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Bangalore India
Kanha National Park - Treasure Chest Unlocked!
Nov 14, 2020 07:16 PM 1430 Views
(Updated Nov 28, 2020 01:12 AM)

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Having originally planned to visit Kanha in the Summer, I decided I would take a chance on it in November, looking at the fast receding corona cases from September end. It is one of the biggest forest reserves in India and I wanted to see how I fare in terms of sightings, in the colder season.


I set off for Jabalpur from Bangalore by flight on November 5th, followed by a 4-hour journey into Kanha-Kisli village. I had already made bookings for the journey, accommodations, and the safaris beforehand. It had already become late evening by the time I reached my intended destination and I retired to bed after some unpacking and dinner soon after, at the lodge / motel I was staying. There are several of them starting from the forest gate. This time, for convenience, I had chosen one closer to the gate.


I decided I wouldn't do much the next morning, but just acclimatize and practice some photography. Upon awakening the next morning, it was clear that it was way chillier here than in Bangalore. Having talked to local residents and having checked weather forecasts beforehand, I wasn't expecting any different.


I noticed there were quite a few visitors even in these times, the corona situation has greatly improved in Madhya Pradesh in recent times.


ABOUT KANHA TIGER RESERVE


It was one of the first tiger reserves in India, being declared a National Park since 1955. It stretches up to around 2100 square km and is considered the largest open Sal forest in India. Many other kinds of vegetation are found here - bamboo, banyan, fig, lantana, gum-ghost trees, elephant grass, Khassi (in Hindi), being some of them. It constitutes both hilly areas and grasslands in the tourism zones. The tourism zone in the core area is divided into 4 zones - Kanha, Kisli, Mukki and Sarhi. They are adjacent zones. Upon earlier deliberation on the matter, I had decided I would do 2 safaris each in Kanha, Kisli, and Mukki. My motivation was based on the respective tiger territories in the area and their whereabouts and to see a different kind of terrain. Most of the Sarhi zone tigers seen in the tourism area could theoretically also be seen in Kisli. So, I took a calculated decision to omit Sarhi from my itinerary. It would also have taken longer to explore all 4 zones properly. It must be noted though Sarhi is also a beautiful hilly area, where one can also sight chinkara, chausingha, and nilgai, albeit on rare occasions. The former 2 I'm yet to see.


[NOVEMBER 6TH EVENING - SAFARI 1]


My first safari was an evening safari in the Kisli Zone. It is one of the hillier terrains in Kanha, lacking grasslands to a large extent, unlike some other zones. But beautiful all the same. The other 3 seats in the jeep were not booked. But I found 3 people who were looking to hop on by tatkal booking. 2 of them had the rest of their family in another gypsy, from Maharashtra. We set off shortly after 3 p.m. after the necessary paperwork and meeting up with the guide and driver. It was quite hot at the time.


Not very far into the forest, we found a huge gaur by the roadside. The Indian wild cow is supposed to be the biggest of its category in the world and can be intimidating even for the big cats, at times. Then, we came across some strolling sambar, langurs, and some beautiful scenes in the forest with langurs frolicking about. Soon after, we found some tiger pug marks for our consideration. But nothing conclusive. We had some great sightings of the hard ground barasingha, which is a specialty of this national park. We even found 1 male with orange horns, 1 male with new horns, and also several cheetal. We even found some wild boar. No sign of the peacocks. A good sighting of the crested hawk-eagle.


Kisli zone was home to quite a few tigers and there were multiple females with cubs in the area. There was some discussion between gypsy drivers who mentioned they had heard some warning calls in 2 areas, which were a bit apart and the evening was drawing to a close. We decided we'd take 1 of the routes while the other gypsy took another. Nothing for a long while. While returning, somewhere in the middle of the forest, we heard some warning calls and decided to wait silently. We heard a faint growl, opposite another gypsy, quite a bit in front. But nothing after that. The other gypsy had moved on.


We moved a bit further and waited silently. While we gazed at some domestic elephant who had wandered off deep into the forest, there was a strong growl from nearby. It was followed by another faint growl. We decided we'd go a bit further ahead in opposite direction, in case the tiger intended to show up from within. Silence for a while. Another strong growl followed. Somewhere from behind our vehicle. But silence as we gazed on.


