Jaldadpara, home to Indian rhinos

This national park is a sanctuary, primarily for the Asiatic one-horned rhinoceros, and holds the highest rhino population in India after Kaziranga National Park in Assam

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By Journey Man

The Jaldapara National Park in West Bengal is a sanctuary, primarily for the Asiatic one-horned rhinoceros, and holds the highest rhino population in India after Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Of course, there are all the other attractions, including big cats and more, plus the trees. This is a heaven of a trip for nature and animal lovers.

Situated in the foothills of eastern Himalayas, the river Torsha flows through this rain forest sanctuary, the sanctuary encompasses a luxuriant vegetation and a rich variety of wildlife. The Malangi River also flows nearby from east to west. Riding elephants and 4×4 safaris are the only ways to move inside this forest. An elephant safari is preferred by most people staying at Jaldapara (in Holong lodge or other tourism lodges) overnight. The 4×4 safari is available both in the morning and in the afternoon.

The forest is mainly savannah, covered with tall elephant grass. The main attraction of the sanctuary is Asiatic one-horned rhinoceros. As said, the sanctuary holds the highest rhino population in India after Kaziranga National Park in Assam. The other animals found are tiger, elephant, deer, sambhar, barking deer, spotted deer, hog deer, wild pig and bison.

Bird watching and Jeep safari
Jaldapara is also a paradise for bird watchers. It is one of the very few places in India, where the rare Bengal florican (also called the Bengal Bustard) is sighted. The other birds found here are the crested eagle, Pallas’s fishing eagle and shikra, besides jungle fowl, peafowl, partridge, and lesser pied hornbill. Python, monitor lizard, krate, cobra, gecko and about 8 species of freshwater turtles have also found sanctuary here.

A thrilling elephant safari is organised in the early morning from Hollong to offer the exquisite beauty of the vast grassland of Jaldapara. The elephant ride is the best possible way to explore the sanctuary with the rare sight of one horned rhinos, Asiatic elephants, gaur (Indian bison), deer etc.

Jeep safari is another way to explore the wild. Jeep safari can be done from Madarihat Jaldapara Tourist Lodge and Kodal Basti Point on the way to Chilapata range.

Jaldapara national park has got great biodiversity and ecological significance as it forms the gene pool reserve for great one Horned Rhinoceros outside Assam and Nepal. The Rhino population in Jaldapara national park is a remnant of the erstwhile population inhabiting Indo-Gangetic plains which got geographically isolated due to fragmentation of habitat. As of now Jaldapara forms the second largest home for critically endangered great one-horned rhinoceros. In addition, Jaldapara harbours herds of bison, hispid hare, hog deer, sambar and Asian elephants etc.

Geographical Orientation
The forests of Jaldapara are spread North to South from the Bhutan border near Totopara in the North to Mathurabagan tea estate in the south. The length of the forest is almost 50 km. However, the width of the forest is thin and only 5 to 7 km along most of the stretch.

The northern side of the forest passes National Highway 317. The surrounding area of this highway is where tourist activity used to be concentrated in the past. Madarihat on this highway is a forest fringe town. Most major lodges and resorts including the tourism department accommodation are concentrated here. Many more tourist resorts have come up in the area and commonly when the name Jaldapara is referred to, most people mean Madarihat and its surrounding area.

Actually, Jaldapara is the name of a village and a market in the southern part of the forest. This is a relatively less touristy part of the forest where accommodations are few and far between.

History
Toto tribes and Mech Tribes (Bodos) used to stay in this area before 1800. At that time this place was known as “Totopara”. Formerly Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary (JWLS; established in 1941) was elevated to Jaldapara National Park (JNP) in May 2014 and is primarily meant for the conservation of Indian rhino. It was declared a sanctuary in 1941 for protection of its great variety of flora and fauna. Today, the park has the largest population of the Indian one-horned rhinoceros in the state, an animal threatened with extinction, and is a habitat management area (Category IV).

The rhinos
Jaldapara is known for its rhino population. There are only a few areas where this elusive beauty can be found. Apart from Kaziranga and Pobitara in Assam, Jaldapara in West Bengal has been the safe home for this wonderful species since long. The grass wetland, ideal for Rhino’s provides them natural habitat for their strong survival.

The Indian rhinoceros (rhinoceros unicornis) is also called greater one-horned rhinoceros and Asian one-horned rhinoceros and belongs to the Rhinocerotidae family. Listed as a vulnerable species, the large mammal is primarily found in north-eastern India’s Assam and in protected areas in the Terai of Nepal, where populations are confined to the riverine grasslands in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The Indian rhinoceros once ranged throughout the entire stretch of the Indo-Gangetic Plain but excessive hunting reduced the natural habitat drastically. Today, about 3,000 rhinos live in the wild, 2,000 of which are found in India’s Assam alone. It is the fourth largest land animal.

The name rhinoceros comes from the Greek words, “rhino” meaning nose and “ceros” meaning horn. The Asian One-horned Rhinoceros is monotypic, meaning there are no distinct subspecies.

