Of forests, hills and rivers
Spread over 1,400+ sq. km., the Satpura Tiger Reserve comprises the Satpura National Park and Panchmarhi and Bori Wildlife Sanctuaries. A conservation success, Satpura’s forested hills not only house the magnificent tiger, but an amazing array of wildlife as well, making it a haven for any naturalist.
It was midnight and I had to make sure that I got off with my entire luggage as the train would only halt for two minutes at Pipariya station. As I watched the Howrah Bombay Mail chug along after having left me at my destination, I noticed that the platform was deserted; not even a coolie or tea vendor was in sight. I was greeted by Aly, my soon to be fellow naturalist, and we drove off into the darkness, passing Shohagpur – the last town to be crossed while heading to Satpura. The open country gave way to secondary forests and we were soon greeted by a Jungle cat that crossed our path. A few kilometres further, a jackal hid from us in some Lantana bushes and as we moved further into the forests, a pair of eagle owls took off into the darkness disturbed by our vehicle. This was my first look at the great wilderness of Satpura.
The Jigini Mahal temple is located in a secluded part of the park and is rarely visited by tourists, making it a perfect spot to sight the usually shy animals.
Lasting first impressions
I embarked on my first drive into the park just a couple of weeks later. The rains had just bid us goodbye and the grass smelt sweet; the meadow at the start of the drive-in stark contrast to the thick, moist deciduous forest that lay ahead. Spotted deer stags were showing off their growing antlers, while the females and young ones had formed large herds. We spotted the first Sambar amidst the green foliage soon after we entered the forest; the creature least bothered by our presence. The jungle was very dense and even sighting a full-grown Gaur bull was difficult. Above us, a Crested Hawk Eagle made us aware of his presence with his typical, shrill ‘kri-kri-kri-kri-kreeah’ whistles. A richly-coloured Indian giant squirrel pair jumped from one branch to another, probably in fear of the celebrated raptor, and disappeared in the thick canopy.
Wild dogs hunt in packs and are thus able to hunt prey such as Sambar that are much bigger than themselves.
I continued gazing in their direction in awe, as I had never seen this magnificent rodent before. The Indian giant squirrel has made a remarkable comeback in the Satpura wilderness – this forest being the northernmost limit of the range of this squirrel. As we continued our drive, I noticed multiple dreys of the squirrel on crocodile bark trees. Further ahead, sharp alarm calls of a Sambar led us to a leopard retiring into the bushes with a kill of a Four-horned antelope in its mouth. As we were driving towards our breakfast setup, the view of the large igneous basalt rocks that provided a backdrop to the Satpura highlands left us amazed. The Sonbhadra River comes down from these hills, the Panchmarhi mountains, and feeds into the Denwa further down. On our way back, we found a Sambar mother tensed and alert, stamping her foot. The cause? A pack of Dholes had devoured her young and were almost ready to move on after finishing the kill. We saw all of this in a single drive, which was the first one of the season, too!
Building on its legacy
Satpura – or the land of seven hills – and its natural history has been mentioned by Englishman James Forsyth in his book, The Highlands of Central India. As a naturalist, what struck me most apart from the rich biodiversity of the forest, were the healthy ecotourism activities in place that were slowly but surely leading to successful conservation and building a healthy tourism model. Although tigers are present in the forest, the density of the big cat here is far lesser than in the other famous parks of the country; considering the vastness of the forest, many tigers are just about getting familiar with jeeps and tourists. Satpura has other facets to it as well that sets it apart from the other parks in Central India. Less than a decade ago, veteran naturalist Hashim Tyabji, along with the support of the forest department led by Director R. P. Singh, began the work of moulding this park into a nature-lovers’ delight. Initiatives like elephant safaris, boat and canoe ride on the Denwa River, bush walks inside the national park on designated routes and conservation of large tracts of buffer forests outside the park have all transformed the Satpura Tiger Reserve into a must-visit place for wildlife and nature-lovers.
The diversity of butterflies found here is not very high. However, species of the dry area, such as the Blue pansy, are quite common.
Brush with the wild
During the many months spent at Satpura, I learned that there was an excellent presence of avian life on the Denwa River. While a boat can take you all the way up to Sonbhadra River, sailing on Denwa on a canoe can take you close to flocks of River Terns and Painted Storks on the banks, or even a Marsh crocodile peeking out and then disappearing into the depths of the river. Denwa is home to many winter migrants that come in hundreds, including the Bar-headed Geese, Ruddy Shelducks, Indian Skimmers, Red-crested Pochards and Northern Pintails. Residents of the riverside include Pied Kingfishers, Painted Storks, three species of terns and several species of plovers and sandpipers. Birds of prey that overlooked the waters were the Pallas and Grey-headed Fish Eagles, along with Ospreys; the forests were watched upon by hawks and Crested Serpent Eagles. In the forested patches, one could also view green pigeons, nightjars, woodpeckers, cuckoos and minivets, while the open country provided opportunities to spot shrikes, stonechats, bush chats, robins and larks, along with spotting an occasional kestrel or falcon.
