Widely considered the greatest of India’s wildlife reserves, Kanha National Park encompasses some 940 square kilometres of deciduous forest, savanna grassland, hills and gently meandering rivers – home to hundreds of species of birds and animals, including tigers. Despite the arduous overland haul to the park, few travellers are disappointed by its beauty, which is particularly striking at dawn. Tiger sightings are not guaranteed, but even a fleeting glimpse of one should be considered a great privilege. Moreover, the wealth of other creatures and some of central India’s most quintessentially Kiplingesque countryside make it a wonderful place to spend a few days.
From the main gates, at Kisli in the west, and Mukki, 35km away in the south, a complex network of driveable dirt tracks fans out across the park, taking in a good cross-section of its diverse terrain. Which animals you see from your open-top jeep largely depends on where your guide decides to take you. Kanha is perhaps best known for the broad sweeps of grassy rolling meadows, or maidans, along its river valleys, which support large concentrations of deer. The park has several different species, including the endangered “twelve-horned” barasingha (swamp deer), plucked from the verge of extinction in the 1960s. The ubiquitous chital (spotted deer – the staple diet of Kanha’s tigers) congregates in especially large numbers during the rutting season in early July, when it’s not uncommon to see several thousand at one time.
The woodlands carpeting the spurs of the Maikal Ridge that taper into the core zone from the south consist of sal, teak and moist deciduous forest oddly reminiscent of northern Europe. Troupes of langur monkeys crash through the canopy, while gaur, the world’s largest wild cattle, forage through the fallen leaves; years of exposure to snap-happy humans seem to have left the awesome, hump-backed bulls impervious to camera flashes, but it’s still wise to keep a safe distance. Higher up, you may catch sight of a dhol (wild dog) as well as porcupines, pythons, sloth bears, wild boar, mouse deer or the magnificent sambar. You might even spot a leopard, although these shy animals tend to steer well clear of vehicles. Kanha also supports an exotic and colourful array of birds, including Indian rollers, bee-eaters, golden orioles, paradise flycatchers, egrets, some outlandish hornbills and numerous kingfishers and birds of prey.
Kanha’s tigers, are its biggest draw, and the jeep drivers and guides, who are well aware of this, scan the sandy tracks for pug marks and respond to the agitated alarm calls of nearby animals. Although the Kanha zone has been a prime site for spotting tigers in the past, at the time of research sightings here were less common here than in Kisli, Sarhi and Mukki. “Elephant shows” – in which visitors disembark from their jeeps to take a short elephant ride in pursuit of a tiger that has been spotted – were banned at the time of writing, but may well be reintroduced in the future; currently “elephant joyrides” are on offer, which although not geared towards wildlife-spotting, are fun experiences. If you’re intent on seeing a tiger, plan on spending three nights at the park and taking around five excursions; the cats are most often spotted lounging among camouflaging brakes of bamboo or in the tall elephant grass lining streams and waterholes.