The Asian One-horned Rhinoceros can run at speeds of up to 40 kmph for a short duration of time and is also an excellent swimmer. It has an excellent sense of hearing and smell, but relatively poor eyesight. The average lifespan of the Asian One-horned Rhinoceros is about 40 years.

Forest Types
Northern dry deciduous seral Khair Sissoo Association (5B/1S2), Eastern Bhabar Sal and eastern terai sal (3C/C1b and 3C/C1c),  Sub-Himalayan Secondary Wet-mixed Forests (2B/2S3), Eastern sub montane semi-evergreen (2B/C1), Northern Tropical evergreen (1B/C1), Sal savannah (3C/DS1), Lower alluvial savannah.

Flora
It contains a total of 585 identified species of flowering plants which belongs to 429 genera and 111 families. Out of which, 71 are grass species, 19 orchid species and 47 endangered plant species (29 genera) having conservation importance. Moreover, it contains many Pteridophytes, Bryophytes, Algae, Fungi and Lichens.

Fauna
This National Park has 33 species of carnivores & herbivores, approximately 246 species of birds, 29 species of reptiles, 8 species of turtles, 88 species of fishes and a host of other micro fauna. The Great Indian One Horned Rhinoceros ( Rhinoceros unicornis ) being the Flagship bearer species of the park, has two other mega-herbivores namely Asian elephant ( Elephus maximus ) and Indian Gour ( Bos gaurus ). Other animals of the park are Common Leopard ( Panthera leo pardus ), Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), Sambar ( Cervus unicolor ), Hog Deer ( Axis porcinus ), Hog badger (Arctonyx collaris), Fishing Cat (Felis viverrina), Jungle Cat (Felis chaus), Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), Indian Pied HornBill (Anthracoceros malabaricus). The park boasts of one of the rarest grassland obligate species of Hispid hare (Caprolagus hispidus).

How to Reach
By Air: Bagdogra is the nearest airport to Jaldapara from where tourists can reach Jaldapara by road-route via Siliguri.
By Train: The most important railway station in North East India is NJP. NJP is directly connected with all major stations in India. The nearest railway station to Jaldapara is Madarihat. All the mail and express trains stop at Birpara/Hasimara railway stations which are well connected to Jaldapara.
By Road: Jaldapara is connected by National Highway with Siliguri and can be reached by car. Madarihat is the entry point for the sanctuary. It is located on NH 31 (Siliguri-Hasimara section). North Bengal State Transport Corporation buses, Bhutan Government buses, minibuses are available from Siliguri to Alipurduar via Madarihat. Cars can also be hired at Siliguri to reach Jaldapara.

THINGS TO DO
Bird Watching: Set out with a pair of binoculars and see the majestic flight of Hornbill, Racket-Tailed Drongo and Asian Paradise Flycatcher. See the splendours of sun set beyond the vast grassland of Jaldapara from your Bungalow deck. Jaldapara is exceptionally rich in avifauna because of varied terrain, mosaic of vegetation and rich insect life. More than 240 species of birds are found in a variety of habitats- Grassland, water bodies, woodland. The varied tree forests and rich shrub growth on the forest floor provide ideal setting for many woodland birds, such as Green Pigeons, Hornbills, Barbets, Parakeets, Woodpeckers, Cuckoos, Orioles, Drongos, Babblers, Thrushes etc.

Brahminy ducks, whistling teals and Goosanders are winter visitors. The most common water birds are the large and little cormorant, Indian Shag, Darter, Egrets, Lesser Adjutant Stork, Pied Wagtail, Spur Winged Lapwing, Moorhen, White Breasted Waterhen etc. The night hunters in Jaldapara are the owls and the nightjars.

For those inclined towards photography, this is a great opportunity.

The hunters in Jaldapara are the Owls and Nightjars. Crested serpent Eagle is a common raptorial bird. The other main birds of prey are Pallas’s Fishing Eagle, Pied Harrier, Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Sparrow Hawk etc. A variety of birds, typical of grassland and open country, can be seen from watchtowers viz. Doves, Bee-eaters, Rollers, Hoopoe, Shrikes, Larks, Hill Mynas, Bulbuls, Finches. Call of the Red jungle fowl is as common as the musical sound of crickets. Bengal Florican, Black partridge, Shaheen Falcon, Great Pied Hornbills, Forest Eagle Owl, Large Green billed Malkoha and White Rumped Vulture, Lesser Adjutant Stork are the endangered bird species found in the Sanctuary. Some fortunate visitors can see the Peacock displaying his full array of feathers during the breeding season.

Wildlife in Jaldapara
The main attraction in Jaldapara for the tourists apart from its exquisite natural beauty is the Asiatic one-horned rhino which can be seen from the Elephant’s back while driving on a Jeep safari, or from a watchtower. The National Park holds the largest rhino population in India after Kaziranga National Park in Assam.

One can come across Elephants wandering in the woodland and frequenting the open grasslands, rivers, and glades. Massive Tuskers and Makhnas, Gaur, Hog Deer, Spotted Deer, magnificent pied Hornbill, colourful Green Pigeon, Peafowl and other feathered beauties will greet your eyes at the windowsill of the Hollong lodge.

