Chasing the Tiger at Kanha
The driver took a sharp left turn, off the tarred road and onto a narrow mud track.
I closed my eyes, leaned back and took in a deep breath.
It had been raining on and off for the last few days and while it hadn’t rained for a few hours, the aroma that rains set off, lingered on. The wonderful smell of wet soil was strong and in some mysterious way, nostalgic, bringing in fleeting memories of childhood. There was a lovely, wet, fresh feel to the air.
Slowly, the sounds started taking over.
The sound of the crickets. Loud. Insistent. Persistent.
A flock of jungle babblers shot off a volley of protest at our approaching vehicle in a rather loud and rude manner, while also serving a needless warning to the other denizens in the neighborhood.
‘Brain Fever ! Brain Fever ! “ tirelessly screamed the brain fever bird or the Common Hawk Cuckoo.
A loud, short bellow rang out drowning all the other sounds. The male sambar’s mating call. It did sound rather agonizing, almost like the shriek of an animal that has just got pounced by a predator.
And then from somewhere close by, there was the call of a peacock. A loud and longish ‘eeeiww’. And, for the umpteenth time, I mused over the mismatch between the sound of the call and the colourful beauty that the bird loved to showcase.
Briefly, silence descended.
Only the crickets continued. Loud. Insistent. Persistent.
The vehicle lurched slightly as it hit a small depression on the track and there was that soft squelch as the tires splashed muddy water around.
I took another deep breath and opened my eyes.
It felt wonderful to be back in the jungle.
Two weeks back on a Sunday, I had got a call from a good friend. They were planning a trip to Kanha and two of the confirmed people had dropped out at the last minute, so would I be interested ?
Perfect time. I had nothing much planned at the time, my son was around for his vacations, he too loves being in the forest.
And here we were.
We had reached Kanha just in time to have a quick lunch, drop our bags and hop on to the safari vehicles.
Kanha. The place that inspired the lovable characters of the evergreen Kipling classic – The Jungle Book. A drive through the park will give you a good idea as to why Kipling could have come up with those unforgettable characters. The place almost demands it !
Its an incredibly beautiful place and one of the loveliest forests I have been to. Lovely, vast, open rolling meadows. Undulating terrain. Thick forest covers. Streams running through. I am told that in winters, the beauty is touches surreal levels with the ‘kohra’ hanging in a ghostly manner in the air.
A lovely forest park in Madhya Pradesh that covers more than 900 sq km in the Maikal range of the Satpuras, the Kanha National Park forms the core of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, created under Project Tiger in 1974.
While Kanha offers you a real variety of wildlife to savour – the blackbucks that were reintroduced here, the strong preservation of the Barasingha, the leopards, the numerous birds, its possibly one animal that the Kanha is most associated with.
Now, any game drive has that one big question that needs to be addressed.
Do we stop and take pics of every interesting photo op that comes up ? Even if it features the ordinary langur ? Or the even more ordinary deer ? Or even the bee eater ?
Or do we stop wasting time on such idle pursuits and focus with singleminded determination on just figuring out where the tiger could be holed up ?
Its not an easy decision and I have been on vehicles where there are sharply divided views about it. The tiger is magnificent animal and a glimpse of one in its natural surroundings is a heart stopping, goose-bump delivering moment. On the other hand, its not easy to sight a tiger and many lovely forest moments featuring the less exciting creatures tend to get missed when one is running behind a tiger sighting.
But, this time all of us were clear. Today, we just had one focus. The tiger.
Everything else was secondary.
We were in a zone that was rather thick in its tree cover. There were no rolling hills, no meadows, just thick, seemingly impenetrable trees.
We had a glimpse of a monitor lizard on one of the branches. A serpent eagle glanced at us quite unperturbed. We didn’t tarry for too long, just a few clicks and we were off.
A few quick shots of the serpent eagle and we were off on our pursuit…
We sat, tightly gripping our cameras, flush with the thrill, the tension that the first safari into the jungle invariably brings in, eyes scanning the trees carefully, alert to the slightest movement which might indicate the presence of an animal. In reality, though it will invariably be the sharp eyes of the guide that will sight anything noteworthy.
Sunlight twinkled in every now and then through the thick mass of leaves above us. The usual forest sounds all around us. The chirping of the birds. The crickets. The deer looking up in polite enquiry as we drove up and the particularly skittish ones bounding away in alarm.
But. No alarm calls of the monkeys. No alarm calls of the barking deer.
Nothing to give any indication about either the location or the movement of any tiger.
One of the most fascinating aspects of chasing a tiger in the forest is the alarm calls. What exactly is an alarm call ? Its just the call that one of the animals gives it when it sights a predator alerting the rest of its herd.
An experienced guide can easily distinguish between the normal calls of the animals and the alarm call. The alarm calls are short and intense. Also, the alarm calls of all the animals don’t have the same level of certainty of a predator actually being around.
