Inside the JUNGLE BOOK
Witness Kipling’s Jungle Book moments come alive at Pench.
Spread over 1,100-odd square kilometres, Pench Tiger Reserve holds not just a healthy tiger population today, but has successfully maintained most of its old charm; thus allowing one to experience Rudyard Kipling’s magical Jungle Book in every possible manner.
Pench has been immortalised forever by author Rudyard Kipling in his larger-than-life Jungle Book story. Mowgli and his friends’ memorable fictional tales are breathed to life in Pench’s captivating jungle air and stunning landscapes. Breakfast at Mahadev Ghat that lies between the northern and central area of the park is one of my most memorable experiences with guests while on safari. From here, the Pench river that originates from the hills of Panchmarhi can be seen flowing downwards through the heart of the park, bringing with it its rich aquatic life. The river has been turned into a large reservoir at the southern end of the park, which also marks the boundary between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra (the park invariably split across the two states). The large boulder rocks of Pench are another feature of the park. Many of these boulder rocks are not just igneous in nature, but belong to as early as the Cambrian Era, prior to the presence of the Homo erectus; even before Dinosaur species survived on earth.
Coming to Pench meant that I would have the chance to hone my skills as a Naturalist on tracking big game, especially Tigers, for the very first time. When I started off, I had imagined that sighting Kipling’s Sher Khan would be quite an easy task. As time went by, I realised that looking for tigers here, was no walk in the park. I had only managed getting fleeting glimpses of the big cats in my initial couple of months, which was frustrating as the alarm calls were aplenty and pug marks, often fresh. Patience was the key, here, apart from sharpening my Big Game tracking skills.
It was on a pleasant morning in March when I had to drive past an impressive male Gaur to move ahead from where the alarm calls of a Sambar Deer were heard. We stopped when we saw a herd of Spotted deer run out of the ravine below to a single alarm call by one of the deer. On board, the safari with me were my Swedish guests on their fourth consecutive day of game drives. I could not have been more accurate; or humbly speaking, the Tiger Gods could not have been kinder than on that day. In less than a minute, we saw an impressive male tiger emerge out of the ravine roaring continuously as it walked the road ahead of us, while we trailed behind him at a slow pace. After a few minutes of rigorous scent-marking, he went off the road and settled just a few metres ahead of us before disappearing into the forests again.
A week later, we had a 45-minute sighting of a male leopard on a rock, followed by an hour and half of the same male tiger we had seen earlier. Later, I learned that his name was BMW and true to his name, he was a showstopper every single time that he appeared! While each of the innumerable sightings is memorable, there are those that truly stand out. On a chilly and overcast winter afternoon in January, after having sighted two tiger cubs playing, we found a leopardess with her two cubs on a rock a kilometre up the hill. While the cubs shied away after initial glimpses, the mother surprisingly confident to our presence lay on the rock for a good hour or more; much to the pleasure of my British guests on safari with me at the time. On another occasion, after sighting a sub-adult tiger on the morning safari, I decided to move on to the lesser-known trails of the forests. In less than an hour, we witnessed a pair of Wild dogs take down a handsome Spotted deer stag. My guests managed to get some amazing images of the action that enfolded before us; while I managed a short film of the last efforts of the deer to survive before one of the dogs began eating it alive from the stomach.
It would be unfair to only highlight the predator activity within Pench’s wilderness. The vast expanse of wild has got multiple facets to itself that tug the heartstrings of every true nature lover. The park has a significant population of avian residents, maximising one’s chance to sight variety of birds of prey– from Crested Serpent Eagles, Hawk Eagles and Fishing Eagles to Ospreys, Shikras, Black-shouldered Kites and White-eyed Buzzards. The latter, in particular, seems to be present at every few metres in the woods. I was also lucky to catch a brief sighting of a Brown Wood Owl. Pench’s multiple fig trees have made it a favourite haunt for the impressive Malabar Pied Hornbills. Common flora of Pench includes varieties of Central Indian Trees such as saaj (Crocodile Bark Tree), Kullu (Indian Ghost Tree), palaash and awla (Indian Gooseberry), to name a few. Yet, the majority of the park is occupied by sagon or teak, hence giving the park its dry, deciduous nature.
The wilderness is also home to some of the densest population of herbivores, including Langur monkeys, Sambar deer, Wild boar, a healthy population of Gaur and a huge number of Spotted deer. It’s indeed a great playground for predators. Pench’s dry, yet rocky outcrop is also home to a good number of Indian rock python, sightings of which are rare. I was lucky to sight them on three different occasions, the largest being in the buffer area outside the park. Keep an eye out for the jackal while visiting Pench. I have been lucky on safaris to not just sight them, but see them interact with Wild dogs, scavenging for carcasses, hunting deer fawn, and even at dens with pups.
