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Tracking the tigress at Panna National Park


In search of the majestic ‘141’ in Madhya Pradesh’s Panna National Park, a brush with brawling langurs, dainty deer and confused pheasants

Spotting the king of the Indian jungle in the wild is an experience in learning about yourself. In this age of instant gratification it can be either a frustrating or a humbling experience to know that your chances of seeing the tiger are pretty much random. Which way you take it depends on who you are as a person.

At the invitation of Taj Safaris, we were investigating the reported return of the tiger to Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Panna had lost all its tigers to poaching by 2009 and it is only in the last decade through a careful process of relocation from other tiger reserves and natural breeding that the tiger population has climbed back to about 50. Leopards that had taken over the role of apex predator following the disappearance of the tiger can still be found, though in diminished numbers.

Travel Notes

  • Taj Safaris Pashangarh (Madhya Pradesh) is a one hour drive from the nearest airport in Khajuraho. Besides spending a day visiting the world famous temples of Khajuraho, you can also take a two-hour drive to visit Kalinjar, which is a fortress-city containing several temples dating as far back as the Gupta dynasty of the 3rd-5th Centuries.

Creatures of the wild

The Pashangarh (stone fortress) property is the smallest of the six luxury safari lodges that Taj runs in India and Nepal. My photographer friend and I were ushered into our rooms done up in muted browns and greys. The floor-to-ceiling windows looked right out at the thick forest beyond. Attached was a sit-out with a fireplace, presided by a bemused grey langur.

The safari trail at Panna National Park

The safari trail at Panna National Park  
| Photo Credit:
Sundeep Kumar

At night, we head out on a safari. As we bumped along the rough forest trail, the headlight beams of the jeep picked out a few stray deer, eyes smouldering like lumps of charcoal on an otherwise still forest. We stopped at a watering hole to admire the blanket of stars covering the open sky as a fiery orange moon climbed out of the trees. No tiger sighting, but we returned to a sumptuous dinner of lentil and coconut soup followed by grilled chicken in wine sauce served on a stone deck overlooking the forest.

For the next few days we played Find-The-Tiger, entering through both the Madla and Hinouta gates, but the big cat remained elusive. The core area of Panna with 50 tigers covers a total area of 543 square kilometres but it is a common misconception that the chances of spotting the tiger are influenced by the tiger/land ratio. For one, only 20% of the core area is available for humans to explore through safaris. Secondly, tigers are intensely territorial and respect each other’s patch. What this means is that you are restricted to searching for only a handful of tigers from the large population in the park.

Tracking the tigress at Panna National Park

We did see plenty of other wild creatures on our drives. Herds of large sambar deer with their rather drab brown coats were upstaged by their nattier cousins, the sleek nilgai and the delicate chital (spotted deer). Wild boar snuffled along on either side of the trail, eyes darting back and forth, snouts and tails twitching warily. The most entertaining were the grey langurs swinging impossibly from one flimsy branch to another. We came across a troop of them brawling with mock ferocity; the young ones hurled themselves at their older brothers, giving as good as they got.

Tracking the tigress at Panna National Park

One morning, we went for a walk with the Pardhi, a nomadic tribe of hunter/poachers who are now working as guides for the Taj Safaris. They showed us how to use the bark of trees and the leaves of plants like the lantana, amla and tulsi for medicinal purposes and also pointed out the faint tracks of hyenas and leopards on the dusty trail. The Pardhi are adept at imitating the warning and mating calls of jungle creatures. Their authentic shrill cries caused a red pheasant to waddle up through the undergrowth to see what the fuss was all about, before, of course, beating a hasty retreat.

Sense the beast

The closest we came to feeling the presence of “141”, the tigress that ruled in this part of the park, was on our last drive. The nomenclature indicates that she is the first-born of the fourth litter of the first tigress to be introduced to Panna.

In a stroke of absolute beginner’s luck, a couple spotted her down by the Karnali River within minutes of their first drive out. The rest of us were alerted quickly to the fact that she had bounded up into the jungle followed by her two cubs. Her overnight kill of a fresh sambar had been dragged into the Karnali by marauding crocodiles.

Crocodile, the apex predator in the waters at Panna

Crocodile, the apex predator in the waters at Panna
 
| Photo Credit:
Sundeep Kumar

We scrambled into a wooden boat and set off in search of the kill. Here, the Karnali was smooth as glass with no visible flow except where it dropped suddenly over hidden rocks and foam gushed forth like blood from an open wound. We soon caught sight of the carcass floating mid-stream and being fed upon by a bask of mugger crocodiles, all enjoying the lunch they had mugged from the tigress. Their beady eyes rose from the green waters. Lethal tails with scales packed like armour flicked lazily from side to side — the tigers might rule the land but in the water, the crocodiles were the true apex predators.

For details, on stay and rates at Pashangarh visit www.tajsafaris.com. The wildlife sanctuary remains closed from July to September during the monsoon season.

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