Bubul Gogoi, a mahout who doubles as a forest guard, watches over a rhino as it crosses a dirt track. Gogoi’s weapon is an ancient .303 rifle held together by a strip of cane woven over its stock.
| Purno Mahalia (fourth from left) with the team at the Tortoroni anti-poaching camp. Pictures by Pranab Bora
Kaziranga, April 4: Purno Mahalia, a deputy ranger at Kaziranga National Park, is 53 but has voted only once in his life.
Not here but “outside” —when he was home on leave —in 2009.
That’s how it has been, and will be, in Kaziranga. For the five forest guards at the Tortoroni anti-poaching camp, way “inside” the range, and the 395 people manning the park’s 152 other camps, there will be no voting this summer, either.
Life here is made up largely of two Assamese words, “bahirot” (outside) and “bhitorot” (inside).
“Inside” is where days and weeks, sometimes up to four months at a stretch, are spent in whispering silence in the wilds, ears strained for the crack of a poacher’s gun that might target a precious rhino.
The poachers come mostly from across the mountains of Karbi Anglong, to the right of the sanctuary if you are heading along National Highway 37 towards Upper Assam.
Sometimes, they strike from the Brahmaputra, Mora Dhansiri, Diphlu or the Mora Diphlu, the four rivers that run through the park’s 880sqkm of undulating forests, wetlands and elephant grass.
Armed with automatic weapons that are easily available in the trouble-torn Northeast, the sharpshooters roam the waters in country boats for days, living on handfuls of sira, or flattened rice, as they wait for a kill.
“Outside”, two or three-member foot patrols comb the forests in the evening, returning about 8pm and resuming again at 3 in the morning.
The early hours are when the poachers look to strike, says Mahalia, who is attached to the Agoratoli range, speaking for the five guards who man Tortoroni. Their firepower ranges from the ancient .303 rifles to the SLRs the new Assam Forest Protection Force is equipped with.
An elephant idles down the Brahmaputra’s banks a few hundreds metres from the Tortoroni camp, which derives its name from the croaks of the frogs in the nearby marshes.
“That’s a mokhona (bull elephant),” says Mahalia, beaming a powerful flashlight onto the riverbank to show us the animals — scores of deer and wild buffaloes, maybe three rhinos that have appeared out of the bushes to graze, and the elephant.
“This is the mating season and he’s in musth. Elephants like this one that walk alone now are dangerous,” he says.
“We normally don’t do this: flashing a light only means telling the poachers where you are.”
Within the camp, men learn to live by dim, smoky kerosene lamps. Conversations are kept low and camera flashes are frowned on.
We have been allowed to stay far beyond the closing hours: visitors are supposed to leave before dark.
“Our media must be sensitised about the work our people in Kaziranga do,” M.K. Yadava, director of the park, later says. He lets us in on a code the park lives by.
“Our guards don’t get to vote or go home during festivals. And they rarely get leave. So our officers stay back as well. We don’t take our holidays during festivals,” he says, at work on Sunday.
Bahirot, outside, the park’s patrols in khaki are mostly made up of men who have seen battle bhitorot.
“People who have been injured by rhinos or, say, mauled by tigers — or those who may have taken a bullet and are no longer capable of working inside — are posted outside,” Mahalia says.
A rhino had attacked Amal Chandra Das in 1994 when he was a guard inside. The animal stomped on him and chewed up a large part of his leg. Das narrowly survived and after months of treatment returned to work bahirot.
He is now in charge of the wireless at the park’s Bagori range. “I have six years before I retire,” he smiles.
Just about a fifth of the park is open to visitors, who come every morning and afternoon, crammed in open SUVs or riding elephants, a noisy picture of hats and caps, craned necks, binoculars and cameras.
The rest of the grasslands, and the attendant serenity, belong to the animals and their guards. The visiting season stretches from November to April. For the remaining months, this park, 250km from Guwahati, is like the rest of Assam’s valleys and plains, thrashed by relentless and unsparing monsoon rains.
The general election in Assam — scheduled on April 7, 12 and 24 — should just about miss the rains but, as always, nothing would change in Kaziranga. At least, there’ll be no voting for the park’s 400 guards bhitorot.
What about postal ballots for the soldiers of the wildlife frontier?
“That would be up to the election commissioner,” says Pradipta Barua, assistant conservator of forests, who is in charge of the Bagori range.
Barua is part of a team of the state’s ablest forest officers who were brought in to look after the park in 2012 after a sudden rise in poaching. “Moving our guards for anything would only open the park to poachers.”
Kaziranga is part of the Kaliabor and Tezpur Lok Sabha constituencies, two of the state’s 14 seats. The contest in Kaliabor is between Congress candidate Gaurav Gogoi, son of chief minister Tarun Gogoi, and Arun Sarma of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). In Tezpur, the key contestants are Joseph Toppo of the AGP and Bhupen Kumar Borah of the Congress.
But that’s bahirot. Bhitorot, the khaki-clad men of Kaziranga are on guard.
Kaziranga votes on April 7