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Verified Member MouthShut Verified Member  
Bangalore India
Nice overall experience!
Jun 18, 2021 08:02 PM 414 Views
(Updated Jun 19, 2021 05:23 PM)


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Post unlock in some parts of India on June 1, 2021, I decided I would pay a visit to the Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh. It was a trip I had been mulling over, for about a year and it was a good opportunity to fulfill the plan before the actual Monsoon season arrived in July.


It was one of the places where the Pandavas rested during their exile, during the course of Mahabharata. Later, it also served as the hunting grounds of the royal families of Bijawar, Chattarpur, and Panna. It was declared a “National Park” in 1981 and a “Tiger Reserve” in 1994/95.

Tigers used to thrive here before 2000, known for their massive sizes. But in 2005-2009, in a short span of 3-4 years, numbers plummeted to 0 due to suspected rampant poaching. For a short period, leopards became the primary big cat in these forests. But then, due to efforts put in by people here and relocation of tigresses from Bandhavgarh, Kanha and a male tiger from Pench and quite possibly the last remaining original male from Panna, tiger numbers have seen a steady rise since, reaching around 80 till date including a subsequent influx of some more tigers in following years from other places. Leopards also continue to exist aplenty here, along with sloth bears and many other attractions.

The forest area spreads over present-day Chattarpur and Panna districts spanning around 1600 square km with around 600 square km constituting the core area. It constitutes of mixed and dry deciduous forests dominated by teak. It also has bamboo forests and several gorges and cavernous valleys with many waterfalls. It is a very rocky landscape to say the least. It is adorned with a thick and rich forest cover. Besides boasting an immense list of fauna, it is probably the only Indian forest where the presence of wolves, foxes, dhole, jackals, and hyena has been recorded. Not sure any other forest has that. It is also recognised as an important site for vulture conservation. In terms of wildlife diversity, it is probably amongst the best, if not the best forest in India. It was also declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2020.


[DAY 1 – JUNE 12]

Having made all bookings beforehand, I flew to Jabalpur and then proceeded to Panna, which is about a 5 hours drive from there. One can also get there from Khajuraho or by some other nearby places by train. Being a bit tired on the day of my arrival, I decided I would start with intended activities the next day.

I was put up at a nice homestay, where I was given a good deal for the duration of my stay. The staff was helpful and the owner was quite amiable. It has a good view of the Ken river close by. There are also other lodges and resorts nearby, to stay while you’re visiting the forests.

The next day, we would start with the open jeep safaris.

[DAY 2 – JUNE 13]

Safari 1 - Morning: the First morning, I was supposed to start my safari from Hinauta gate, which is 1 of the 2 core tourism zones in the forest. This was around 30 km from where I was put up. So, we set off at 4.30 a.m. in the morning. Only 2 jeeps entered from that gate in the morning. To my dismay, after a few peacock and chital sightings, it started raining. That would continue for around half an hour or a bit more. But things brightened up soon after, weather conditions being very hot this June. We saw several wild boar, monitor lizards, chital, sambar, nilgai, chinkara, peacocks/hen and langurs. We had a close sighting of a couple of jackals and I was very happy to see the chinkara/gazelle for the first time. No sign of any big cat but a sloth bear plopped out from somewhere. After a bit of gazing, it immediately scampered off.

Amongst other birds, we saw Rufous Treepie, Green Bee Eater, Black Drongo, Red Headed King Vulture, Paradise Flycatcher, Indian Pita, Roller, Woodpecker, Peregrine Falcon, Red Bottled Lapwing, River Bottled Lapwing, Black-shouldered kite. No sign of the Indian Vulture, who generally throng in large numbers in the canyons of Hinauta in winters. Just residual vulture droppings on display. Red Headed King Vulture and Perigree Falcon were not that common sightings. We saw a Red Bottled Lapwing with 4 eggs, boding future rainfall.

I had sightings of monitor lizards and a very long crocodile slyly swimming away from Magar Dagri area.