Battle of the predators
Pench has managed to sustain a healthy population of predators, and it is only inevitable for these animals to cross path with one another at some point in time. Yet, such occurrences are not the norm, and even sightings are rare. I was lucky to witness not one, but three tiger-Wild dog conflicts in my two seasons in Pench. While the latter two were glimpses in the bush, my first tiger-Wild dog conflict occurred on a hot afternoon in March. The jungle was stunned into silence by the sheer soaring of temperature to well above 40 degrees and the best we could do was to try our luck at a waterhole. On arrival to the place and to our luck, we found a tigress cooling off in the waters. After about half an hour or more, just when the sun was loosening its hold on the earth, things took a whole new turn. A pack of Wild dogs had just arrived near the water’s edge when the relaxing tigress got up to chase away the dogs; her aggression backed by serious intent. The pack, made up of only the alpha pair and three juveniles, were no match to a fully-grown tiger. The parent dogs had only managed to distract the tigress long enough for the rest to make an escape. The tigress made a last effort at pursuing the alpha male in a chase that went in vain, as she lacked the agility of the Wild dog. The dog family were later seen bonding with one another, while we drove out of the park in disbelief.
Many facets of the jungle have still remained hidden to the eye, and therefore, there remains much more to be explored and unravelled. For the first time traveller visiting Pench, even if Sher Khan does not cross your path, be sure that some element of the wild surely will leave you in awe!
Collarwaali: the Legendary Tigress of Pench
One of the most photographed and documented Tigers of our times, Collarwaali (the Tigress with a radio collar) probably holds a celebrity status among India’s tigers today. When the documentary, ‘Tiger Spy in the Jungle’ was shot in this very park roughly a decade ago, Collarwaali featured as one of the four cubs of the then famously known female, ‘Bari Maada’. Today, she is eleven years or more and the most sought-after tigers to be seen in Pench. Her successful breeding and bringing up of five litters of cubs, along with her carefree attitude to the presence of tourist jeeps, has earned her the well-deserved fame.
Collarwaali left her last litter of cubs, a team of three sub-adult brothers, in December. Speculations were then rife from February to March on whether she was pregnant again. Uncertainty loomed large when both my fellow Naturalist and I had seen her on a couple of instances at the end of April and beginning of May with male tiger Rayakassa. Questions arose as to whether she had even managed to keep the cubs safe from predators during their initial weeks. I left Pench at the peak of summer during mid-May, only to receive news that Collarwaali was seen with three newborn cubs, clearing off all speculations and concerns.
Northern Pench –untouched, pristine wilderness
Large tracts of forests in Pench, such as Jamtara and Karmajhiri on the northern periphery, are not just abundant in wildlife, but the jungle trails here lead one to some of the least-visited parts of the park. Some of my best drives and sightings have been in these areas– the thrill of sighting a tiger is not a mere crowding of multiple vehicles, but a chance of tracking and trailing pug marks, followed by a pinch of luck. On a given day, you may be able to spot any big predator on the prowl; multiple Hornbills are another attraction here. Nilgai and Sloth Bear numbers, too, are significant in this part of the Tiger Reserve. Even outside the park, a large and vast buffer forest provides good secondary habitat for the wildlife. These secondary forests of Pench allow walking trails that are used as an opportunity to experience the jungle on foot, along with guests at times. Sightings of herbivores such as Deer, Boar and Langur are common. I was also lucky to sight other nocturnal animals such as Palm Civet, Jungle cat, Indian Giant Flying Squirrel, Dusky Eagle Owls and Brown Fish Owls.
HOW TO GO…
The nearest airport or major railway station is Nagpur, from where Pench is approximately a three-hour drive away. Jabalpur is the other option that has a decent railway network, and it is roughly a four-hour drive to Pench from there.
On the Madhya Pradesh side of the park, Jamtara Wilderness Camp located on the northern periphery offers an exclusive stay with game drives into the park; their in-house naturalists entering from both Jamtara and Karmajhiri Gates, apart from arranging walking programmes into the villages and buffer forests. On the more famed side of the park bordering Turia Gate, although there are multiple choices, the Pench Baghvaan that is a part of the Taj Safaris initiative offers a luxury stay to guests with guided safaris. Pench Jungle Camp and Mahua Vann are other good options to stay in to get a feel of the surrounding wilderness. For the more budgeted traveller, the MP tourism Guest House or Tiger Cubs land at the Turia Gate and are decent options that one may opt for. In case one wishes to explore the Maharashtra side of the park, putting up at Amaltas Tourist Rest house, near the entrance of the Sillari Gate is a viable option.
Read also: Junglimericks: In the Crazy Wilds of India
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