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.
Central portions of the Kanha Valley were designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1933. Previously, the whole area was one enormous viceregal hunting ground, its game the exclusive preserve of high-ranking British army officers and civil servants seeking trophies for their colonial bungalows. Not until the 1950s though, after a particularly voracious hunter bagged thirty tigers in a single shoot, did the government declare Kanha a bona fide national park. Kanha was one of the original participants in Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger, which helped numbers recover. The forest department claims there are around 78 tigers, but guides and naturalists say 35–40 is a more accurate estimate (for most of India’s tiger reserves, halving the official figures will generally give you a more realistic idea). As part of a long-term project, the park has expanded to encompass a large protective buffer zone – a move not without its opponents among the local tribal community, who depend on the forest for food and firewood. Over the years, the authorities have had a hard time reconciling the needs of the villagers with the demands of conservation and tourism; but for the time being at least, an equitable balance seems to have been struck.
Yet serious challenges remain: in recent years poaching has become an issue again and traps have even been discovered in the park’s “tourist zone” (the area visited on safaris). Illegal timber felling is also a problem, the buffer zone is increasingly being encroached upon and there is little effort to check the growth of new hotels.Read More
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, though, 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. Tigers are often spotted via an “elephant show” : when a tiger is spotted sleeping or sitting, visitors disembark from their jeeps to take a short elephant ride to see the big cat. Some, however, find the experience a little contrived. 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.