The immense green beauty of the forests and the canyons were on display and I understood why it has so much recognition.

Safari 2 - Evening: Evening safari conditions at Hinauta gate were burning hot to begin with. We set out, determined to seek out tigress P141, who happened to be one of my favourites. We had tried a lot in the morning but to no avail. She has the largest territory in the tourism zone and is believed to be almost as large as a male tiger. She is currently with her somewhat grown cubs from 2020. We came across Vatsala (a domestic elephant) roaming around, who is believed to be the oldest surviving elephant in the world.

We more or less saw animals already seen in the morning safari. Perhaps a bit lesser. Also 1 curious sighting of a langur sitting on an ant hill. A very large crocodile on the banks of Pipartola Maidan from a distance.

We were waiting at Dhundhwa Seha Gorge, hoping for something to materialize. There was a brief period when chitals and langurs started some loud warning calls while gazing at the cliffs ahead of them. A couple of nilgais also joined them. We took the jeep in and around the area expecting possibly a leopard or a tiger. But there was nothing on offer. The safari ended with a rare sighting of a white osprey with a kill.

[DAY 3 – JUNE 14]

Safari 3 - Morning: This morning we again set off from Madla gate, which is closer to where I was put up. Little did I know this was going to be a super eventful morning.

Besides seeing some of the usual sightings of the previous safari, we suddenly came across P151, the other ruling tigress of the tourism area. She was quietly and steadily making her way through the outer layer of the foliage to enter the Nala area, where her recent cubs from April were hidden away. Although she was quite a bold tigress in general, as she had really new cubs to look after, her venturing out had become rare post unlock period. Around 3-4 jeeps including mine got to see her for about a full minute before she disappeared into the forest. A sighting to cherish, as she had walked parallel to us, around 25 feet ahead.

Shortly after that, our guide took us to T1 (one of Panna’s first relocated tiger)’s area, telling me some things about her past. Out of the blue, he saw a couple of sloth bears at a distance, with a cub, with his binoculars. The couple was trying to mate and making strange sounds. They were heading towards an area near us. Knowing how fast bears are, I also got into position and got a video of them scampering off (male chasing female) as they passed us. They eventually hid somewhere in the undergrowth nearby letting out sounds while they mated. Never experienced something like this before.

Shortly afterward, we heard a lot of warning calls from the animals, which suggested a leopard may be nearby. We stay put for a while, while the sounds subsided. No sign of the leopard. Near Bhora Dau, where we stopped for a break, we got to know another jeep had spotted the leopard. While we had waited for the leopard, I got to see a full peacock dance after many years.

There was an opportunity for a boating safari at Bhora Dau and I took it. Besides crocodiles and birds, sometimes one also gets to see tigers or leopards on the mainland by boat. But it was a short safari and we only managed to see 2 crocodiles.

We also saw 2 Red Bottled Lapwings with 4 eggs each soon after. Another treasured sighting was a Hawk Eagle with a monitor lizard kill. A couple of Rufous Treepies tried to steal its kill on occasions but with no success. I also saw the eagle flying to a tree with its kill.

The safari ended with a sighting of a Painted Stork and a wild boar. I had never seen the former before.

Pandav Falls: This is also part of the Panna Tiger Reserve. This is a patch of waterfalls overlooking a large pond with very rocky surroundings. There are 2 waterfalls here. 1 is dependent on the rains. Other is dependent on underground water absorption by limestone. Both the falls were active when I visited. Close to the lake, is the resting place of hunters who used to hunt many, many years ago. Close to that is entry to Pandav Caves whether the Pandavs spent their time, during Agyaat Vaas. We didn’t enter the caves, as post unlock period, it was full of bats. The guide showed some bear scratch marks on a tree, the bears climb, to fetch honey. Sometimes leopards visit too as well as tigress T1 and Kanhaiya Male Tiger.

This was a good visit, post the morning safari.

