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 40–45 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: although poaching is now largely under control here, it still remains a threat; illegal timber-felling continues; the buffer zone is increasingly being encroached upon; and there is little effort to check the growth of new hotels. There have also been problems when tigers have strayed outside the park’s boundaries and killed cattle and some local villagers have responded by leaving out poison.