The barking deer’s alarm call might be said to be low on accuracy. It’s a skittish animal and tends to set off its alarm calls at the slightest reason. The monkey’s alarm calls are fairly accurate since they give the call only when they actually sight the tiger. However, the monkey keeps an eye out for the tiger from the tree tops and hence its sighting could be from a considerable distance. The most accurate call is said to be given by the sambar. If the sambar gives its call twice in succession then a tiger is most definitely in the vicinity.
By the way, the monkey’s alarm call is said to be different for tigers and leopards. Leopards can climb trees and the intensity in the alarm call when the monkey spots a leopard apparently is far higher.
Its fascinating to try to listen to the different calls and understand which one is an alarm call and which one needs to be given more importance. Try it the next time you are in a forest.
We drove up a slight incline leading to a T junction and as the driver slowed down to figure out which way to turn, we noticed a line of vehicles on the track that turned to the right.
Our driver eased up next to the one at the end of the line.
“ Tiger cubs. Two of them”, offered the driver of the other vehicle.
Everyone in our vehicle stiffened and sat up.
Tigers ! In the very first safari ! Wow !
We stood up, trying to peer through the really thick and dense foliage in front of us. We were on quite a narrow track with a thick cover of both bushes and trees on both sides. Thick tree cover above us. Natural lighting wasn’t great.
All of us squinted into the bushes in front of us. Tense. Excited. Will we get a good sighting ?
Apparently, the cubs were seen entering into the thicket from the opposite side. The most natural exit for them would be along the path all of us were waiting on. The one issue would be the long line of vehicles. In just the last few minutes of our arrival, there were at least 5-6 more vehicles behind us. The cubs would still be nervous about vehicles. Especially, if they are without the mother and as of now, no one had mentioned seeing the mother too.
The strange point was that there were no alarm calls. The forest was still.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
“There!” whispered someone.
And, there through the incredibly thick bushes and branches we saw that wonderful sight for just that magical second.
A striped whisper. A glimpse of a brilliant orange reflecting the setting sun’s glory. And then it was gone.
Leaving behind a teasing memory.
The general opinion amongst the guides was that the cubs were wanting to cross the path we were on, get on to the thickets the other side and proceed beyond that to where possibly the mother would be.
The only question was when. Will they do it after all of us leave ? The sun was setting and we were nearing the cut off time.
Some of the vehicles behind us started moving away. Slowly, I am not sure if by accident or by design there was a gap between us and the vehicles behind us.
And, before we could realize it, there was a blur and one of the cubs bolted through the gap, crossed the path into the bushes on the other side. I squeezed in a few shots but they were really bad ones.
Terrible pic…none of us expected it to bolt when it did !!
We knew that the other one would follow soon. The light was going down and all of us were fully alert.
The second one crossed !
Wasted opportunity. And I was ready this time. That’s how it goes…no second chances
Again, though none of us could get any decent shots.
It looked as if the show was over and most of the vehicles started dispersing.
Our driver took a U turn and started accelerating back down the path we had come by.
He was assuming that the cubs, if they continue to go through the bushes, will come out at a point further away and if we are lucky, we could catch a glimpse.
We reached the point. And there on our left was a narrow path that expanded into a much broader clearing.
It was, however, a fair distance away. The fading light was the other concern. The only slight point in our favour was that the sun was setting opposite us and that resulted in the clearing getting some light.
Just as we were wondering if we have enough time to wait for some more time or if we should start heading towards the exit gates, without any warning, one of the cubs stepped out into the path.
It moved down the path, reached the clearing and at that precise moment where the poor light was at its strongest, it turned around to look at us.
Too far away. Low light. But still…the thrill of just watching it… Unmatched !
The cameras went ballistic.
Slowly, the majestic creature went into the darkness on the other side.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing that comes close to the sighting of a tiger in the wild. There’s pure magic in that moment. You are in absolute awe at this magnificent creation of Nature, at that power, grace and that unmistakable sense of ownership of the forest it exudes as it moves through its territory with stately disdain for everything around it.
Right from the thrill of the anticipation of the chase, running to where the alarm calls come from, to the slight hint of a glimpse in the forest to the actual instant when the tiger steps into full view…it’s an experience that defies adequate description.
Personally, each of these stages separately has its share of fun even if it doesn’t culminate in a sighting.
Of course, there are exceptions.
While I will never quibble over any sighting, its infinitely more exciting to see a tiger step into your sight rather than stumble upon one lying on the ground or in the water doing nothing. Which happened the very next morning when we heard about a male tiger cooling off in a man made pool.
If only, our guy had got up and walked towards us…but !
We hung around for an hour or so but our guy was in quite a lethargic mood. We kept waiting thinking that by some wonderful stroke of good luck it will get out and walk towards us. We can get some lovely close head shots.
Nope. No such luck.
After an interminable wait, our man got up and walked away from us into the forest.
