Tourists on elephant back at Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary Photo: Barcroft Media / Getty Images
Early this March, bored of staying at home due to the coronavirus, my mother and I decided to make the most of our free time and visit Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, known for its population of the one-horned rhinoceros, or the Indian rhino. A one-hour drive from the city of Guwahati, Assam gets you to this peaceful sanctuary, sometimes overlooked for the more famous Kaziranga National Park.
The pleasant early-morning drive took us through sleepy hamlets, past lush paddy fields. At Pobitora, only a handful of cars were parked outside—not surprising given that Kaziranga, its more famous neighbour, pulls in most crowds. Kaziranga attracts more tourists because it also has a sizable tiger population, something Pobitora lacks. But it makes up for this by having the highest density of the one-horned rhino in the world.
Better odds of sighting the rhino
Mukul Tamuli, the range officer of Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary tells us that there are 102 rhinos in Pobitora, according to the 2018 census. He goes on to explain that even though the total area of the sanctuary is 38.8 sq km, the actual rhino breeding area is only 16 sq km. “This means there are 102 rhinos in 16 sq km which makes the density around seven rhinos per sq km.” In contrast, Kaziranga has 2,413 rhinos over an area of 430 sq km which puts the density at roughly six rhinos per sq km.
“Pobitora is made up of the Pobitora plains and Burra Mayong,” Tamuli says. “In the beginning, Pobitora was only a plain spanning 16 sq km. This is where the rhinos lived and continue to do so. The Burra Mayong, which is a hill, was added later as other animals in the sanctuary were seen to migrate there during the floods. The animals found there are mostly leopard, barking deer and sambar deer. Rhinos don’t move to Burra Mayong even when the floodwaters rise. They take refuge in the artificial highlands that we have built for them in the plains.”
A day at Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary
If you’re looking to get a closer view of the one-horned rhino, then hop onto one of the daily jeep safaris, like we did. The forest authorities conduct early morning elephant safaris along with all-day jeep safaris. Elephant safaris start at 6.30am and 7.30am. The hour-long safari costs Rs500 per person. Jeep safaris are Rs1,000 an hour for the vehicle (plus Rs300 as the vehicle entry pass and Rs50 visitor entry pass). If you’re a photography enthusiast, the jeep safari is your best bet. These take you right into the heart of the jungle and closer to the beels (wetlands) where you can get great close-up shots.
Our jeep took us discomfitingly close to the rhinos grazing in the grassland, although our guide reassured us we were safe. We sat in pin-drop silence while my mum and tourists in another jeep clicked pictures of the seemingly gentle beast. At one point, two of the rhinos lifted their heads and looked straight at us as if to say, don’t you dare come close. Needless to say, I was mighty relieved when we drove off.
Pobitora is also a birdwatcher’s paradise. Over 50 species of migratory birds visit the region each year during winter, travelling all the way from northern Europe, northern Asia, North America, Africa and the Himalayas. By January, the beels are teeming with flocks of northern pintail, common shelduck, ruddy shelduck, common pochard, white-fronted goose, greylag goose, painted stork and pied avocet, to name a few. Non-migratory birds found at the sanctuary include the rufous treepie, serpent eagle and Indian roller. My mother, an avid birder, was delighted to spot the red-collared dove, a graceful bird with a pale red plumage and a black stripe around the neck.
The woods in Pobitora are home to several species of civet cat like the Asian palm civet cat, large Indian civet cat and small Indian civet cat. Our safari guide, Umesh Medhi, tells us that civet cats are elusive creatures and seldom let themselves be seen. ‘But they come out when the dimorus (a type of fig) ripen. If you happen to spot them, it’s most likely near a dimoru tree.’
Pobitora has a sizable population of monitor lizard, although you have to look very closely as they are masters of camouflage and stay hidden in the brown terrain. We were lucky to spot two, but both promptly dived into the undergrowth. The grasslands also harbour wild boar. We came upon a group of sprightly little piglets frolicking on the forest floor. The Gangetic river dolphin is another attraction, with the best time for dolphin-watching being November through June when boat safaris are available. And if you happen to visit during the months of March and April, keep a lookout for the orchids that burst to life during this season and paint the landscape in brilliant hues of pink, purple and white—an absolute feast for the eyes.
The good thing about Pobitora is its proximity to Guwahati, the city with the busiest airport in Assam. One of four natural habitats of the rhino in the state–the others being Kaziranga National Park, Manas National Park and Orang National Park–Pobitora is the closest to the city. i. It can be reached within an hour by road, unlike other parks which take at least three to four hours. So, if you are in town on work and have just a day or less to spare, head to Pobitora. You can go and come back the same day, and still be on time to catch a late-evening flight out of the city.
You can book a car through local travel agents or use services like Ola and Uber. You may also spend the night there in one of the private resorts like Maibong Eco Resort or Pobitora Village Eco Camp. These offer decent room and board, and also have souvenir shops that sell handicrafts like bamboo jewelry, water hyacinth handbags and, of course, miniature wooden rhinos.
For jeep safaris in Pobitora, contact: 7002261255 / 9859573518.