(An adapted version of this piece was posted on Mumbai Mirror site on Monday, January 03, 2011 at 06:18:04 PM and in the print edition on March 16, 2011)
"People come here for 10-15 days and still don't see the tiger," forest guide Son Singh Ayam tells us as we climb on to the open-aired gypsy. It's 6.30 am and four degrees. Having hunted in the early hours of dawn, 940 sq km-Kanha Tiger Reserve's most spectacular resident must now be at rest and like most tourists we too wait eagerly to see him.
As the car winds through the green dense deciduous forests of sal trees, Ayam points out to the spotted deer, the tiger's main prey. They number around 21,000 - enough for the 110-odd tigers that are there in the park. The gypsy comes to a halt. We stand in anticipation. Ayam points out to the hard ground barasingha in the distance. As the mist clears with the rising sun, we see better - first the beautiful, velvetty horns and then the body. Kanha holds the only remaining population of the majestic deer in the Indian subcontinent. In 1970 these were down to only 66, but now after careful management i.e. by fencing off the reserve and keeping poachers at bay, the population numbers about 400.
We dodge peacocks, stalk jungle cats and spot wild boars, sambar (India's largest deer), a solitary bison, black-headed orioles and black-shouldered kites before the gypsy halts at a forest post in Umarjhola in Mukki of the forest. Ayam walks towards a man in the thatched-roof cottage. He come back with a smile on his face. "We've found a tiger." The driver presses on the accelerator and the gypsy swishes past scampering deer, squirrels and Baiga tribals as we follow the trail of fresh paw and claw marks. The gypsy stops at a clearing, behind five other vehicles. More tourists, more anticipation.
An elephant suddenly comes out of the woods. At Mukki, the forest department has three elephants that are used to stalk tigers to facilitate spottings and "tiger shows" for tourists. Each new elephant has to get accustomed to the forest and its inhabitants. As for the tigers, they don't like the animals that are not natural residents of the forests, but like the gypsies, get accustomed to their presence gradually. Once the forest officials track a tiger, they wait for it to sit or rest before they call in more elephants and tourists.
We mount an elephant called Himalaya that winds its way into dense overgrowth and then abruptly comes to a halt. The mahout points to his right. We see the stripes. A sleeping tigress. The elephant shuffles and tries to tear down a shoot with its trunk. The tigress instantly opens her eyes. Just 12-feet away and on higher ground, she is at advantage. She cranes her neck to look around and then flips her body and lies on the back with paws up. She needs her rest and we let her be.
The forest department tries to minimise its interference in the core area of the reserve but it does step in to curtail fires when the forest dries out completely in summer or to care for tiger cubs when they are abandoned by their mothers, Ayam tells us. He points to Bahmni Dadar, the highest point of the park and known popularly as the sunset point, on our ride back to the park's exit. It's 11.30 am and guides are fined even if the tours extend for not more than five minutes after noon, when the park closes.
Ayam tells us, "It's very difficult to spot a in winter when the forest is so dense. But you've been lucky." And we feel that way.
Tourism: Boon or Bane
With 35 gypsys carrying about 180 tourists twice daily, the animals have a busy time dodging, hiding, scampering instead of resting during the daylight hours. Some deer have got so used to the sound of engines that they simply don't budge. Ghanshyam Singh Ayam, a ranger at Kanha says, "The animals here have got so used to the noise that when they stray out of the forest, they become sitting ducks for hunters and predators because they lose their natural instincts for judgment and defence." Naturalists and forest Officials are now debating on whether the core areas of the park should be closed to the public to retain their "wildness". However, pressure from the hotels that have mushroomed around the park has made it difficult for the government to do so.
Where to stay:
Kanha Safari Lodge
Manager: M L Sharnagat
The Kanha Tiger Reserve is divided into three ranges - Kanha-Kisli, Mukki and Sewai. You need to pay extra if you want to ride to another range.
Gypsy tours: Cost Rs 1500 per vehicle for each entry into the tiger reserve. Bookings need to be done in advance
- The nearest airports are at Nagpur (275 km) and Jabalpur (175 km). Both are connected by rail. There are three gates for entrance into the forest. The Kisli gate is best accessed from Jabalpur and stops at the village Khatia, inside the buffer area. The second gate is Mukki and the last, and most recently opened gate, is Serai.
Tips for tourists
- Be absolutely quiet. Sound travels fast in a forest so if you really want to see, hear and know wildlife, make little of it yourself
- Wear clothes that blend with the surroundings - olive green, grey, brown, beige. Avoid bright colours altogether
- Do not touch anything in the forest. You will not be allowed to step out of the gypsy till you reach a forest camp.
- Temperatures in winters drop to negative so carry extra wollens
- Park is closed during monsoon 1 July to 15 October
- Best season is February to June. But if you go in cooler months, you'll enjoy the forest too. March is the best time
- Best Season: February to June
- Morning Visiting Hours: 6:30 am to 12:00 noon
- Evening Visiting Hours: 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm
- Eating is prohibited on rides