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Last Updated: Friday, 18 February 2005, 10:08 GMT
Kaziranga's centenary celebrations

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, north east India

Rhino at Kaziranga national park
Kaziranga is home to a wide variety of wildlife (Images: Kaziranga centenary website)

Two Britons were the centre of attention at the centenary celebrations of the Kaziranga National Park in India's Assam state, home to a wide variety of endangered wildlife.

The centenary celebrations began with the opening of several fairs and exhibitions that were followed by seminars on conservation.

Guest of Honour for the occasion was Lord Ravensdale, grandson of British Viceroy Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, the man behind Bengal's first partition in 1905.

The viceroy's American-born wife, Mary Curzon, was a great wildlife enthusiast and pushed his officials to declare Kaziranga a forestry reserve in 1905. Later it was upgraded to a game sanctuary and a national wildlife park.

'Big and unmanageable'

"I was surprised to be invited by the Assam government, and I have enjoyed every moment of my stay here," said Lord Ravensdale.

"It is good to see Indians realising my grandfather was no villain, that he was a very sensitive administrator and if he partitioned Bengal, it was for administrative reasons because the province was too big and unmanageable."

Elephant and rhino at Kaziranga
Kaziranga is described as a nerve centre for unique biodiversity

But many Bengalis still believe that Lord Curzon - the man who gave Calcutta its famed Victoria Memorial - orchestrated the partition of Bengal to weaken the powerful nationalist movement in the province.

"I don't care whether he cared for rhinos. He wanted to break the nationalist movement in Bengal and drive a wedge between Bengali Hindus and Muslims. That was his motive behind his partitioning of Bengal, nothing else," said Satyeswar Mukhopadhyay, a veteran freedom fighter.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi said that Lord Ravensdale was invited to formally recognise his grandfather's "pioneering role in setting up Kaziranga". Also invited with the peer was British author Mark Shands.

Legend has it that an Assamese animal spotter, Balaram Hazarika, took Mary Curzon around Kaziranga when she visited the area with her husband in 1904.

Rampant poaching

Hazarika, also known as Nigana Shikari, is said to have convinced the viceroy's wife that something had to be done to save the rhinos.

At that time there were only about 10 to 20 left due to rampant poaching.

The decision to declare Kaziranga as a reserve forest and later a national park proved life-saving for the rhinos.

By 1966, the population had risen to 366, and the quality of conservation got even better when Kaziranga was declared a national park in 1974.

Mary Curzon
Lady Curzon urged her husband to preserve Kaziranga

Now there are more than 1,700 rhinos in the park, despite some casualties due to Assam's devastating floods and poaching.

The state's separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) started "trying" and killing poachers in the 1980s.

The India army has also killed some poachers, mistaking them for insurgents.

"We constructed several high termite mounds to help rhinos to survive during the floods," says Rajendra Prasad Agrawal, chief conservator of forests in Assam.

But though the rhino is the prime tourist and conservationist's attraction at Kaziranga, the park's centenary celebration committee has put the spotlight on other wildlife rarities.

The Asiatic water buffalo, the Royal Bengal tiger, the Asiatic elephant and swamp deer all roam the park. These animals along with the one-horned rhino make the Big Five of Kaziranga.

'Unique biodiversity'

"Kaziranga is globally known as the home of the rhino," said Assam Forest Minister Pradyut Bordoloi.

1905: Proposed as a forestry reserve
1916: Declared game sanctuary
1974: Declared national park
1985: Becomes a world heritage site

"But what often escapes notice is the fact that this 450 sq km National Park has the world's highest concentration of Royal Bengal tigers, Asiatic elephants and Asiatic buffalos."

If the Kaziranga rhinos number over 1,700 (according to the 1999 census), the Asiatic water buffalo count is more than 1,500 while the elephants number over 1,048.

The number of Royal Bengal tigers in this World Heritage Site is more than that of Ranthambhore and Kanha tiger parks in north India put together.

Wildlife experts have said the Kaziranga buffaloes are the purest breed anywhere in the world.

The centenary celebrations earlier this month have given the authorities an opportunity to showcase Kaziranga's fauna, too.

Ornithologists have documented over 500 species of birds at Kaziranga, at least a 100 more than India's most renowned bird sanctuary - Bharatpur. It also has a wide range of primates.

Of the 14 species found in India, nine are in Kaziranga and outlying wildlife reserves alone.

Mr Agarwalla may not be exaggerating when he says that Kaziranga is the nerve centre of a unique biodiversity.

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