Herds of Gaur (Indian Bison) are easily sighted in the early morning and late evening. Deer are well represented here with four species, the Chital, the Hog deer, the Sambar, and the Barking deer. Sambar, the largest of Asiatic deer, is usually seen in a small family group in the woodland and along streams. Unlike Chital, Hog deer are basically solitary in nature and the Barking deer is a small deer notable for its loud alarm call like the bark of a dog. Wild pigs can be seen in small parties around river banks and open grounds engaged in digging out tubers and bulbs.

Tigers and leopards are the main predators in this reserve, though seen rarely by tourists. Lesser cats of the reserve are jungle cats, leopard cats, and fishing cats. Other important animals in the National Park are the common otter, the small and large civet, Giant squirrel, pangolin, Hispid hare, porcupine, and Rock Python.

Amazing Facts
Jaldapara sanctuary is the habitat of endangered species like the Asiatic one-horned rhino and elephants. A thrilling elephant safari is organized in the early morning from Hollong to offer the exquisite beauty of the vast grassland of Jaldapara. The elephant ride is the best possible way to explore the sanctuary with the rare sight of Indian rhinos and Asiatic elephants. The jeep safari inside the sanctuary is another main attraction to the tourists.

An adventurous elephant ride in the morning will take you deep inside the grassland for real excitement. The sight of rhino in a muddy pond, the herd of elephants or the running deer are thrilling experiences in Jaldapara.

Jaldapara is a paradise for bird watchers. It is one of the very few places in India, where the Bengal Florican is sighted. The other birds to be found here are the Crested Eagle, Pallas’s Fishing Eagle and shikra, besides Jungle fowl, peafowl, partridges, Bengal Florican and lesser Pied Hornbill. Python, monitor lizards, krates, cobras, geckos and about 8 species of freshwater turtles have also found national parks here.

Places Nearby
Chilapata: River Torsa divides the continuous stretch of forest with Jaldapara on the western side and Chilapata being on the eastern side of the river. Chilapata has become a favourite tourist destination for many in the recent past. You can go for a forest visit with the permission of the forest department and be accompanied by an approved guide. Chilapata can easily be visited from Jaldapara as part of a day sightseeing tour as the distance is barely 15 km. Hidden deep inside the forest are the ruins of a thousand years old fort of Nal King that has tremendous historical and archaeological importance. Built in the 5th century during the Gupta Empire, the ruins still recall the memories of the Golden Age. Because the site is not maintained properly, it has now become the playground for leopards, snakes and other animals.

Khairbari: This is a small stretch of forest on the west side of Jaldapara forest. There is a leopard rescue centre at Khairbari named “South Khairbari Leopard Rescue Center”. In 2005 when performing with Wildlife was banned in Indian circuses, 19 rescued tigers were brought here at Khairbari. It was renamed “Khairbari Royal Bengal Tiger Rehabilitation and Research Centre”. The number of tigers is steadily decreasing here as most of the circus tigers died of age in the past. The number of Leopards at Khairbari is still substantial. The rescue centre is about 10 km from Jaldapara.

Bhutan Border: The border town of Phuentsholing is just 25 km from Jaldapara to Hasimara. There are no entry formalities for visiting the border town. Many tourists visit Phuentsholing as part of a half-day tour from here. You can also make Jaldapara your overnight halt on your way to a Bhutan trip.

SOUTH KHAIRBARI
South Khairbari Nature Park is located at Jaldapara. This tourist centre is actually a Leopard Rehabilitation Centre and Nature Park. River Boori Torsa is flowing through the forest. It is interesting to travel in the leopard’s empire on battery-driven cars. Recently the Royal Bengal Tigers released from the Circus Parties have been rehabilitated here. Going from Madarihat towards Birpara, a road on the left side goes to Khairbari. Sometimes a herd of elephants appear. There is a Watch Tower on the river bank from where you may see the leopards going this way and that, green waves on the sides of the river, and scenes of boating. There is a wooden bridge over the river. There are many arrangements for children’s enjoyment in the Park. It is also a picnic spot.

Where to Stay
Hollong Forest lodgeStarting price @ Rs 2599
Situated inside Jaldapara national Park at a distance of 7km from the main gate. Hollong Tourist lodge is the most sought after destination as it provides excellent wild animal sighting in addition to staying amidst forest amongst whispering birds and un-parallel wilderness. The booking of Hollong can be done from the West Bengal tourism development corporation website.

South Khairbari Eco Cottages: Three double bed Cottages and 1 (one) 10 (ten) bed dormitory are available for night stay to nature lovers. All accommodation has attached lavatories. It is 10 km away from Madarihat and one can drive through the beautiful jungles of Khairbari to reach the place.

Mendabari: Situated in Mendabari Beat adjoining Chilapata-Mendabari Forest. Two rooms (one three bedded and another two bedded) and two 4 bedded dormitories are available. From this place Bania Ruins (Nal Rajar Garh) & Bania watch Towers can easily be accessed. It is a kilometre away from NH 31 C and is 20 km away from Madarihat.

NOTE: During the rainy season the forest remains closed to tourists. The duration is normally from June 15 to September 15.