February 2019 is definitely a time that will stay in my mind for the years to come. Long-time planned and dreamed about, it’s the date I’ve embarked on my 4-months all India solo tiger adventure.
From February to June I’ve planned to cover 6 of the country’s most famous Tiger Reserves as well as two wildlife sanctuaries.
My adventure has started in the misty winter of Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur, one of the best places in the world to see the migratory birds.
It will end in the dry, dusty summer of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve just before the arrival of the monsoon.
I am writing these words from my room in Kanha Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. It’s 7:30 pm, and I’m staying in a Forest Department facility just at the entrance of the core zone of Mukki gate.
I’ve been here for 3 weeks volunteering with the NGO Last Wilderness Foundation with whom I’ll be working for a total of 2 months. It’s a fantastic experience and I’ll be sharing more about it in the weeks to come.
Daily life at the gate is pleasant in its routine. The place comes to life 4 times a day, before and after the safaris, when guests, guides and drivers fulfill their daily tasks and exchange excitedly about tiger sightings and missed opportunities.
But at the fall of darkness, when people have gone home to prepare for the next day, the forest comes alive. The high-pitched sound of the Chital alarm call, sign of a nearby roaming predator, is as frequent as it gets.
The quiet pace of the deer on dried leaves, their regular munching of the grass, has on more than one occasion stirred my curiosity.
The idea of having only a thin door between me and the wilderness is thrilling and somewhat unsettling.
Less exotic but a reality nonetheless, a little chuha (mouse, in Hindi) has been visiting regularly and has managed to chew on half of my soap.
Kanha Tiger Reserve is a magical place. One of the oldest Tiger Reserves in India, it has been created in 1973 after the launch of Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger.
The National Park extends on 2000 sq km following the core zone / buffer area system as per National Tiger Conservation Authority guidelines.
Of these, only 20% are open to the public. Only a rigorously limited number of vehicles are given access to the forest in order to control the impact on the habitat.
Kanha is home to the only existing population of the hard-ground Barasingha, a swamp deer sub-species who during the hunting days of the Indian and British elites had been drawn to the brink of extinction. Thanks to successful conservation efforts, the park counts nowadays a healthy population of this beautiful deer.
Furthermore, the Barasingha has been granted the status of official animal of Madhya Pradesh.
Kanha, you somewhat have to earn it. It’s remote.
Internet connectivity is bad and for some operators close to zero. Count at least 4-5 hours from the closest airports and 3 from the closest railway station. Given the location, it is recommended to stay at least 3-4 days and to enjoy it without any rush.
No one-day crowds on their breathless sprint for a 2 weeks all-inclusive Indian experience, to whom greedy tour operators have guaranteed a tiger sighting for each safari.
No extremely competitive “tiger circus” where the poor feline ends up cornered by an indefinite number of vehicles and sometimes disturbed by noisy human pressure.
Like in all the reserves of Madhya Pradesh, no ludicrously expensive permit or camera fees are demanded and the park can easily be visited even by budget travelers.
OF WILD BOARS ANG MONGOOSES
It’s widespread knowledge amongst the regular visitors of Indian parks that Kanha offers one of the best and more diverse landscapes of the country’s protected areas.
The forest is lush. The magnificent canopy of deciduous sal, pine, mango and banyan trees, some as old as 500 years, the dense bamboo jungle, the grasslands and lakes, the remnants of long-translocated villages follow each other in a dreamy background.
Come in the winter, and you’ll find yourself witness to the rise of an early morning mist on a green meadow full of grazing deer. The chilly weather is propitious to see the animals in their most active behaviour. Tiger sightings are fewer but so rewarding in terms of action and atmosphere.
Summer, the hot and dry season with the odd occurrence of a thunderstorm, is a good time to observe the cats as they go for the waterholes to cool down and drink.
Tigers are the uncontested stars of India’s wildlife tourism. In many national parks, reputed for their highly frequent sightings, it’s the tiger or nothing.
Here instead, it’s possible to enjoy the life of the forest and its many surprises even on a day of poor tiger luck.
Spotting one of these rare cats is no easy game. The jungle is thick, the area huge.
The more assiduous tiger lovers and wildlife photographers all have their rituals to perform in the hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive animal.
Some of them would wear a lucky item or would want to seat only in that particular spot on the jeep.
However, it’s almost unanimously recognized that a mongoose sighting is always followed by a tiger apparition.
For some others, it’s a wild boar crossing the road that announces the arrival of the majestic striped predator.