Safari 4 - Evening: This was again from Madla gate. We straight away went to Bhora Dau point and I could at once see a crocodile basking in the water very close to a protruding piece of land with some undergrowth. There was a peacock coming close to the edge at times. Difficult to say, whether the crocodile was waiting for potential prey or simply basking in the sunlight as it does sometimes. There was also a couple of sambar feeding on grass not far from the shore at a different point. No crocodile insight there. But I was reminded of the many youtube videos where a crocodile suddenly comes out and pulls its prey into the water. But none of that happened and the sambar continued chomping grass in peace.

We saw plenty of deer that evening including nilgai, sambar, and chital. A sambar blocked the road at one point, which was a first. In 1 sighting, a sambar was standing with a Rufous Treepie (a bird) sitting on its head. We also had some good views of the sunset. After looking around for P141 and P151 or anyone other big cats, that safari came to a close.

Later I learnt a jeep had come across P141 cubs that evening elsewhere. I chatted with some people staying at the resort and hit the sack.

[DAY 4 – JUNE 15]

Safari 5 - Morning: This morning was my last safari in the core zones and this was from Madla gate.

We came upon a jeep, who mentioned they had encountered a leopard coming head-on towards them who suddenly jumped off the cliff into the valley. Even they hadn’t gotten a clear sighting of the same. After waiting around a bit, we set off to check on P141 presence. We got to know from a tracker we encountered, she had set off with her cubs at 5.30 a.m. in the morning as could be understood from her pug marks. No other sign of P141 or P151. During all of our safaris, we also briefly considered Kanhaiya Male’s area who has a small area in the tourism zone but wasn’t seen post unlock period. He was nowadays, mostly seen in P152’s (P151’s sister) area. But no sign of him either.

We had some sightings of langurs sitting with chital and a chital grazing with a chinkara. I also a saw a serpent eagle and brown fowl for the first time in these safaris. Several sightings of monitor lizards and a smaller, thinner and poisonous version of the same. More instances of sambar road blocks. Other than that, there were some good peacock sightings and other animals we had already seen before.

This marked the close of my core zone safaris.

Tourism Zones Tiger Sightings Related Comments:

1] I felt 1 of the biggest issues in tiger sightings currently in Panna is that in such a large tourism zone, there are only 2 tigers – tigress P151 and tigress P141. Tigress P151 has driven off her mother, sister, and her daughter from previous litter away from the tourism zone. P141’s progeny from previous litter are in core zones but seldom come into tourism zones. So, if you don’t see these 2 in the tourism zone, your chances of sighting tigers in core zones are negligible as most dominant males don’t venture there much. Due to the lower density of tigers in the tourism zone, there are fewer warning calls too.

2] This time there was plenty of rain in Madhya Pradesh in May, which has made the environs much greener and denser than it would normally be, this time of the year. If sighting 1 of the tigers in the tourism zone was not hard enough, add this to your woes.

3] In some other parks, sometimes there is a rare chance of sighting tigers in later hours of the morning. Here, those rare chances become rarer because being a very rocky terrain, the rocks get heated up quickly in the sunlight and animals may not want to step out that much once we near afternoon time.

Happy to have sighted a tigress in the tourism zone, under such circumstances.

Safari 6 – Evening and Night: That evening I had planned a safari in Akola Buffer. Tiger brothers P234-31 and P234-32 were frequently being sighted with good sightings here and I wanted to give myself a chance to see them.

Upon reaching, we got to know the tigers had moved to their favourite nala early that day. Our guide spent around an hour and a half trying to predict from which exact point the tiger would exit the nala so that we could sight it. We also had the help of trackers here. It was heartening to see some warning calls indicated our guide was right. But for some reason, the tigers better known as Heera and Panna, were content in staying inside in the undergrowth, 100-150 m away from us that day.

