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India: Madhya Pradesh: Bandhavgarh & Kanha, Gwalior, Omkareshwar
Bandhavgarh & Kanha, Madhya Pradesh, India: In pursuit of stripes
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
I set out in the forests of Bandhavgarh and Kanha in the hope of winning some stripes. Between the two tiger reserves I had the opportunity to undertake 12 safaris. Let's call them game drives.
I was told by many that the sightings of tigers in Bandhavgarh is a done thing. Given the density of tigers in the park, one can't really come back without crossing paths with one. Well, that's not entirely correct. Before you set on the journey to spot tigers please carefully note that there's no such thing as 'guaranteed sightings'. Yes the more drives you take, better are the chances. I could sight tigers in 3 off the 12 safaris... the first, the 5th and the last.
Learned people tell me, that one in four is indeed a good average and that holds almost true at all tiger reserves in India. Yes, the chances go up during summer months when the prey and the predators are near the watering hole. But the flip side is that the tigers tend to become lazy and prefer resting in some dense shade.
I was in the parks in December when it's pretty chilly. And with monsoons just over, there are water holes everywhere, making it easy for the animals, thus reducing the chances of encounters. But the flip side in winters is that the tigers tend to walk in the mornings and evenings and are at their graceful best.
Long story short, take the safaris when you have the time and the inclination (parks are closed for few months during monsoon). With a little luck on your side you will win your stripes! I remember my sister visiting Kanha with her friends. They took just one safari and had the opportunity to see an entire tiger family basking in the sun. Lady luck!
When you set out, it would be a good idea to consider tiger sightings as a bonus. Trust me, the drives through the forests with dozens other mammals and dozens and dozens of bird species is indeed an experience in itself. And for company if you have learned guides, the stories will make your day.
We were in a group of 20. The safaris were ornagised by Toehold, a company based in Bangalore, India, who specialise in organising trips in the wild. We had 3 skippers; Sachin Rai, Santosh Saligram and Harsha Narasimhamurthy. I had the opportunity to interact with the first two. These guys were masters of their craft. Not only were they good with their camera techniques but their knowledge of wildlife in general and tigers & birds in particular were awe-inspiring. I guess Sachin knew more about the tiger lineage than probably his own family hierarchy! He could name every tiger, their parents, their grandparents, their siblings and their cubs! As for Santosh, he could spot the smallest of the birds from far and could name the species (there are over 200 in these parks alone) and tell whether it's a male or a female. God bless them both.
Travelling with such leaders has an advantage than being on own. They are particular about the drivers that they get. Thanks to their relationship built over the years, the drivers, the forest guards, the staff at the lodges go that extra mile to ensure the guests get the best of the experience. And most important take away are the discussions that happen between game drives and in the evenings over camp fire.
As you might be aware, Bandhavgarh and Kanha are in the State of Madhya Pradesh, India. Both have their unique charm. If I have to explain, Bandhavgarh is rugged, Kanha is beautiful; Bandhavgarh is from Mars, Kanha is from Venus. And you will notice the difference even whilst driving... in Bandhavgarh one can speed but in Kanha you can't. More about these parks in pages that follow.
This was my first jungle safari so to say. And surely won't be the last. Do pardon if you notice some technical glitches or compositional errors in the pictures that I could take. I am learning... it's an unending process.
Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India, can be accessed by rail and air. The nearest railway station is Umaria (30-minutesí drive) or Katni (3-hour drive). And the nearest airport is Jabalpur (4-hour drive). I opted the air route. There's a direct flight from Mumbai and takes about an hour and half.
Since I was in the group organised by Toehold, carpooling was possible. Waiting for us at the Jabalpur airport was a comfortable Innova with bucket seats. 3 guests and the driver made for a comfortable journey to our lodge Aryanak Resort located at Tala near Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. I had a cabin for myself in this beautiful property set amidst nature with all modernly comforts. Special mention must be made for the very courteous service extended by the resort staff.
By the time we reached the lodge it was 8 PM. The dinner was ready and so were everybody in the group to be introduced to each other. We were 20 of us. We came in as strangers and parted few days later as friends. Nice bunch of people from different parts of India.
Generally speaking, all lodges and resorts in the area offer all meals with their room tariffs. They also pack breakfast which you can carry on your game drives and enjoy the breakfast in the middle of the jungle. Of course, there are designated spots where your safaris can halt. And nowhere else. You just have to hold-on to relieve yourself. On very rare occasion and only in a real emergency, the forest guard accompanying you in the safari can allow you to step out to attend to nature's call.