The sun had begun to set and we decided to call it a day. The day ended with a good opening safari (although I've had better starts before), which gave us hope for the next day.


[NOVEMBER 7TH MORNING - SAFARI 2]


This morning other people had booked other seats in my jeep and they did show up. It was a family from Madhya Pradesh. This safari was in the Kanha zone. This zone had few hilly parts, some dense expanses, and some beautiful meadows.


There were encouraging signs at the start with some tiger pugmarks. Shortly afterward, we found cheetal, barasingha, peacocks, crested hawk eagles. We came upon a solitary black buck and then later a full herd. My first sighting of them. Nice to watch. We also came across green pigeons, more barasingha, and wild boar and langurs.


We took a break for snacks at the center point and resumed. At one point, there were a lot of warning calls and our drivers / guides felt a tiger may show up. We waited for a bit but with no result. It was now quite sunny and hot from 8.30 a.m.


We ended the safari with a great sighting of a wooly necked stork, which had swooped down to hunt fish and roam around.


No tiger sightings in the Kanha zone were registered that morning.


[NOVEMBER 7TH EVENING - SAFARI 3]


I was beginning to get a bit discouraged as I was already into the 3rd safari with no big cat sighting. This time, the family which was with me, was from Maharashtra again. They did show up a bit late, but nevertheless, we set off soon after, after brief introductions.


We were in the Kanha zone again. We had a good sighting of a langur mom with her child at the roadside followed by some decent sightings of cheetal, black storks, and some langurs stationed on top of an ant / termite hill. We had even paused for what we suspected to be strong warning calls for a leopard at one point. But it had not emerged. After some time, we noticed a few gypsies had stopped in front and went to check what all that was about.


Apparently, Neelam the queen of Kanha meadows had hastily crossed and disappeared into the tall grass and bushes. Some gypsy had glimpsed that a while back. There was silence as several gypsies waited for her to re-emerge. However, at a distance, a group of langurs was constantly pointing to something below in the grass and bushes. Some surmised that might be where her tiger cubs lay and Neelam may re-emerge. We tried to station ourselves at appropriate places near that area, but owing to lack of any nearby calling or encouraging signs, moved ahead eventually. Our guide felt she might emerge, if at all, further away, as all the warning calls seemed distant and no movement where we had originally stopped. We strained our eyes into the distance for a while and then moved further ahead. Our guide felt certain, she was moving in that direction, but from the inside. Out of our sight. I suddenly caught sight of the shape of a tiger at a fair distance (> 120 ft. away, maybe). But as soon as it had come out, it went into the next set of bushes and grass ahead of her. I felt encouraged, as it didn't seem like she was nervous or trying to hide. She was just moving deep inside the Kanha meadows, sort of parallel to us. Next was a dense expanse after the grasslands on our side. We moved ahead of that as our guide estimated she would come out into the grasslands with tall grass ahead of it, if at all. The grasslands were abounding with many deer. We silently waited, as did many other gypsies. A lot of time passed. Some of the gypsies had gone back in the other direction. 1 gypsy came towards us and then passed, mentioning there were warning calls in #7 nullah, related to some other tiger. We stood our ground in the hope Neelam may re-emerge. Another canter vehicle stood a bit away from us. After a while, they mentioned that they had just seen something like a tiger in the distance and it again disappeared into the tall grass. It was a good sign, as it meant Neelam was heading in the expected direction. After a while, the canter too disappeared. It was getting late and we were the only vehicle left. But our patience was to be rewarded. Sure enough, Neelam re-emerged from the grass, about to enter a dense expanse of shrubs. Maybe around 80 or more feet away. I quickly zoomed in and clicked away. She disappeared into the dense bushes. It was time to return. But the guide agreed to stay on a bit more. Neelam re-emerged shortly, for longer. Maybe 60-80 ft. or a bit more away. I tried my best to get in a few good camera shots before she disappeared for a final time. She was heading towards Shravan Talao. She had gone through a vast grassland full of deer, quite unnoticed before entering the dense foliage. Either going to her cubs. Or maybe to fetch food for them.


