Meeting the big Cat along with the smaller animals
Lush Green, tall sal trees, extensive grasslands, pristine streams, calls of animals, grazing herbivores, myriad colours of flora, a brush of fresh air welcomed us to Kanha National Park. As it was not our first visit, we knew for the next two days we would be in one of the finest world renowned wildlife parks, oblivious to the humdrum of the mad world, in the quietude of nature, finding communion with it.
The park, created on June 1 1995, is among the first nine tiger reserve launched under Project tiger. From 252 sq km in 1995, the park has increased to 940 sq km wioth a surrounding buffer zone of 10,067 sq km. Kanha, situated in the Banjar and halon valleys of Mandla and Balaghat district, comprises extensive undulating plains with many peaks, hill ranges and flat- topped hills of the Maikal Range. With the Vindhyas to the north and Satpuras to the south., the central Indian highlands sprawl 500 km. The meadows of Kanha constitute the most important habitat because of the population of cheetal, barasingha, sambhar and gaur. Surpan River meanders through these meadows
Kanha has a plateau, also called dadar, with extensive grasslands and fruit-bearing trees. The depressions, gorges and streams, just below these plateau have bamboo, mango, jamun and arjun. The upper slopes of the park have mixed forests.
Besides a significant population of tigers and barasingha, Kanha has 43 species of mammals with predators like wild dog, scavengers like hyena and jackal, small mammals like wild hare, porcupine and mongoose and herbivores like gaur, sambhar and cheetal. There are 300 species of birds. Some of them are cuckoos, kingfishers, storks, teals, pintails, pond herons, egrets , partridges, quails, woodpeckers, fly catchers. Reptiles include cobra, viper, wolfsnake, Indian python, Indian monitor and chameleon. Kanha National Park was an inspiration to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
Our lunch at the forest guest house at Mukki gate was in the company of cheetals, langurs and birds. Then began our evening safari. First stop was the Orientation Centre to familiarise us with the flora and fauna through literatures, touch screens sounds of the jungles, photographs, models and films.
As it had rained in the morning, the flora was pristine and animals were out in the open near water bodies, glancing once in a while at the vehicles passing by, some posing for photographs while others turned their backs. The Swamp deers or barasinghas were in plenty, enjoying the grass near water bodies. Large and handsome in wooly coats with shades of brown and yellowish brown, they are a highly endangered species and found mainly in Kanha. They were almost extinct 20 years back, but with stringent measures were brought back and Kanha, today echoes with their rutting calls. They are, by and large, found near swamps as they relish the grass in swamps, so the name Swamp Deer, informed the Range Officer.
As vehicles crossed each other, we heard the familiar query, ‘Tiger dikha? (Did you see any tiger?), to the extent that our gypsy’s radio telephone call sign was also tiger, and every time a call was transmitted we would be on alert-was the majestic creature around? We stopped to let a herd of huge and majestic bisons or gaur cross path. For a moment i could hear my heart pounding looking at their massive bodies and long white socks (as it appears). Gaur is the largest wild cattle in the world. A full-grown male can weigh about 800-1000kg. While there were males and females of all sizes and shapes, the oldest one (who was also the bulkiest) started at us the other crossed, as if telling us that the forest is their territory and so they always get the right of way. I saluted him and with all humility accepted this dikkat.
As we drove through Mukki area, we saw forest fowls, peacocks, cheetals and langurs. The beautiful cheetals or spotted deer were feeding on numerous shrubs, young bamboo shoots, leaves and a variety of fruits seen usually on the edges of the forest. We were lucky to see a barking deer and even heard the dog-like bark. As the sun kept going down, it was time for us to go back to our guest house. We closely observed the pugmark Impression Pad, which are quite rampant and well maintained to see if one can catch a glimpse of the majestic tiger. We were physically exhausted, but completely rejuvenated, after spending the evening in the forest and looking forward to an early morning safari the next day.
It was a blessing to be in natural surrounding in the morning twilight the next morning, the fresh fragrance of another shower of rain, the silence, the dew on the grass and the leaves of the trees providing succour to the soul-harbinger of an exhilarating day a head. During the drive, we admired the rich flora Kanha has around 800 species of flowering plants including 50 species of aquatic plants and 18 species of rare plants.
The forest in Kanha are of two types- sal and mixed deciduous. The park has abundant streams and waterbodies, fringed with thick bamboo breaks and tall mango trees. As we drove a call for a tiger traced came on the radio transmitter. We could not believe our luck. We drove up to the point where two elephants with mahouts were waiting. Quickly we headed towards the tiger, with the mahouts telling us there were four-a mother with three cubs sitting near their kill, a wild boar. As we brushed through trees and tall bushes. I could hear my heart pounding. Finally we saw the mother with her full grown female cub sitting underneath a cover of thick vegetation and staring at us. What a majestic look, what poise and stare… we admired ‘her majesty’ our hearts thudding with fear as we were just 10 metres away. With her stomach full, she lay down to sleeop, which made us relax a bit. The other female cub kept roaming around, hiding behind bushes scared of us, and the male cub could not be seen. Soon the mother was giving lessons on hunting, as they would have to fend for themselves we were told bt the mahout; he fondly called them ‘mata’ and ‘gudia’. As he chided his young and naughty elephant ‘Himalayan’, he narrated tales of Himalaya’s father who had recently died, solely reared and trained by him.
While we were watching the tigers, Himalaya was playing with the branches and putting whatever he could in his mouth. I asked the mahout who enjoys supremacy ‘the tiger or the elephant” His experience said that while the tiger is the ‘King of the Jungle ‘, elephant is the ‘Lord of the Jungle’ and both mutually respect this.
As we came out of the spot mesmerised by our encounter with the tigers, we were sure that this was certainly a more exhilarating experience than seeing any wonder of the world or riding on the craziest roller coaster. With 1,411 left, now we are an ardent follower of the cause to preserve tigers. Besides maintaining the ecological balance, we can’t afford to lose such a beautiful animal, which occupies the apex position in the biological pyramid.
Himalaya and his companion, another elephant of his size bade us farewell along with the mahouts, walking in steps, contented with the day’s achievement of tracing the tigers.
As we drove further, we captured some sambhar. Only the males have antlers. We were told that they shed off the hard antlers in April, and the fresh ones look like velvet till the rain gets over, then they become hard, strong and rugged.
We captured a male chasing a female one, oblivious of the tourists around. Sambhar is the largest Indian deer weighing around 200 to 300 kg. The coat is dark brown, light yellow or grey. They move solitarily or in small herds in dense forests of undulating landscape.
Back after our encounter, a siesta made us fresh for the evening safari to visit the interpretation Centre and the museum. The light and sound show dramatising the night life of the jungle was breathtaking. There could not be a better grand finale. There was a documentary on conservation of the national park, the unsung heroes, the forest staff who battle poachers or encounter sloth bears or are sometimes playfully attacked by tiger cubs. On our way back we visited Bamni Dadar, or the sunset point, on top of a valley, admired the panorama of grazing herbivores and verdant forests in the backdrop of the setting sun.
As we went through our last jungle safari the next day morning, I took a deep breath of the fresh air, captured the wilderness, glanced at the native cheetal, the myriad colours of a dancing peacock, and the majestic antlers of the barasingha. Somewhere in the distance we could hear the alarm calls, perhaps the ‘King of the Jungle’ was around, our eyes scanning the forest intensely to get a glimpse of this majestic creature once again. We crossed Himalaya and his comrade playing around with the branches of trees waiting to encounter another tiger. My beautiful sojourn ended with a vow of ‘till we meet again’.