One of India’s oldest and finest national parks, home to many endangered species, here’s the ultimate guide to Kanha Tiger Reserve.
Nestled on the banks of the Banjar River, one of Kanha’s charms resides in being quite a remote area in the deep heart of rural Central India. Surrounded by spotlessly clean villages, home to people belonging to the Baiga and Gond tribes who still practice a very traditional form of agriculture, one might wonder if the relentless whirl of time had decided to spare this area.
Created in 1973 just after the launch of the Project Tiger government-led conservation initiative, the reserve covers an impressive area of 2000 sq km, divided into the principle of core and buffer zone. A moist deciduous forest, the iconic sal trees landscape guarantees the presence of a green canopy even in the peak heat of summer.
Key to conservation of dispersal species such as the tiger, Kanha is connected to other protected areas through ecological corridors, the main ones being Kanha-Pench, Kanha -Achanakmar and Kanha-Nawegaon-Nagzira.
WILDLIFE OF KANHA TIGER RESERVE
Home to an incredible variety of species, Kanha Tiger Reserve will definitely surprise with fantastic animal encounters even the most blasé of visitors, while on the quest for its most fabled inhabitant, the Royal Bengal Tiger.
Kanha core zone or critical tiger habitat has an extremely dense prey base. Here four different types of deer are seen in herds or small groups while grazing the grasslands or browsing the thick foliage. This density ensures the presence of a healthy number of apex predators, who in turn guarantee the balance of the forest’s ecosystem according to the principle of the umbrella species.
Real star of the jungle, sighting one of the 100 or so striped cats of the reserve is no easy task. A shy, elusive and solitary animal, the tiger might have its seekers wait for quite a long time before deigning them of a nonchalant, elegant appearance. A real play of strategy and teamwork between drivers, naturalists and guides is required in order to attempt the outsmarting of this unruffled creature.
But while engaging in the extremely thrilling activity of tiger tracking, one must not forget to be on the lookout for other creatures, some of them as endangered as the big cat.
Iconic species of Kanha, the Barasingha or hard ground swamp deer is the perfect example. Once widely distributed throughout Central India, relentless hunting and loss of habitat have confined this handsome deer only to this protected area. The efforts of the Forest Department to save it from the brink of extinction have been successful and a few individuals have been relocated to Satpura Tiger Reserve to start a secondary population.
Success story, pride of the meadows, the Barasingha fiercely shares the tiger’s limelight on the logo of the tiger reserve. It’s a symbol I cherish particularly. Predator and prey together, like yin and yang, opposite and complementary, like a metaphor of life.
The appearance of a tiger rarely goes unannounced. Carnivores are generally spied on by terrified prey animals who prefer to have them in sight than risking being stalked and sneakily pounced on.
When the cat is on the move a chorus of loud alarm calls accompany it. That’s when the tracking becomes interesting. Deer and monkeys are the eyes and the ears of the forest. The agitated cackle of the Langurs, the army of the monkey-headed Hindu God Hanuman, most often intertwines with the high-pitched scream of the spotted deer, the loud trumpet of the Sambar or the barking noise of the muntjac.
Not only tigers are to be feared by the park’s prey species, other predators wander around the meadows and the thick undergrowth of Kanha.
Sighting a pack of wild dogs or Dhole fretting about their daily business is always a treat. Listed as endangered on the IUCN list, these are fearless pack hunters who are able to bring down large prey such as sambar, barasingha and even nilgai.
Watching them hunt is an experience not recommended to the light-hearted. Unlike the tiger, solitary ambush predator who would administer a single bite to the throat and swiftly kill its prey, murder by dholes is a nasty business. Effectively, hierarchically organized, they would circle the prey and attack the abdomen. The inflicted wound would be terrible but not immediately fatal. The fast blood-loosing prey would die a slow, painful death, with the pack starting to consume it when still alive.
The dance of predator and prey is performed daily under the alert eyes of the denizens of Kanha. Less reliable spies call the alarm for other meat-eaters, smaller but not less formidable. Jackal, snakes and birds of prey are the natural nemesis of creatures such as the peacock.
Mammals apart, Kanha is home to about 300 species of resident and migratory birds and a huge variety of lesser fauna such as butterflies, reptiles and insects, all of them contributing to the vitality of the ecosystem.
Kanha is divided in 4 safari zones open to the public. The most accessible ones are Mukki, Kanha and Kisli. The fourth one is Sarhi, less frequented and still off the beaten track of most visitors. Tickets for the different zones can be booked online or through a safari camp. The more popular zones sell out very quickly, hence the need to make the reservations well in advance.
The popularity of one particular zone is given by the frequency of sightings and general animal movement. The presence of tiger cubs, a general healthy population and a good prey base increase the chance of encounters.
HOW TO GET TO KANHA TIGER RESERVE
Kanha is in quite a remote area in the heart of Madhya Pradesh, in Central India. The nearest airports are Raipur, Jabalpur and Nagpur. A four to five and a half hour car drive has then to be added to the journey.
The nearest train station is Gondia, a two hours drive from the reserve. Pench, Satpura, Nagzira and Bandhavgarh are within driving distance from the park, and many people combine one or two of these wildlife destinations when planning a visit.
WHEN TO VISIT KANHA TIGER RESERVE
The park is open throughout the year apart from during monsoon. The season normally runs from 1stOctober to 15thJune, when the first rains arrive.
All seasons are beautiful in the park. After the revitalizing force of the monsoon, the reserve is lush green and the water is abundant. This is the best time to see the barasingha deer in their pinkish velvety antlers, with a shiny light-coloured coat that will change to dark brown during rutting season.
The undergrowth is very dense and chances of sightings might be somehow reduced.
Then in December winter kicks in and the temperature starts to drop dramatically. This is a good time to see the tigers in their glorious orange winter coat, in the misty mornings over a frosty ground.
It’s rutting season for the Barasingha, and the best time to experience their peculiar behaviour of dressing up their antlers with wild grass.
Summer season from March to June gets very hot. It’s the best time to see cats and other animals coming down to the waterholes to drink water and to cool down. The number of sightings are at their best although the heat reduces the chances of seeing the animals in action.
WHAT TO PACK FOR SAFARIS IN KANHA
Comfortable safari clothes in light brown, green and camouflage shades are a must. Winters are very cold (it can get as low as 0° in January) and it is recommended to layer up especially for the morning safari. Bring warm clothes, a warm jacket as well as gloves.
Summers are quite hot with temperatures getting up to 45° and the park gets very dusty. A face mask or a buff are essential to protect your lungs, and so are technical, ideally long-sleeved clothes to avoid getting sunburnt.
A cap or a hat are also an important part of the safari gear in any season, as well as sunglasses.
If you are a photographer, always protect your camera either from humidity or dust.
WHERE TO STAY IN KANHA NATIONAL PARK
There are two main gates in the reserve. The busiest one is Khatiya, close to Kisli and Kanha zone. A good choice of accommodation options are available for any budget. Do choose a camp on that side of the reserve if you’re planning to book permits mainly for those two zones.
Mukki gate, on the opposite side, is the quieter area and the ideal base if you mainly want to experience safaris in the Mukki zone. Check my previous article for suggestions on places to stay close to this gate.
Although all three zones are accessible from both gates, staying close to the area you are going to will help you maximise the chances of experiencing some early-morning big cat movement.
Most safari camps will offer you an all-inclusive plan with food, accommodation and safaris. A packed breakfast with hot drinks is served during the morning safari by the lodges’ naturalists, but don’t miss the chance of buying delicious, steaming hot samosas with spicy chutney if visiting the canteen of the Kanha zone.