Now, we started heading back and the guide and driver were a bit nervous we may not make it back in time. But we pressed on. I took a good pic of the sunset and it had become somewhat dark. I shut my camera. Little did I know there was a 1+1 offer coming up. We were heading back at great speed and 5-10 mins ahead, we came upon Neelima. This was a grown-up tigress from Neelam's previous litter. She was bang in the center of the road. She moved to the side, just behind the first layer of bushes upon seeing us, and watched us with a cute, naive look for a while. We passed her probably 10-15 feet away and took a few good shots while we did so.


We even saw a jungle fowl, flying at quite an altitude for quite some time. We raced against time and managed to reach the forest gates just before they closed. Neelam was by far, the most hard-fought tigress sighting of my life so far.


I also heard tigress Naina and her cubs were sighted at #7 nullah from pretty close in the evening. 2 jeeps had seen that while we alone had seen Neelam and Neelima clearly.


[NOVEMBER 8TH MORNING - SAFARI 4]


The next morning, I had to go to Mukki zone, as the safari would start from there. I got up at 3.30 AM and departed for Mukki at 4.30 AM by car. We reached in about an hour. But that day, the people who had booked other seats in my jeep did not show up.


So, I set off alone. This guide had only tuned pro in 2019. Before the safari started, I spelled out a list of animals I'd yet to see on this trip. To my surprise, most of them came true in that very safari and the remaining in the evening. Mukki also had large meadows, with some areas of dense foliage as well. Mostly flat, it would appear.


Shortly after we commenced, we saw a jungle fowl, a jackal from pretty close, and a lone sambar. Peacocks, cheetals, cormorant, kingfishers, hoopoos, drongos, parakeets were to follow. We also saw a jungle fowl, flying quite high again. We heard mating calls of crested serpent eagles and even saw a vulture although flying at quite an altitude. We eventually did see more sambar that day and the only real warning calls lead us to a pack of 7-8 dhole (wild dogs). Sightings of this pack in Kanha are rarer than those of tigers. We got to see them for a while before moving on. We tried hard to investigate areas of several tigers but to no avail. With that, we closed the morning safari. The center point for the Mukki safari doesn't have any food outlets.


There was a buffet happening at a nearby MPTourism outlet and I decided I'd eat there, 1 km away from Mukki gate. There, I heard the chef mention 8-10 jeeps had sighted Garhi Male, a transient tiger in the bushes, who then disappeared further deep into the bushes in the morning. This gave me some hope for the evening.


[NOVEMBER 8TH EVENING - SAFARI 5]


My evening was going to be quite different from the morning. This time, a couple from Jabalpur was going to accompany me.


Safari was in the Mukki zone. This was also the first time, a female guide had been assigned to my safari. She had 4 years of experience.


We set off quickly after 3 p.m. We took a quick detour to what was tigress MV3's area. I was told the area was also shared by another female called Choti Mada. We came back to the main route. Having already explored all the Mukki tiger areas in the morning, I wasn't very hopeful in the evening. But we were in for a different experience at that time. We stopped for a good sighting of 2 male barasinghas. Shortly, after that, we spotted a tiger in the distance on the left, right from where the sun rays fell onto us. A bit hard on the eyes, but I started getting in some camera shots. Some great sightings. As the tiger came closer, she was identified as Choti Mada. At one point, she crossed our jeep 10-15 feet away. She had a full belly, so she had had lunch. Shortly afterward, she disappeared into the tall grass. But we could still see her orange hump protruding as she walked the meadows in the immense sunlight. We crossed over to another place where she was likely to emerge. Upon some waiting, she emerged again, to again disappear on the other side. But there was ample time for sightings. Her sightings had been far and few before that day, for a while. But it was good we were getting to see her.


We then moved on to explore the site where the male tiger Garhi was seen in the bushes. That was empty but a nearby bushy area had his pug marks going into them and we could smell a probable kill, which appeared quite fresh. But no sign of the tiger. We conjectured he might be nearby. It was a good place to hide the kill. We tried looking into some other areas, but no tigers. On our way back, we saw some wild boar, sambar, cormorant, lapwings.