Tigers roam the 900 sq km of the core area of Kanha Tiger Reserve. If they perform daily territory patrol duties, they also find the time to sleep for about 16 hours a day.
Sightings of these rare cats are never guaranteed, but if you want to stand a chance, take your time. The more safaris you go on, the more the possibilities.
SLOW PACE AND TEAMWORK
As the years go by my quest for tiger sightings only seems to increase. Earning one’s own stripes as an amateur wildlife photographer is no easy task and there is no fixed strategy if not spending a maximum of time in the wilderness in different habitats.
Even if I wouldn’t dream to compare myself to some of the most experienced tiger seekers, I have been to enough protected areas to attempt some comparisons.
As the name would suggest, people are not allowed to walk within the boundaries of a Tiger Reserve.
The safaris are strictly conducted on official vehicles driven by an authorized driver, accompanied by an authorized guide.
It goes without saying, driving skills are as important as the tracking ones for a successful experience.
The time is limited, and no exception is allowed to the strict hours of entering and exiting the park.
If a driver is running late because of an interesting sighting or the demand of petulant guests, both him and the car are banned for a week, causing a neat loss of money.
In other famous reserves, this often results in crazy fast drives at the end of the safari trying to avoid the menace of the ticking clock.
As thrilling as they can sometimes be, these drives have often made me wonder on the possibility of accidents, such as animals crossing the road being mercilessly hit by the speeding vehicle.
In Kanha, this doesn’t happen. So far, it’s the first protected area where I’ve seen a speed limit of 20 km/h imposed on all vehicles and strictly respected by all the drivers.
This results in very pleasant drives at a leisure pace where no stress is imposed and one can fully embrace the beauty of the surroundings. This way, a minimum of pressure and disturbance is applied on the ecosystem and its fragile balance. After all, a protected area should first of all guarantee the protection of the species that inhabit it. Tourism should only by allowed as a supporting tool and should be as less intrusive as possible.
Tiger tracking in Kanha is a fair game. It’s a matter of reading the signs and predicting the animal behaviour according to certain patterns. It’s a matter of luck, too.
But most of all, it’s the result of collective efforts and teamwork. The guides work together, and every time two vehicles cross tracks they will share their respective findings.
The discovery of fresh pugmarks, the sound of alarm calls, a low growling heard from the density of the jungle, all is disclosed.
This way of working is extremely enjoyable and relaxed. Unfortunately, this is not the case in other more famous and more frequented tiger reserves, where the sighting pressure is palpable and leads to a stressful competition.
A REAL EFFORT FOR CONSERVATION
The management of Kanha Tiger Reserve has been known for excellent conservation practices over the years.
It’s in Kanha that some pioneer projects have been launched such as the School for Rewilding Orphaned Cubs, the first rewilding and release program for orphaned tiger cubs in India.
The local Forest Department is also involved in many initiatives concerning the local population: empowering women by granting them a source of income, training and schooling programs.
OF DRY SPELLS AND TIGER SIGHTINGS
108 individuals of the beloved Panthera Tigris Tigrishave made Kanha their home.
Sightings do occur, especially in the core zone of the reserve, Mukki being the area with the highest chances.
But Kanha isn’t Ranthambhore.
The park is huge and the forest dense. High grasslands extend on the meadows so characteristic of the local landscape. Chances to spot a feline are not always as high as elsewhere. In the state of Madhya Pradesh for example, Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve offers great chances. Only time, patience and a little bit of luck will make your Kanha experience blessed by a glimpse of the elusive cat.
My tiger luck in Kanha has so far been somewhat capricious. Being here as a volunteer, I’ve got many opportunities to visit the park on my free time.
Feared by many and looming on the naively hopeful wildlife photographer is the notorious dry spell. A sort of nature lover writer’s block, a dry spell is the uncharacteristic absence of sightings (mostly of tigers) over a considerable amount of time.
I’ve fallen prey to the dry spell just after my first safari, where the sighting of a the magnificent Umarpani male welcomed me into the jungle.
After many stripeless rides that had me thinking to turn myself to birding, a mongoose sighting has preceded the return of some tiger luck.
This morning I’ve had the chance of meeting the beautiful tigress Choti Mada.
She first announced herself with a series of loud growling, calling for her cub to follow.
Then, a graceful apparition of her bright orange coat amongst the tall grass and a nonchalant stride on the road has brought me back my smile.
Because at the end of the day, everybody wants to see the tiger.