The area that is now the Kanha National Park, was once a sportsman's paradise, as borne out by Dunbar Brander who wrote in his epic book, Wild Animals in Central India: "This tract contained as much game as any tract I ever saw in the best parts of Africa in 1908... I have seen 1,500 head consisting of eleven species in an evening's stroll."
Both the Banjar and Halon valleys used to be the exclusive hunting grounds of the British. The area then supported the swamp deer or hardground barasingha in such large numbers that they virtually dominated the landscape. Over hunting led to the forests being closed to shikar in 1931 and it was gazetted as a sanctuary in 1933. In 1955 a 250 sq. km. area was declared the Kanha National Park, primarily to save the hardground barasingha, exclusive only to India and severely threatened with extinction (numbers had fallen to 550).
By now Kanha was fairly well known and administrators were always on the lookout to expand its protected area. Consequently land from surrounding areas was continually added and today the Kanha Tiger Reserve is a 1,945 sq. km. park and a prime breeding habitat for the endangered cats. In the hot and dry summers all water sources dry up except for a few perennial streams or ponds. One such is a lake near the main meadow called Shravan Tal.
Legend has it that Raja Dasrath of Ayodhya shot an arrow while hunting deer and accidentally killed a young man called Shravan, who was out collecting water for his aged, blind parents. The good king had mistaken him for a deer drinking at the lake. When the king sorrowfully carried Shravan's body to his parents they both died instantly of shock and grief. According to the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, much of what followed in the Kings' life was governed by the death of Shravan, for which he and his family paid a heavy personal price.
Kanha is one of the few Indian wildernesses reminiscent of the vast African veldt, where grasslands permit 3600 visibility and herds of animals can be spotted from relatively great distances. The cordon of hills that surround it are the result of ancient volcanic activity and are densely forested. The Banjar and Halon Valley forests form the western and eastern halves of Kanha. The low-lying Banjar Valley floods over in the rains leaving rich soils. The southern source of the mighty and now controversial Narmada River lies in the Maikal hills.
Kanha's topography and geology is directly responsible for its diversity of habitats. The park rests on a plateau of the Maikal range at the point where the dry teak zone slowly lets the moist sal forest take over. This is also the catchment area for the Banjar river, which joins the Narmada at Mandla. The hills of the park are capped with bauxite rich plateaux called dadars, which support productive grasslands and scrubby trees. At the fringes of these elevations is basalt rock from where fresh springs flow all year round. On the higher slopes large trees with understoreys of huge bamboo thickets present a picture of raw wilderness.
Some of these springs form small waterholes that dry up in summer, but are the focus of intense wildlife activity for months after the monsoon. Along lower slopes the character of the forest changes from mixed deciduous to lush sal often mixed with bamboo. The fodder potential of Kanha's many open meadows supports large herbivore herds. Most such meadows owe their origin to the tribal Baiga and Gond practice of shifting cultivation, which was ultimately banned in 1868. These meadows are surrounded by dense sal and mixed deciduous forest. Over half of the park comprises dry deciduous woodland on hilltops and slopes.
Abandoned village sites are dominated by coarse Pennisetum alopecurus grasses, while the naturally occurring maidans generally support finer species like those of genus Themeda that grow to heights of one or two metres in the monsoon. Aquatic and marshy plants support a relatively unstudied, but rich diversity of fish and other aquatic species. These can be seen growing in profusion near the hundreds of tanks, pools, rivers, irrigation channels and perennial streams.
There is every chance of seeing a tiger on early morning elephant rides, or from vehicles both in the morning or evening. Barasingha deer, star attraction of Kanha, often adorn their antlers with tufts of grass in the rutting season. They are not exactly easy to see, but sightings are possible. Once restricted to the Kanha meadows the deer can now be seen in other meadows as well.
Mammals such as the leopard, jungle cat, sloth bear, wild dog (dhole) and the mongoose are usually encountered by sheer chance. Jackals are more frequently seen patrolling their turf, usually in search of fawns or other small prey. Gaurs prefer highlands and the most reliable sightings are to be had in the Mukki range. Only the largest tigers will try to bring down a bull gaur. Chital deer can be seen in herds numbering hundreds. Wildboar, preyed upon by leopards and tigers, are common almost everywhere.
Four-horned antelope or chausingha and nilgai can also be seen, but less frequently. Some animals are difficult to sight. These include the hyena, chevrotain (mouse deer, only 300 cm. tall!), porcupines, sambar and barking deer (or muntjac), (found in small numbers). Pythons and cobras, though common, are difficult to spot.
Kanha is a birdwatchers dream come true. Dabchicks, Egrets, Whitenecked Storks, Lesser Adjutants, Black Ibis and Blackwinged Stilts are among the more common species to be seen near waterbodies or streams near Kanha, Sonph, Kisli and Mukki. Resident raptors such as the Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, Crested Honey buzzard, Shikra and Kestrel can be sighted hunting and nesting in magnificent, tall trees. Nocturnal birds including Nightjars, Barn Owls and Brown Fish Owls may also be spotted.
