In search of the Bengal tiger

The heat of summer penetrated our light clothing and although the air was dry and arid, the scent of the forest laced through the air, hinting evidence that we are indeed in the heart of Central India, the Madhya Pradesh region where Kanha National Park sits. Famed for its lush sal and bamboo forests, tall grassy meadows and deep ravines, Kanha was the hub of inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s famous novel, “The Jungle Book”.

There are only a handful of lodges on the quiet south side of Kanha, near the Mukki gate, one of three gates into the national park. Our choice proved to be a great advantage as fewer jeeps are allowed into the park via this gate providing guests a more secluded wildlife experience. Kanha is one of the best managed and monitored parks in India with dedicated park rangers guarding the forests and guiding guests through this magical natural labyrinth.

Morning safaris start at 5am just before the break of dawn. Open deck jeeps form a neat queue in front of the Mukki gate as vehicles register. There is a swell of excitement despite the groggy daze of a premature morning. I was armed with a pair of binoculars and a notebook to pen my sightings while my husband meddled with his digital DSLR camera ready to capture a ‘National Geographic’ moment, in case nature decided to surprise us.

A park ranger leapt into our jeep , introduced himself, muttered a few words to our naturalist from the lodge where we stayed at, and our engines sputtered to life. The light mist parted as we caught the first glimpse of the magnificent sal trees stretching for miles with banyans dotted around providing shade and cover for the endemic swamp deer or better known as barasingha, spotted deer also known as chital, wild boars and gaurs. A symphony of morning chirps weaved through the air as we caught birds in flight and land birds crossing our path.

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The day had just begun as the first few rays of light broke from the horizon. The mahout was already at work. A great big silhouette teased my eyes as I saw huge ears flapping and four giant feet taking gentle strides towards our jeep. Could it be? Yes it was! An elephant with a man riding him atop. The mahout smiled and exchanged a few words with our park ranger. He told our park ranger that the search was still on; the elusive tiger was yet to be found. He waved goodbye and disappeared behind our jeep, eyes peeled for the animal most tourists have come here to see.

Meantime, we savoured in the rich diversity Kanha had to offer with fantastic sightings of jackal, leopard, jungle cat, barking deer, peacock, langur and gaur. With over 350 species of birds, introduction upon introduction were made with every sighting and bird call. From green bee-eaters to Indian rollers to grey hornbills, this was a treat for bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. As mid morning approached, a picnic was laid out for us with the forest as a backdrop. Tea, coffee, sandwiches and fruit were passed around and while we savoured our breakfast, our park ranger scrambled to the office to check if the mahout had recorded sightings of tigers. He rushed back with great excitement and urged us to hurry along.

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A tigress had been spotted and in order to see her, we went off the beaten track atop an elephant with a mahout. The ride was bumpy and quite an adventure trying to avoid spindly dry bamboo branches from stabbing us. And then we caught sight of her, majestically seated on a bed of earthy-amber leaves, she stared into the open, in her element completely unperturbed by our noisy rustle. Her orange and black coat camouflaged perfectly into the surroundings. She was not only sharing her space with us but also with a large meandering python. She eyed occasionally at the reptile with no intent of making a kill, just like Shere Khan and Kaa from the Jungle Book.

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Most of us when asked to conjure up an image of a tiger imagine a man-eating predator skulking through the steamy jungles of southern Asia, particularly in the subcontinent of India. Here in Kanha, tigers are friendly, welcoming and accustom to the scene of jeeps and clicking cameras. There is a strong unspoken bond between tiger and human. As a result of tourism, conservation efforts such as ‘Tour Operators for Tigers’ (TOFT) have emerged forming alliances among Indian operators in order to promote best practices in wildlife viewing. Over the years, the Indian government have also realized the need for stricter monitoring and census in order to keep the tiger population at a healthy state.

… continue reading to Part 2