Bookings for your drives are online and they open 120 days in advance. Only a fixed number of vehicles are permitted to enter the park through each of the 3 gates. In case the bookings are not full, one can take a chance on the spot at the booking window. It's a must, must to carry your photo identity, else you will be denied entry into the park.
In winters, for the morning game drives, the park gates open at 6 AM and close at 11 AM. The afternoon game drives are from 3 PM to 5:30 PM. Summer timings are different. Timings are strictly adhered to. It's a good idea to go early and line-up at the gates. The vehicles are let in, one at a time, and with a gap of 20 seconds.
Every safari vehicle (in Bandhavgarh it is Maruti Gypsy) is modified to carry 6 guests, a forest guard (assigned by the forest authorities) and the driver. It is the responsibility of the guard and the driver to adhere to the allocated zone and the timings. Any deviation calls for heavy fines.
At 5 AM the next morning we were ready for our first morning drive. For the 20 of us and the 3 skippers we had 5 vehicles at our disposal. Each would take 3 guests, 1 skipper, 1 forest guard and the driver of course. While the driver and the vehicle were pre-chosen the forest guard would join us at the gate. The timing for the afternoon game drive would be 2 PM. And this would be our ritual for all the 7 safaris (game drives) that we had booked for Bandhavgarh. To make sure that the group become homogeneous, including the skippers, we were rotated such that each one got to be with all the skippers and the guests. By being early for the both the drives, for all the days, we were usually among the first few to enter the park.
The park has been divided into three major zones named as Tala (gate 1), Magadhi (gate 2) and Khitauli (gate 3). Whilst making the booking, one can opt for the zone they wish to visit; but many a times the choice not being available, a random gate is allocated. Visitors must stay within the allotted zone.
It's a common belief that the Tala zone has the maximum chance of tiger sighting. Going by my experience, that isn't true. I think, with luck on your side, all the zones provide equal sighting opportunities. During the 7 safaris, I visited Tala and Magadhi and got the sightings. Missed doing the Khitauli though. It's a natural ritual to check with other visitors about their sighting experience. And the answers you get either leave you happy or dejected!
Bandhavgarh National Park, arguably is the most popular national park in India. It is located in the Vindhya Hills of the Umaria district. Declared as a national park in 1968 the park is spread across the area of 105 sq.km. The name Bandhavgarh has been derived from the most prominent hillock of the area of Umaria. The park consists of mixed vegetation ranging from tall grasslands to thick Sal forest and so is the perfect habitat of variety of animals and birds.
There is a lot of history hidden in the forests of Bandhavgarh. The Bandhavgarh Fort inside the national park is considered over 2000 years old. There is a mention of the Bandhavgarh Fort in Narad Panch Ratra, and Valmikiís Ramayana. It is said that after killing the demon King Ravana, Lord Rama stopped here. He asked Nal and Neel, the two monkey architects to make this fort. It was these two who had also made the bridge to go to Lanka in the Indian Ocean. The idea to make this fort was basically to keep an eye on Lanka from here, as this is one of the highest hills of central India. He made his younger brother Lakshman as resident deity of the fort. So the fort gifted to a brother came to be known as Bandhavgarh (bandhav as brother, garh as fort).
As soon as you enter the gates, the driver and the guards start looking for pugmarks and calls of the monkeys and deer. These are the only two ways of knowing the movement of the tigers. From the pugmarks one can guess the direction of the movement, freshness, sex of the tiger, etc. And from the distress calls of deer and langurs one can guess the whereabouts of the tigers or leopards for that matter.
Once a call is heard, the drivers try to head as near as possible. Since routes are fixed, they canít take a U-turn. Little reversing is allowed, but thatís of little help. What they do instead, is speed-up to reach an appropriate track. Like I mentioned, thereís no speed-limit in Bandhavgarh. The speed-drive can really shake you up. And for company thereís plenty of dust! I guess it will get worse in dry summer months.
Generally speaking, a male tiger walks up to 40 kms every night to mark his territory. Each male tiger will rule about 10 sq. km. of area in which he will take in 3 to 4 tigresses and their cubs. There is no way for other male tigers to enter into a marked territory, unless of course the intruder is tougher and willing to fight it out. Tiger is a solitude hunter and is very protective about his area.
Itís common to see tiger scratch-marks on tree trunks. Higher the scratch-mark stronger and mightier is the tiger. Itís a warning to intruders.