The way of the jungle.
Sometimes patience pays off. Many times it doesn’t.
One would have thought that with such a start to a trip things would only get better.
Well, it didn’t 😦 …the next few days were spent roaming around different zones without so much as a whiff of a tiger !
To me, it didn’t matter much. Just the delight of roaming around in the wild is good enough for me. Plus, you definitely get enough and more opportunities to take other interesting shots.
We spent a lovely time watching the langurs playing. Its such fun !!
This jackal was quite a bold one…kept trotting right up to us without any trace of fear or shyness
I have rarely taken deer shots. Found the way the fawn was taking shelter under the mother very endearing
A couple of mongoose were sunning themselves on a branch when we drove past
A grey breasted prinia looking slightly alarmed
This jackal, on the other hand was extremely wary of our presence
Sometimes even of a bee eater !
However, there were a few disquieting moments.
I guess, it happens across most if not all, national parks and its also in tune with the culture of both ‘official appeasement” and the ‘ official right” that unfortunately permeates everywhere.
This was what the other group experienced .
They had seen a male tiger step out of the trees and walk along the main track. As the long line of vehicles kept up an awestruck watch, two mahout led elephants belonging to the park walked up and pushed the tiger back into the forest. Initially, our friends felt that the authorities had decided to protect the tiger from the irritation of having such a large number of vehicles gawking at it. Understandable.
Not so. The pair of elephants pushed the tiger not only back into the forest but actually pushed into a thicket and ensured that it stayed there.
This seemed mighty curious. One could understand the tiger being pushed back into the forest. But why corner it in this manner ?
The age old reason.
Some senior Government official was due to come that afternoon with his family for a safari and of course, a ‘natural sighting’ would thrill him and his family. At the appropriate time, as his vehicle would be near, the elephants will move away and the tiger would present itself.
One is not sure if the official demanded this or whether the forest guys decided to honour his visit thus, but its just so very putting off that we do such ludicrous things.
Here, we have such a wonderfully preserved forest. The tigers are doing very well here. The blackbucks have been reintroduced. The Barasingha, threatened with extinction has been coaxed back into numbers.
Why sully such good work with such asinine behavior ? Why !!!
A few useful points about Kanha.
How to reach there ?
Jabalpur is the closest airport. Nagpur might be the airport with better connectivity. A drive from the Jabalpur airport is around 170 kms and might take around 4 odd hours. Nagpur is a bit further off and the distance by road would take almost 6 hours. The distance will vary depending on which gate your resort is at. More about the gates later.
Hmm…quite a long way. Any other places to combine and visit ?
There are a few other National Parks in the vicinity. The Bandhavgarh National Park is about 250 Kms from Kanha. The Pench Tiger Reserve is around 250 Kms away. You can easily plan a longish trip visiting any one of these parks too.
What’s this point about the different gates at Kanha ?
There are three gates :
Khatia / Kisli is the oldest entrance. Most of the mid range and the lower price range resorts are supposed to be found here
Mukki was opened subsequently to reduce the load at Khatia. Quite a few of the more upmarket and luxurious resorts are close to this gate
Sarhi is the latest entrance. Its still gaining in popularity and apparently accommodation facilities are just starting to sprout there
Any really good time to visit ?
The park remains closed from mid or end June to September end during the monsoons.
Then it depends on what you really want to see. October to December is a lovely time when the forest becomes surreal in its beauty with the mist and the fog adding to the beauty of the place. Tiger sightings usually are lot more frequent in summer.
Weather ? Anything specific to know ?
Nothing remarkable. Like in any wild place, best to wear muted colours, avoid all the bright pinks and yellows. Be prepared for it to be really cool in the mornings so best carry some warm stuff. If there is the chance of showers, its advisable to carry rain covers for your gear. Winters are quite cold and you better go well prepared !
Places to stay ?
No dearth of choice. You have places to fit any budget. Budget resorts, standard resorts, deluxe resorts, luxury resorts….all of ‘em are there. Take your pick.
Anything to know about the safaris ?
Like in most parks, there are two safaris each day. The first one starts at around 5.30 or 6.00 am ( check the exact time ) and lasts for around 4-5 hours. The second one is post lunch at around 3.30 pm for about 3 hours.
There are some formalities at the entrance that the driver will take care of, but it does take a little time and there is a very long line of vehicles waiting so its advisable to plan to be at the entrance gates much before the opening of the gate to save time. We used to reach the gates at least 75 minutes before the gates opened.
The rates will vary from resort to resort but usually it will be around Rs. 4000-Rs. 5000 for a budget resort ( per vehicle ).
There are four zones that are available. Each zone has a fixed number of vehicles that are allowed. To go for a safari, one has to purchase the entrance ticket which can be booked online, through the travel agent or from the booking counter at the entrance gate. Other than the entrance ticket, the vehicle cost and the guide cost will be additional.