This is an updated post based on a 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, which I gratefully accepted. 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.
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.
Reluctantly, I crawled from under my blankets, washed my face, brushed my teeth and wrapped myself back into a light blanket and stepped outside. I all but ran to the fire that the kitchen boy lit some time ago and settled, with a cup of coffee in my hand, 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 kitchen boy 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. Genius. 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.
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. In the morning, the 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.
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 kitchen boy 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.
We spent most evenings at a campfire back at the guesthouse. It was a good time to reflect on the day in the park and to share travel stories and admire the night sky, that without the light pollution was quite spectacular.
I stayed at Van Vihar for nine days and I could’ve stayed for another month. Here is the field diary of my tiger sightings, as well as other Kanha’s wildlife.
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Tiger Safari – Field diary
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 the undergrowth right in front of me. Yet I still couldn’t make out the shapes of the animals themselves. All I could see was a lot of feet and a lot of stripes. But I didn’t have to wait too long for the cubs to reveal themselves.
While the mother stayed hidden in the bush, the cubs were quite 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 on the elephant 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.
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 alarm calls of langur and chital. Following the calls, we drive 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 stripped 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.
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 together with his rounded belly suggested that he has 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.
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.
When he was only two or three meters away 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 or he was already dislodged from his old territory by a younger and stronger contender and was now a floater – a male without a territory.
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.
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’s, 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 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.
Other animals we regularly saw in the park were: 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.
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 are 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 the introduction of NSAID chemical 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.
People vs tigers in Kanha
While seeing a wild tiger is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences for the tourists, living next to the big cats is not all rainbows and unicorns for the locals.
The conflict between people and tigers existed ever since people moved into the area of tiger habitat, 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 an aftermath, in just two years Harry’s family lost all of its 200 cattle to the tigers. 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.