Satpura is home to several reptile species. Some of the frequently sighted ones are (from top) Forest calotes, Bengal monitor, fan-throated lizard and Checkered keelback
Tiger population and sightings in Satpura have been on a steady rise. Leopards are doing really well, too – almost thriving in the lower mountains of the park. On a cold winter morning, I was even fortunate to catch a glimpse of a pair of mating leopards in some bushes across a rivulet. Dholes or wild dogs were seen very often. One of my most memorable sightings of the dogs took place during a boat ride. A pack of eight dogs had managed to kill a Sambar and were feeding on it, when a Wild pig came running out of the bushes and picked a fight with them to try and scavenge some pieces of meat.
Another activity one can indulge in here is the full day safari. You get to drive all the way to Churna, which is inside Bori sanctuary, and then walk to a natural rock cave that contains prehistoric paintings. These paintings depict the lifestyle of the ancient man and tell us how close we were to nature. The rains brought to life the herpeto-world around with kraits, keelbacks and rat snakes coming out of hiding. The best sighting of the rainy season, though, was that of wild dogs – seven dogs trying to break down the defence of a Sambar herd to get to their fawns and the deer standing their ground determinedly for more than an hour, emerging triumphant eventually.
The honey hunters
Satpura has gained a reputation of being a stronghold of the Sloth bears. The fact that bears were thriving here was evident from the sheer number of sightings we had. I remember sighting seven bears in a single day! The innumerable number of termite mounds and anthills, along with the seasonal Mahua and Ber, and of course, honey, provided bears with a surplus diet. One evening, when I had taken a few guests to Jingini Mahal, an old temple with an unknown history located in one of the most secluded parts of the park, we spotted a mother bear with two little cubs. We observed them for a good 15 minutes until the mother noticed us and walked off into the bushes with her young ones.
Sloth bear mothers are extremely protective of their young ones and carry them on their back for the first few months.
It has been three years now since I left Satpura. I left with a feeling that I had seen the best that the place had to offer, although I had seen the tiger only twice. A blink-and-you-miss sighting of a Honeybadger was the cherry on the top for me. When I returned last year for a week, a male tiger crossed my path during my very first drive! The boat ride then took me amongst a flock of Bar-headed Geese, the first of hundreds yet to come. Recently I got the news that the same male tiger I had seen, has now turned into a bear-hunter and has successfully taken down three bears within the span of a month. The Rusty-spotted cat has become quite visible in the buffer zones and even a wolf was sighted twice. Why, an update from a fellow naturalist regarding Satpura, read, ‘An amazing sighting of a leopard making a kill of a Gaur calf, just a few feet from our jeep!’
I think just one year or one article is not enough to include all that Satpura has to offer. Such is the land of the seven hills, where beyond the tiger, dwell birds, bears, leopards, and endless possibilities.
The prehistoric cave paintings at Churna caves in Bori WLS entail the activities of the prehistoric man who used to live in this forest.
IF YOU GO…
Nearest major railway station: Pipariya, approx. 48 km away.
Nearest airport: Bhopal, approx. 170 km away.
Places to stay: Satpura is not as famed as some of the other reserves in the country and hence staying options are slightly limited here. Some of the good ones here are:
Forsyth’s Lodge, built by the efforts of naturalist Hashim Tyabji himself, is just a couple of kilometres away from the park and offers good accommodation and expert naturalists to lead you on safaris and walks. The lodge not just takes you around the park, but in case one wishes to stay longer, arranges for stay at Churna in Bori and in the Panchmarhi hills, too.
Reni Pani Jungle Lodge is another excellent property, one which is built to blend in easily with the surroundings to give you a feeling that you are always in the park. From a rugged landscape and dense forest to being a home to a number of wild animals, safaris led by expert in-house naturalists will transport you into a wildlife lover’s dreamland..
Denwa Backwaters, a part of Pugdundee Safaris, is another excellent lodge just across the entrance of the national park, with a great view of the Denwa River. A stay here is highly recommended.
For those looking for a reasonably priced accommodation, the forest rest house, located across Denwa River at the entrance of the national park in Madhai, is also an option, although the facilities are really basic.
This article was first published in the 2015 May edition of Saevus Magazine