Once the tiger cubs are 2 to 3 years old, all relationship between them ends. Thereís no more a father, a mother, a brother or a sister. They are just tigers! Each one finds their own territory. Itís common to see the young ones driving their parents out.
I was lucky to spot a tigress in my very first safari. She was named Spotty. I was told that her cubs were only a few months old and she was walking towards her den where the cubs were residing.
Wow, a tiger-sighting in the very first game drive! That means I will get many more opportunities. But that was not to be. The second sighting was on my 5th game drive. It was a tiger named Bamera SonÖ as the name suggests he was an offspring of the famous tiger Bamera.
Like I mentioned in my foreword, spotting tigers should not be the only agenda. Other mammals and birds can add to the fun.
I will let the pictures do the talking.
After completing our 7th game drive in the morning, we were ready to drive to Kanha, our next destination in pursuit of stripes. Post lunch, we were in our Innovas. The drive to Kanha would be about 5 hours. A good part of the road would be through dense and picturesque forest and hills.
Our stay in Kanha was at Celebrations Van Vilas. Again, a good property with all modern amenities. Like in Bandhavgarh, even at Kanha the schedule was fixed. Leave for morning game drives at 5 AM and for the afternoon game drives at 2 PM. We had booked for 5 game drives at Kanha.
The lush sal and bamboo forests, grassy meadows and ravines of Kanha provided inspiration to Rudyard Kipling for his famous novel "Jungle Book". The Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh came into being in 1955 and forms the core of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, created in 1974 under Project Tiger. The Park's landmark achievement is the preservation of the rare hardground Swamp Deer (Barasinga), saving it from near extinction. Stringent conservation programs for the overall protection of the Park's fauna and flora, makes Kanha one of the most well maintained National Parks in Asia.
The present-day Kanha area is divided into two sanctuaries, Hallon and Banjar, of 250 and 300 sq.km. Today it stretches over an area of 940 sq.km. in the two districts Mandla and Balaghat. Together with a surrounding buffer zone of 1067 sq.km. and the neighbouring 110 sq.km. Phen Sanctuary it forms the Kanha Tiger Reserve. This makes it the largest National Park in Central India.
The booking, the vehicle, the driver, the forest guard procedure is exactly like it is in Bandhavgarh but with a little difference. The park is very particular about the distance between the two vehicles and the speed they maintain. No way can the vehicle go beyond 20 km/hour. The forest guard in the vehicle has an activated GPS that tracks the movement, the route taken and the speed achieved. Any deviation and the driver and the guard are in for trouble.
Kanha Tiger Reserve is home to over 1000 species of flowering plants. The lowland forest is a mixture of sal and other mixed-forest trees, interspersed with meadows. The highland forests are tropical moist, dry deciduous type and of a completely different nature from bamboo on slopes. A notable Indian ghost tree can also be seen in the dense forest.
The park abounds in meadows or maidans which are basically open grasslands that have sprung up in fields of abandoned villages, evacuated to make way for the animals. Kanha meadow is one such example. Many species of grass are recorded at Kanha, some of which are important for the survival of barasinga and the gaur. Densely forested zones with good crown cover have abundant species of climbers, shrubs, and herbs flourishing in the understory. Aquatic plants in numerous lakes are life-lines for migratory and wetland species of birds.
The park has species of tigers, leopards, wild dogs, wild cats, foxes and jackals. Other commonly seen animals in the park include the spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, and the four-horned antelope. Blackbuck have inexplicably become very rare. They vanished completely, but have been reintroduced recently inside a fenced area in the park. Nilgai can still be seen as also the Indian Indian wolf. Striped hyena and sloth bear are seen occasionally. Langurs and wild boars are common.
The reserve brings around 300 species of birds and the most commonly seen birds are the black ibis, bee-eaters, cattle egret, blossom-headed parakeets, pond heron, drongos, common teal, crested serpent eagle, grey hornbill, Indian roller, lesser adjutant, little grebes, lesser whistling teal, minivets, pied hornbill, woodpecker, pigeon, paradise flycatchers, mynas, Indian peafowl, red jungle fowl, red-wattled lapwing, steppe eagle, Tickell's blue flycatcher, white-eyed buzzard, white-breasted kingfisher, white-browed fantail, wood shrikes, and warblers, among many more.
Of course, I couldn't see all of the beauties mentioned above. But whatever I could see are presented here. All in all, with just one tiger sighting in Kanha, I leave with no regrets.
After completing our scheduled 5 game drives, I drove to Nagpur airport in about 4 hours to catch my flight home.
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