As luck would have it, there was a 1+1 offer in Mukki too. We came upon another tigress in the meadows in the closing stages. I spotted that time, around 30-35 ft. away. MV3. Not many jeeps around, as opposed to almost all who saw Choti Mada earlier in the evening. She stood in the grass eyeing deer. But there were others hidden in the grass. As she has begun her stalking, a female barasingha sounded an alarm, which eventually made the deer run away, MV3 giving up and disappearing into the grass. That was when most of the other gypsies appeared. But it was too late. MV3 was no longer visible. The guide mentioned she would probably move camouflaged in the opposite direction. That was how it unfolded too. I had now seen a tiger attempting a kill for the first time. We then saw a couple of barking deer who rushed away, before the safari came to a close.


Little did I know, I was in for further surprises that evening. On the way back from Mukki village to Kanha-Kisli village, it was fully dark. We were almost at Kanha Kisli village when a leopard crossed the road from right to left, very fast. We stopped the car and shone the headlights on the left. The leopard stood there for over 15 seconds before disappearing into the jungle. My camera was closed and the phone was locked. So, no scope of taking that picture. But a sighting all the same. I learnt that a human killing had taken place in that very location, allegedly by an old tiger of Kanha, Munna recently, who was then relocated to a zoo. Others believe it was a leopard, who might still be loose. Some food for thought? :D


I went to bed quite happy, with hopes of making it tiger sightings in all 3 zones next morning, as I had yet to sight tigers in Kisli.


[NOVEMBER 9TH MORNING - SAFARI 6]


Next morning, I had booked a safari in the Kisli Zone. 3 friends from Jabalpur were to accompany me this time. We saw tiger pug marks quite early, but they appeared to be in opposite direction. But the warning calls subsided soon after. So, we moved on. We had good sightings of Barasingha in the mist, close sightings of wild boar and Siberian ducks who had migrated several hundreds of miles. We saw many interesting things that day - barasingha, cheetals, sambar, gaur langurs all at one place even, at one point. Even at different places otherwise. A giant termite hill, a ghost tree, a 600-year-old tree, owls, a drongo, a solitary peacock. We even saw some big spider suspended between trees, in some huge web. Certain gypsies heard some calls, but no sightings. We didn't even hear any real warning calls that morning. The Kisli center point doesn't have much in terms of food. Only poha and tea. Try as much as we might, we didn't find any trace of any tiger from Kisli, Kanha, or Sarhi which could've been seen in that zone that morning.


The safari ended and I heard Naina and her cubs were seen again in the Kanha zone. She was being seen consistently since 7th November evening. I had the evening free, so I thought about doing an unplanned Kanha evening safari, to maybe sight Naina and her cubs. But things worked out in a way such that I became a bit pre-occupied with some other personal matters and when the evening safari time approached, I was not in a frame of mind to do a 7th safari. I hope no one has to undergo something like that.


I later learnt Naina and her cubs were indeed sighted in the evening Kanha safari that day. So, my 4 tiger sightings in 6 safaris could've been 8 tiger sightings in 7 safaris. But it was my personal choice not to do so, although not very willingly. If my mind hadn't been a bit pre-occupied, I would've probably done a 7th safari.


This time around, for a change, in Kanha National Park, except Choti Mada, the other 3 sightings were sort of exclusive, i.e. most did not have those sightings, while I was having them. 6 safaris: 4 tigresses, 1 leopard does not make for bad reading either. That too, in autumn / winter. Naina and her cubs, on the other hand, were seen by most in the past few days.


I even managed to see a non-venomous snake in the premises I was staying in. :) I paid up at the motel / lodge and next day, it was time to get back to Bangalore. On our way back, we also saw fog setting in, in the morning. I had timed my trip just right. It would be no fun, if on a foggy morning, we heard tigers but didn't see them because of the fog. My experiences this time had clear blue skies, despite it being November.


The trip cost was more or less similar to my Bandhavgarh experience, another good national park. Kanha, however, is surely a more complete national park. But I could've saved some money in lodging if I'd booked earlier and in the safaris if the pandemic were fully over. The food cost at the lodging could've been a bit lesser. It was lesser in some nearby dhabas.


One could've saved some money on air travel too. The overall trip cost could've and should've been possible within Rs. 50k for 1 person, if you plan it yourself. But it may vary with individual preferences.


All in all, it was a fulfilling, rich Autumn / Winter experience. I even got a glimpse of what a night safari would be like, w.r.t. the leopard I sighted on my way back from Mukki. By 10th November evening, I was back in Bangalore with some good memories of Kanha.


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