When we understood they were not going to show up, we used up the remaining time for a night safari in the rest of Akola Buffer. Here there were chances of seeing other tigresses like P234 or P223, the latter notorious for charging vehicles. Even male tiger T7 or leopards. But we didn’t see them. There were good sightings of birds like Nightjar, Paradise Flycatcher, Red Bottled Lapwing. Multiple sightings of rabbits and some chital. We checked water holes for some signs of moving water, in case a predator had recently been there. But it wasn’t so. However, we did catch sight of the last quarter of a body of a Rock Python, disappearing among the rocks. That was the end of that safari.

[DAY 5 – JUNE 16]

I set off for Raneh Falls, the early morning the next day.

Raneh Falls:This is also an extension of the Panna National Park in Chattarpur district, although you won’t find tigers here as it is surrounded by villages. This is a set of beautiful waterfalls amidst the rocky canyons. Also called Grand Canyon of India, it makes for breathtaking views. There is a wildlife sanctuary close by. I spotted monitor lizards, wild boars, jackals, peacocks, langurs and Rhesus Macaque along the way. There is also a Ken Gharial Sanctuary amidst the gorge. But you are not likely to find gharials there even though 25 gharials were once released in the area. I only spotted 2 crocodiles there. Good sightings.

Shortly after that, I set off for a detour to Khajuraho Temples, also part of the Chattarpur district. It is easy to see why this architectural marvel is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Simply great! That’s not part of Panna National Park, so I’ll omit that from my review for now.

It is also possible to visit the Diamond Mines near Hinauta gate with due permission and Ajaigarh Fort, which was relevant during Mughal Empire's reign, not very far from there.

I was back to my quarters by the afternoon for lunch after a satisfying morning. I had plans of a full-fledged Night Safari later that day.

Safari 7 - Night: It was 7 p.m. when we set off for a night safari in Jhirna Buffer. Open jeep safari at night. A taste of what I had already gotten, the previous day in Akola in later hours. Jhirna had much thicker vegetation and more wildlife though. On entering, we found one cattle kill, left close to the village. We made it a point to check that out, later on returning from our safari.

We found some Rhesus Macaque and nilgai before sunset. Then, we were into the forest in pitch darkness. We found some more rabbits and nilgai in the darkness. Out of the blue, shortly afterward, my guide shouted “bhaloo” and we could see not 1 but 3 of them, who quickly scurried into the forest, 3 big mounds of black, moving around in the distance before they disappeared.

We found more rabbits, a Nightjar, and Eurasian Thick Knee. Shortly after that, we came upon another sloth bear sighting. This time it was relatively still, so I tried taking shots with my camera. But it was a bit too far inside to get clarity. and the bear moved soon. Supposedly, she was carrying a cub on her back. I couldn't make that out. We saw a stranded baby rabbit on the road and a jackal after that. But not much more. We were hoping to find hyenas, foxes, or leopards too but it wasn’t to be, although we went through many places, which appeared ideal for such.

Upon returning, we also saw the cattle kill near the village had disappeared. Any guesses?

That was end of DAY 5 in Panna.

[DAY 6 – JUNE 17]

The next day, I bid adieu to all concerned and returned to Bangalore via Jabalpur by plane, on reaching Jabalpur by car. A peacock crossed the road just in front of us, as we were headed to the airport.

Trip Cost: The trip cost was around Rs. 70k /- due to the number of safaris I did and the fact that there were relatively lesser participants in the safaris this time round. The optimum cost for this trip would've been Rs. 60k /- or thereabouts.

To conclude: My main aim was to see more of tigers and leopards and get an overall good experience of the forest. Although I did get a pretty good overall forest experience, sloth bears and crocodiles dominated my sightings, which I couldn't have predicted beforehand. The number of nilgais here seemed noticeably higher than other forests. Owing to the lesser density of tigers in the tourism zone, the deer and antelope seemed bolder than usual, in turn leading to a few unusual sightings. All in all, it was a good visit to Panna with some new and memorable refreshing experiences. I would've been happier with better big cat sightings and more value for money w.r.t. the safaris though. I would rate my experience a solid 4/5.

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