Spotting tigers in Kanha National Park, India

This is an updated post based on a 2002 visit to Kanha National Park during the early days of tiger watching in India. It was a very rustic experience at the time. Today, the safari can be done in a myriad of options, including a stay at a luxury resort.

Arriving in Khana

After my epic journey from Delhi, I finally arrived in Katya village – the closest accommodation to the park and the perfect base for a Kanha National Park safari. It was only a short drive through the village to the Van Vihar guest house, where a few travellers were gathered around a campfire. We had a quick chat and they invited me to join their jeep for the morning safari the following day.. With that organized, I had a quick dinner and went to bed. 

The evening was so cold that I was forced to wear most of the clothes I had with me. The positive side of this arrangement was that it provided enough cushioning to be comfortable on the mattress that was as soft as a slab of concrete. And as I was falling asleep, I was already dreaming of tigers. With over 60 tigers living in the 2059 square kilometre Kanha Tiger Reserve I had a good chance of spotting them over the next 9 days. 

Breakfast jungle-style

The morning came with a knock on my window and someone’s voice announcing that it was time for breakfast. I glanced at my watch – 5.30am.

I crawled from under my blankets, washed my face, brushed my teeth, wrapped myself back into a light blanket, and stepped outside. I all but ran to the fire that the cook lit some time ago and settled to watch him cook our breakfast ‘village-style’.

The stove was made up of a sheet of metal with a hole in the middle lying over a brick fire pit. The cook held a block of butter over the fire for a few moments, and when it was soft enough, he smeared one end of it on the pre-toasted pieces of bread. Pretty clever. He then cooked the eggs in a conventional fashion in a frying pan and served them with the toasted bread.

Kanha National Park Safari – logistics

As soon as we finished breakfast, we met Devi, our safari driver and jumped into his open jeep that in India is called a jeepsie. The guest house was only 400 meters away from Kanha National Park’s gate and by 6 am we were already querying up at the entrance.

It is a government regulation that every vehicle entering the park must be accompanied by a forestry guide at all times. So, when we reached the front of the queue, we paid our fees, collected our guide Ashok, and drove through the boom gate into the park.

READ MORE: 50 Outstanding Safari Holidays Destinations Outside of Africa

Kanha Rangers and guides

The sun was just starting to rise, but the air was still chilly. We wrapped ourselves tighter in our blankets, and I thought that we looked more like a group of refugees than fee-paying tourists.

There are 4 different zones in Kanha accessible for jeep safaris: Kisli, Mukki, Kanha and Sarhi. You can explore any of these areas during the two safari sessions of the day. The morning safari starts at sunrise and ends by 11 am. The afternoon session is run from 2 or 3 pm (depending on the season) and finishes at sunset.

Setting sun somewhere in in Madhya Pradesh
Setting sun

Lunchtime is spent back at your lodge. For us, it was also the time to take a shower, as it was too cold for it in the mornings. The cook usually provided a bucket of hot water on request while the locals opted for a cold shower from the well.

The highlight of our lunch break was the delicious lemon and sugar pancakes, after which it was time to go back to the park.

Katya village near Kanha National Park
Katya village

We spent most evenings at a campfire back at the guesthouse. It was a good time to reflect on the day in the park, share travel stories, and admire the night sky, which was quite spectacular without the light pollution.

Tiger Safari – Field diary – 2002

Day 1 – Tiger family

Every morning mahouts at Kanha ride their elephants through the park in search of tigers. Once a tiger is located, the jeeps bring small groups of visitors to the closest point on the road, and the mahouts take them into the forest to see the tiger from an elephant’s back.

Though wild elephants disappeared from Khana many years ago, tigers are used to sharing the forest with them and are not bothered by their presence. Luckily, they also completely ignore people sitting on the elephant’s back.

On the first day of my Kanha National Park Safari, mahouts tracked down a tigress with two cubs near the river in Mukki. The female made a kill last night and after gorging on it through the night, the family was relaxing in the dense undergrowth.

