Elephants and dolphins in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, Assam
My early morning grump at what seemed to be extortionate entry fees for a three-hour, out-of-season bird-watching trip in Assam’s Dibru-Saikhowa National Park disappeared as soon as we saw the wild elephants.
One noisy, rickety, wooden motor boat with three crew, two tour guides and two park guides with guns later, the Rps5,500 fee (about £70, including Rps500 camera fee for one camera and boat hire for two) didn’t seem quite so bad. After five wild elephants, numerous kingfishers, egrets, wagtails, bee eaters, cormorants, snake birds, storks, wild buffalo and about 15 Ganges River dolphins I was positively beaming, considering scattering rupees into the river in the hope that each one would make another stampede of nature’s finest displays more likely.
The Dibru-Saikhowa National Park was awarded national park status in 1999. Since then its population of river dolphins has grown and the park guides haven’t lost any elephants to poachers recently. In fact, their job is as much about protecting tourists from rampaging animals as it is protecting animals from greedy poachers. One guide told us they only ever fire warning shots, and they do this so infrequently they only change their bullet cartridge once a year, due to rust. The biggest problem is illegal logging.
The park is beautiful. Even if I hadn’t been mollified by my first ever sighting of elephants in the wild, my spendthrift soul would have been placated by simply chugging along the river. The Dibru was in all its monsoon-plumped glory. The fast-flowing mud-brown waters were smooth enough to give a sepia-tinged reflection of everything that got close enough. The bright-blue sky was fringed with cumulonimbus clouds perching on the foothills of the Himalayas, clearly visible in the distance. In winter, peak birding and wildlife-watching season, the river is so low you can trek across many of the channels our clattering tub chugged along.
We stopped, unexpectedly, for a jungle trek I was poorly prepared for: flip flops, knee-length trousers and a shoulder-slung shopper do not a good trekking outfit make, particularly for damp jungle paths lined with frogs, thorns and spiky fallen leaves. The few scratches and leeches I picked up were all worth it when I saw my first ever pile of wild elephant poo. From a real wild elephant!
The elephant theme only got better. Later on we pulled ashore near where we had earlier seen the beasts and, feeling adventurous, I climbed a tree. I gained a glimpse of a far-off elephant back and felt like I’d won a trip to the moon (a Good Thing).
The undisputed highlight of the day, though, was eating a freshly-cooked lunch on the deck of our boat with a view across a curve of river renowned for its popularity with Ganges River dolphins. The river dolphin is a highly endangered species, threatened by fishing, oil exploration, sand mining, poachers, dam building and deforestation. According to locals, the river dolphin was one of the most common large animals in the Brahmaputra River system 30 years ago, but today the Brahmaputra population is down to around 240-300. Recent conservation efforts have seen some success; the mammal has been made Assam’s state aquatic animal and there is talk of introducing special dolphin protected areas along the Brahmaputra. We must have seen about 15 different dolphins splashing in the chocolate waters and, provided more efforts are made to preserve this creature, that sight alone was worth the entrance fee.