or Indian bison, and the very rare Pigmy hog, Hispid hare and Golden langur. The Rhino has been reintroduced while the Swamp deer is making a slow comeback. The birdlife is also very rich, nearly 500 species with the rare Bengal Florican and many other endangered species. The situation has improved a lot and visitors can make it to this site of magnificent scenery and stay at the rest houses at the foot of the Eastern Himalaya.
Besides viewing wildlife from elephant back and vehicles, rafting on the fast-flowing and scenic Manas River also offer brearthtaking views of Himalayan scenery as well as wildlife.

Other wild destinations
But Kaziranga and Manas are not the only such sites in Assam. There is Nameri National Park, north of Tezpur where Tiger, elephants and the rare White-winged Wood Ducks can be seen. In Rajiv Gandhi Orang National Park and Pabitora Wildlife Sanctuary, both not very far from Guwahati, live two important surviving populations of the Great Indian one-horned rhinoceros. In the extreme eastern Assam, the salix swamps of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park are an exceptionally rich bird area while the rainforests of Bherjan-Borajan-Podumoni Wildlife Sanctuary and Upper Dihing reserved forests are known for their primates and White-winged Wood Duck. Pani-Dihing, Bordoibam-Bilmukh and Deepor Beel Bird Sanctuaries attract large number of wintering waterfowls. Other wildlife sanctuaries in Assam are Amchang, Chakrashila, Barail, Bornadi, Burhachapori, Dihing-Patkai, Sonai-Rupai, Laokhowa, East and North Karbi Anglong, complex of Nambor forests and Marat Longri. In the Barail Range, there is the famous Jatinga village of the ‘bird phenomenon’ fame.

Tourist facilities
All these wilderness are accessible by all weather motor able roads. There are descent guest houses, hotels and resorts catering needs of all ranges of tourists. The cost of hiring of light vehicles is reasonable while there are regular bus services connecting most of these places with Guwahati City and other major urban centres. Guwahati also has an international airport having daily flights to Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai with connecting flights to other cities of India as well as abroad. One just needs to plan and then pack–up for wild adventures!

Important contacts: Director of Tourism, Assam. Phone: 91-361-2547102 (telefax), 2542748.
Managing director, Assam Tourism Development Corporation.
Phone: 91-361-2454570. Website: www.assamtourism.org
Tourist Information Officer, Government of Assam, Kolkata.
Phone: 91-33-25387280, 22295094.

Author’s address: Joint Secretary, Tourism Department, Assam, Dispur, Guwahati 781 006, INDIA
Email: acbadru56@gmail.com

This article was first published in the BTTF-2010 Tourism Fair magazine. The BTTF fair was hosted by Tour Operators Association of Bangladesh (TOAB) on the 30th September to the 2ed November 2010 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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