Riding the elephant through the forest, I had no idea where the tigers were, even when the elephant stopped, supposedly in the direct line of sight of the family. Eventually, I noticed movement in the thick patch of undergrowth right in front of me. Yet I still couldn’t make out the shapes of the animals themselves. All I could see were a lot of feet and a lot of stripes. But I didn’t have to wait too long for the cubs to reveal themselves.

tiger cub in Kanha National Park
Tiger family

While the mother stayed hidden in the bush, the cubs were curious and kept poking their faces through the branches to have a better look at our elephant. After a while, the female got up and led her cubs away, probably down to the river for a drink.

Day 2 – The courting pair

Today, two tigers were found courting in Kisli area. When we arrived, riding on the elephant’s back, the tigress came out in the open and stayed in plain view sniffing the air before disappearing back into the forest. The mahout urged the elephant to continue slowly walking through the forest, and suddenly, a large male sprang out from his hiding place under a thick bush. He bared his teeth and roared at us before running off back into the cover of the thick jungle. 

Female at Kisli

Unfortunately, the mahout kept urging the elephant to follow the tigers and the cats were getting quite irritated. As much as I wanted to see the beautiful cats again, I had no desire to forcefully intrude on their private lives.

Day 3 – Tigress on the grassland

Late in the afternoon, the forest suddenly exploded with langur and chital alarm calls. Following the calls, we drove to the Kanha meadow and saw a tigress walking across it towards a small lake. She concealed herself in the tall grass of the meadow and became virtually invisible, her striped coat merging perfectly with the tall blades of dry yellow grass. And even though I knew exactly where she was, as soon as she stopped moving, I couldn’t see her all.

Perfectly camouflaged tigress on the meadow

Day 4 – Male tigers, young and old

Mahouts tracked down a young male at Bari Chubri rd in Kanha. This was a male tiger in his prime, and he looked absolutely beautiful.

By 9.30 am he still has not moved from the site. His relaxed and tolerant disposition and his rounded belly suggested that he had recently made a kill and concealed it nearby. He will now spend a few days near the kill, feeding on it and guarding it against the scavengers.

Pacified by his full stomach, he took practically no notice of the elephants and allowed them to approach very closely. I felt that if I just stretched my hand, I could have touched him.

Young male tiger

Late in the afternoon of the same day, we spotted a large male tiger walking along the road on Kanha meadow. He came out of the forest and walked slowly towards us for what seemed like an eternity. He had no fear whatsoever of a dozen or so jeeps full of excited tourists parked on the side of the road.

Old tiger on Kanha meadow

When he was only two or three meters from our jeep, I noticed that his face was covered with fresh scars. Since it was an old tiger, I figured that he must either be a resident male that had a fight to protect his territory and possibly lost.

He continued to walk along the road ignoring the jeeps as he passed them by and eventually walked off into the meadow away from the road.

Day 5 – Angry Charger

On my last day in Kanha, mahouts tracked down the resident male at Link #7 again. Today, he was very restless and aggressive, kept charging the elephants and irritably jolting from place to place.

Again, the mahout wouldn’t leave him alone, and my two fellow tourists were all too happy to continue the pursuit.  So, we tried to follow the tiger deeper into the forest until he turned around, pushed his ears back, and roared at us, stirring up the entire forest.

Frustrated tiger mock-charging the elephant

This was the most magnificent threat display I have ever encountered. You simply do not mess with a wild tiger. To my huge relief, and no doubt, to the poor elephant, the mahout abandoned the chase and we returned to the road.

Other wildlife of Kanha National Park

Kanha National Park safari is, of course, not only about the tigers. It is the only place in the world where you can see Hard ground Barasinga or swamp deer in the wild. It came very close to extinction, with 66 animals remaining in the wild in1970. Thankfully, strict conservation measures and a successful breeding program saw the population in Kanha grow to 450 – 500 individuals in 2000.

Devi, our driver, had some stories to tell about the Barasinga recovery project, particularly how he was collecting all the field data for someone else’s PhD project. Needless to say, he didn’t earn a mention in the thesis or a salary out of the grant money.

