That's millions of pounds of prey. Yet neither wolves nor Indian wild dogs roam here. The resident sloth bears dine on termites and vegetation, while leopards favor the surrounding hillside forests for hunting. When the hog deer snort in alarm or the buffalo all swing their crescent-horned heads to stare toward the same patch of grass, what's coming is most likely striped and orange with paws the size of plates.
It was the deer's suddenly raised tails that tipped me off: tiger time. One had moved into the opening around a drying lake just a stone's throw from me, but I couldn't find it. I was looking too low to the ground. The first thing I saw were legs. Then I was staring at a cat that loomed over the tallest deer, weighed 500 pounds, and looked made of flames. Then the hunter and the hunted vanished, leaving me to stare again into the sun-dappled stalks that had framed the tiger's silhouette for just a moment.
In the face of widespread deforestation and poaching, coupled with weak protection at many reserves, the majority of India's tigers have disappeared over the past 25 years. Yet they seem to be thriving within Kaziranga. The official estimate is now 90 to a hundred, composing what may be the densest concentration in the world today.
What's so right about the park that it can pack this many big animals into a modest-size area? The answer flows from the river. Beginning high in Tibet, the Brahmaputra runs east for about 700 miles, draining the north side of the Himalaya before making a U-turn to continue 500 miles through India and Bangladesh. When the summer monsoon adds torrential rains to the watershed, the river spills out over the valley. By the time the surge recedes, it will have coated the floodplain with a fresh layer of nutrient-charged silt. Sedges and a variety of tallgrasses arise from the muck in luxuriant profusion. Their specialty is converting sunlight into nonwoody tissues loaded with starch; that is, into vast fields of high-energy food—fields that grow 20 feet high.
We think of forests as the places in the subtropics with the most wildlife and the greatest need for conservation. But the tallgrass habitats of alluvial plains are richer in large native animals and far more rare. The park has meadows of naturally short grasses too, and the throngs of creatures visible on those open savannas rival scenes from the most famous African parks.
On slightly higher ground, trees such as Indian lilac form airy forest canopies roped with vines. Rhesus macaques troop past the buttressed trunks. Parakeets and great hornbills decorate the branches. Cup your ears, and the voices of hundreds of other bird species swell from the shadows like a distant crowd cheering.