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Spotting Tigers in Kanha National Park

by Travelbag on 02 December 2019, 10:12AM

Kanha National Park

India is home to the majority of the world’s Bengal tigers. While still an endangered species, conservation efforts have led to an increase in the population. There are now a third more tigers in India than there were four years ago. While there are a number of tiger reserves across the country where you can spot these majestic beasts, Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh is one of the best. As Mike MacEacheran explains, a 4x4 safari here is a journey into the heart and soul of India.

It’s nearly sunset in central India – that dusky, magic hour when shopkeepers close their shutters for the day and bicycle rickshaw drivers rest their bones. Some linger by the roadside to socialise while farmers return from fields, praying to safeguard their cattle from predators. Everywhere, insects whine and the night air hums with heat. But in the depths of the vast meadows of Kanha National Park, the day is far from over. This is the territory of the Bengal tiger – the magnificent, almost mythical carnivore – and just as the park’s Barasingha swamp deer and spotted chital are readying for bed, the wild-eyed, pin-striped hunter is edging ever closer to breakfast.

We are in the final hour of an evening safari and the paw marks crossing the dust track in front of us are a tell-tale sign that a tigress is nearby. The sight sends a shiver through our group and a snap of broken undergrowth shatters the silence. Around us, songbirds squawk and black-faced langur monkeys scamper up jacaranda to hide. A placid herd of deer will soon be sent into a ragged stampede.

One of the world’s best places to see big cats in their natural habitat, Kanha National Park – the largest in Madhya Pradesh – is an easy sell. It’s home to one of the healthiest tiger populations in the subcontinent, as well as leopards, jackals, wild boar, the buffalo-like gaur, four-horned antelope and sloth bear. There are more than 1,000 species of flowering plants and shrubs, and the skies fill at a click with bee-eaters, pond herons, serpent eagles, hornbills, jungle babblers and pinky-blue Indian rollers. Even hyenas, wild dogs and wolves are known to run after open-topped Jeeps in curiosity. At times, there’s almost too much to take in.

Added to this freight of colour is a compelling swathe of forest that immediately seems familiar – thanks mostly to Rudyard Kipling. Despite 125 years passing since The Jungle Book was published in 1894, Kanha is still intrinsically bound to the writer’s legacy. Born in what was then Bombay, Kipling first used its dense forests and scorched hills as the setting for his stories about Mowgli, Shere Khan, Toomai of the Elephants and Baloo. There are no forts or intricately-carved temples in Kanha — those can be found in neighbouring Bandhavgarh National Park — but there are the same terracotta huts and quiet villages. And everyone here knows the Kipling story, chapter and verse.

Tiger in grass

A bark rings out in the distance, a throaty yelp from a male deer. This time, we penetrate deeper into the park and five minutes pass before we reach an open clearing where the landscape rolls on ahead of us. Here we encounter a troop of langur monkeys and watch as the light begins to fade across the treetops. Soon it’ll be too late and we’ll have to follow the rough track back out to the park’s exit gates. Our tiger time is running out.

As we impatiently wait, our guide Guru Yadav tells a story to help set the mood. One afternoon, he was walking through scrub with a fellow anti-poaching ranger when — out of nowhere — a 300kg tiger pounced from the bushes. He recalls a tremor creeping up his spine. “I was a statue,” he says, pressing the front of his khaki-green shirt to mimic a stopped heartbeat. “It was one metre away, biting and clawing at my friend.” With no gun or rifle for protection, Guru grabbed the first thing he could lay his hands on: a broken branch from a nearby jacaranda tree. “The wood saved both our lives.” Ever since, he says with a dramatic pause, he has held the utmost respect for India’s big cat.

Despite such close encounters, finding a tiger in Kanha is never going to be a walk in the park. It’s a situation compounded by the impact of poaching, deforestation and ongoing conflict with humans – and, sometimes, it’s all too easy to forget India’s tiger population was once close to being made extinct. At one point, the numbers were plummeting at an alarming rate. But the story of the Indian tiger is turning around, thanks to a gigantic conservation effort. India’s government in New Delhi has sought to improve its tiger management policy, reserving 50 habitats — from Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park to Kaziranga National Park in Assam — and the National Tiger Conservation Authority estimates there are now in the region of 2,967 tigers in the wild. All told, it’s an incredible increase of a third in recent years, and Kanha has a robust population of both tigers and cubs. 

The forest floor rustles again and Guru hints that this could be our moment. “The warning call means a tiger is nearby,” he says, cocking his ear for another listen. “We may finally be in luck.” And indeed we were. Before the sun sets, we catch our first glimpse of the elusive predator. In a small, dew-drenched clearing, a reddish-orange shadow emerges, its head turned to face us. No longer camouflaged by the dark canopy, the tigress senses the presence of an audience and flashes her eyes in warning. We’re not prey, though, so as if anticipating our next move she looks at us as we look at her, then she turns back to more important business, slinking back into the dense foliage to hunt again. As if it were some kind of magic trick, the tigress turns in slow motion and vanishes into thin air. We all breathe.

Later, as we make our way towards the park’s exit, the stars appearing one by one, the village life that Kipling once romanticised in The Jungle Book begins to take over. It’s a pastoral existence and everywhere are vignettes of an older India, stubbornly clinging to life. Children on bikes blow up dust and smoke wafts from inside rudimentary houses where families gather for supper. Sun-ripened granddads in wrap-around dhotis squat by the roadside and wave us goodbye. If there’s a quintessential image of India — unfamiliar, yet exotic and friendly — then this is it. As we take our last look at the paddy fields and mustard flowers, the sunset finally lights up the horizon in a blaze of red and gold before Kanha is plunged into darkness.

Tiger

Fancy a holiday where you’ll encounter amazing wildlife? Check out our safari holidays in Africa.

Or find out what it’s like to track grizzly bears in Canada.


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