Desperately seeking Tigers Kanha National Park

| February 20, 2008

Michael Pullman travelled to India to seek out tigers in Kanha National Park.

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It’s our first morning in Kanha National Park and after a 5:00 am start my eyes are playing tricks on me. In the pale early morning light, every rock is a monkey, every deer a tiger, and there are plenty of false alarms as we head through the forest.

After driving for ten minutes, Dev, our guide, suddenly brings the jeep to a halt. “Monkey alarm call” he whispers as we also register the calls made by the langur monkey, which sound a little like the honk of an old-fashioned car horn. Our eyes scan the forest as the alarm calls intensify. Langur monkeys are known as the eyes of the forest, and often frustrate the tiger’s stealthy hunting methods with their loud cries. These calls mean either a tiger or a leopard is on the move, and such is the commotion in the trees above us that we know the unseen big cat must be very close. After 5 minutes of holding our breath and keeping absolutely still we give up and drive on, and then, as we turn a corner, I notice the shoulders, rear and finally tail of a large cat disappearing into the forest in the clearing below. “Tiger” I shout, but neither our guide nor driver has seen it, and the rest of the jeep’s passengers caught only the tail. So frustratingly, my first tiger sighting cannot be properly verified, and I start to doubt whether I actually saw it at all.

Kanha National Park is a beautiful setting for seeking tigers, with dense forests, streams, sweet-smelling meadows and abundant wildlife. During our stay here we will see bison, jackal, mongoose, deer and numerous birds including kingfisher, eagle and the beautiful Indian roller (left). Of course everyone wants to see a tiger, but I cannot imagine a more perfect setting for the hunt, as we drive along narrow dusty tracks, through forests of green sal trees and past stunning lakes, hives of activity where the larger animals come to cool down.

Whilst Kanha National Park is one of the best places in India to see tigers, the animal is as threatened here as it is everywhere else. Poachers and loss of natural habitat are the main causes, and the latest figures are rather depressing, with there being just over 100 tigers inside the wildlife conservation area of Kanha. Part of the problem is space, with the average male tiger requiring a territory of around 40 square kilometres.

Given that Kanha stretches over 940 square km you sometimes feel that you would have more chance of finding a needle in a haystack than seeing a tiger. We spend the remainder of the first morning on a wild goose chase following reported sightings, and when we do catch up with one we can barely see it, even with binoculars, despite our guide clearly being able to see it with his naked eye. The tiger’s camouflage is quite remarkable, with its stripes breaking up its body shape so it can become almost impossible to see until it moves. When it finally does move we all wondered how we never saw it in the first place. This long-range sighting, whilst thrilling, does not sate our thirst for tigers.

Luckily, Kanha National Park has a series of elephants expertly controlled by ‘mahouts’, who can veer off the roads into the jungle and thus seek out and get close to any tigers in the vicinity. After our long-distance tiger spot we race off to a kind of elephant bus stop, where visitors can catch the next available elephant (which always has room for one more on top), and clamber aboard in pairs. The mahout then directs our elephant, by prodding behind his ears with his bare feet, to within metres of a tigress resting in a shaded cave. The first thing that strikes us is the size of the animal, with its powerful shoulders and huge paws. The heaviest of all the big cats, tigers weigh around 40 stone. What also strikes us is how nonchalant it seems in our presence, as she looks up and yawns, rather like a domestic cat. The relationships between the mahout and the elephant, and the elephant and the tiger are fascinating to observe. It is hard to believe we are perched on top of an elephant only feet away from a wild and extremely dangerous animal.

Our close encounter with a tiger sends us home happy, but not before something wonderful happens on the way back to our lodge. We notice three jeeps parked by the side of the tracks ahead, and stop next to them. “Tiger” whisper the excited members of the jeep in front, and we follow their pointing fingers and this time the sight is unmistakable. A female tigress walking across the meadow in full view for about 30 seconds until she disappears into the forest, provoking monkey calls and a general sound of jungle panic all around her. It is an extremely emotional experience, much more affecting than the close encounter we have just had with the sleeping tiger. This feels more natural, less intrusive, and we feel privileged to be witnessing the tiger as it goes about its business.

A word of warning: Kanha National Park is not easy to get to. However, our sightings and the wonderful hospitality at Kanha Royal Tiger Resort, where we stayed, made the epic trek, which involved an internal flight to Nagpur followed by a six-hour drive on typical Indian country roads, more than worthwhile.

Our experiences of tigers have also made us all determined to do whatever we can to save this beautiful animal, which is currently in such a precarious state. Visiting one of India’s National Parks is a start, as the more tourism benefits the surrounding local communities the easier it will be to stamp out poaching. You can also donate to one of the many tiger conservation charities, such as Global Tiger Patrol or the Save The Tiger Fund.

View Cox & Kings' India tours.

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