Tigers of Kanha - Barasinga stag
Barasinga stag in rut

We regularly saw other animals in the park: Chital deer, Sambar deer, Golden jackals, Gaur or Indian bison.  One afternoon we had a distant sighting of a Jungle cat concealed in tall grass.

Kanha National Park safari - Chital stag
Chital stag
Kanha safari - gaur
Indian bison or Gaur

Common Langurs are also very common in the park. They live in troops of 10 – 30 animals of related females. Such troops, usually led by a single adult male, are noticeably territorial. 

Chital is often found in the company of langurs; these two species have formed a curious partnership. As langur feed, they discard fruit and leaves from the trees, which are then picked up and eaten by chital; and their alarm calls also warn chital of the approaching danger.

Similarly, when the monkeys come down to feed on the ground, the deer’s keen sense of smell provides an extra level of security.


The most interesting bird that I saw on my Kanha National Park safari was the Endangered Egyptian vulture. Dozens of them could be seen circling above the visitor centre. Vultures are in trouble in India after NSAID chemicals were introduced into the painkillers that are given to the domestic stock. Even a small dose of these chemicals in the carcass are deadly to the vultures. As a result, the populations of some species declined to 1% of their former densities in India.  

 There were also a lot of bright and colourful birds, such as Peacocks and Indian rollers, but just like in Ranthambhore, I was so intent on spotting tigers that I missed more birds than I saw.

You may also like my post about watching wildlife in Ranthamhore National Park

People vs tigers in Kanha

While seeing a wild tiger is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences for tourists, living next to the big cats is not all rainbows and unicorns for the locals.

The conflict between people and tigers has existed ever since people moved into the area of tiger habitat and cleared the land for settlement and agriculture, thus entering into competition with tigers for available space and food.

Historically this conflict was manageable: tigers occasionally killed livestock, and people hunted tiger’s prey and occasionally killed tigers themselves. However, as the human population kept expanding, the human-tiger conflict began to increase.

Hari Yadav, the owner of the guest house where I was staying, lived in Katya village on the outskirts of the reserve all his life. For generations, his family ran a cattle farm. In the early 1900s, the government officials took to hunting deer in the reserve and before long, their hunting efforts wiped out almost all dear in the park.

Deprived of their natural prey, tigers were forced to switch to an alternative food source – domestic stock.  As a result, Harry’s family lost all of its 200 cattle to the tigers in just two years. But luckily, by then, Kanha was declared a National Park, and flocks of ecotourists started to arrive, bringing new business to the village.

This story is reminiscent of Jim Corbett’s transformation, where he went from a hunter specializing in tracking down tigers that preyed on the domestic stock to a conservationist. And now, one of India’s National Parks is named after him – Jim Corbett National Park

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1 thought on “Spotting tigers in Kanha National Park, India”

  1. This is one amazing post Margarita! Very nice documentation of Kanha’s previous generation tigers :)) .

    I’d like to note that, the tiger you mentioned as “Old tiger on Kanha meadow”, the one with the eye injury, was not the same one as the angry male spotted on Link 7 road the next day aka “Angry Charger”. Angry Charger happened to be Banda, the infamous male tiger of Kanha meadow in the early 2000s and the grandfather of the current, most famous Umarpani male of the park. The old tiger on Kanha meadow was a young male, most probably taken out by Banda as he wasn’t seen again in later years.

    The “young male at Bari Chubri rd in Kanha” was actually the oldest male of the 3 males you saw in 2002. At that time he was about 12 yrs old; his name was Bhura Senior. He was dominant in that range for many years, but due to old age, lost his range to Banda shortly after your visit.

    The tigress that you mentioned in “the courting pair” section, I strongly believe she was the mother of the great Munna of the park, the legendary male that happened to put Kanha on the map. I also believe it was during your visit in 2002 that she had Munna as part of her newborn litters. Could you post more photos of the mating pair? The mating male, I think, was Limping Male, a very huge male, bigger than all 3 male tigers you saw in Kanha zone. Limping male ruled Kisli range during that time.

    We’ve been trying to document Kanha tigers lineage for many years, below is our group. If possible, can you join and post more of your images there? It would be invaluable addition to our collective knowledge:


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