White-backed, Longbilled and Egyptian Vultures can be seen on the remains of carnivore kills. Junglefowl, Grey and Painted Partridge, Alexandrine Parakeets, Koels, Kingfishers, Woodpeckers, Bulbuls and Redwattled Lapwings are common. Hornbills nest in old-growth trees. Mynas, five species of dove, Tree Pies, Bushchat and warblers are common. There is every chance of being treated to the spectacle of dancing peafowl, especially in the weeks leading up to the monsoons in April-June.
As with other wildlife areas, early mornings are the most rewarding. Silent rounds on elephant back provide you with an incomparable feel of the forest, its smells and sounds. Tracking tigers on elephant back can be an exhilarating experience. One sets out early in the morning from Kisli, Kanha or Mukki to a flat nullah or a grassy glade. Tiger trackers locate elephants and the park authorities offer to take tourists to the spot when one is sighted. But in recent years this practice has come in for considerable criticism from conservationists and animal rights activists who rightly point to the cruelty and danger to the tiger, which is often kept away from water or food sources for hours by a phalanx of elephants.
The tiger tends to stay quiet to conserve its energy during the day. But it patrols its territory at dawn and dusk, which is when you stand the best chance to spot it from a vehicle. Anticipation is nine-tenths of the pleasure of being out in the forest and visitors very often come across such rare and delightful sights as a leopard striding across a road in broad daylight, or a monitor lizard or python basking in the early morning sun.
Gaur, the world's largest ox, prefer to keep to hilly tracts watered by perennial springs. In the evenings they normally come out to graze in nearby meadows. Mukki is probably the best area for gaur. Sambar, chausingha and nilgai also frequent the areas and sloth bear too. Birds like the Marsh Harrier are also found at these elevations.
For a breathtaking view of the Kanha expanse and the Banjar Valley, a late afternoon drive out to Bahmnidadar (850 m.) makes for an unforgettable outing.
The famous Shravan Tal, an ancient earthen tank in the central Kanha meadows, is a very good spot to birdwatch and is a vital and well-frequented water source. Lesser Whistling Teal, Pintail, Cotton Teal and Shovellers can be seen here.
Most visitors to Kanha are so tiger-focussed that they lose out on some of the most interesting aspects of this rich area. Travellers seeking more diverse experiences will take time out to visit tribal villages situated around the park. A good way to absorb the flavour of the local way of life is to spend an afternoon at one of the populated villages on the periphery of the park. Expect to get the odd person trying to cajole you to part with money, but all too often, away from the main tourist centre, villagers are just as curious about you as you are about them.
Take a trip to the Mandla Fort (1600 A.D.), which is encircled by the Narmada river on three sides. The ruins are now fairly overgrown with vegetation, but some parts, especially the impressive towers, are in good condition. Ask to be taken to the three- story palace that overlooks the Narmada river and which was built by the Gond kings who ruled supreme in the bygone days. Near Mandla the numerous temples that dot the riverbank are worth visiting.
If Jabalpur is on your schedule, Marble Rocks, a mere 24 km. away, are a spectacular site and deserve a couple of hours of your time. White limestone cliffs, they rise 30 m. above the river Narmada. If time permits, then try and visit them on the night of a full moon when they virtually glow in the dark. The Hathi-ka-pao or rocks shaped like elephant feet can easily be seen from a boat on a trip down the river. The road to the site is flat, smooth and easy to drive along (cycles can be hired, but you have to ask around).
Bookings for a morning drive or on elephant back into the park should be made the previous day. In addition to the Kanha meadow, ask to be taken to Bahmnidadar, Mukki and Shravan Tal from Kisli. Each has its own flavour and mood.
At Kisli a restaurant serves both Indian and Western food and a cheaper canteen serves reasonably priced meals and snacks. A soft drink at the Kanha Safari Lodge at Mukki can be a godsend after a hot and dusty forest drive (mineral water and beer are also available!).
Where possible, pay in advance for your lodging by bank draft and carry enough cash for unforeseen expenses. If foreign currency encashment is required, the State Bank at Mandla (65 km. away) is the nearest facility.
If you plan to visit, keep at least three nights in hand, both for better chances of seeing the tiger and to let the feel of the jungle really seep into you.
Be prepared for the cold of the winter or the heat of the summer. The climate is extreme. The moving jeep makes the cold really uncomfortable so windcheaters and headgear must be standard equipment on a winter trip.
The Conservator and Field Director, Kanha Tiger Reserve, Mandla, Madhya Pradesh – 481661. Tel.: 07642-250760; Fax: 07642-251266; E-mail: email@example.com
Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation Ltd., Gangotri, 4th Floor, T. T. Nagar, Bhopal – 462 003.Tel.: 0755-2778383/ 2774340/ 42/ 43/ 44; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The climate is extreme, with summer (April-June) temperatures rising to 430C. The monsoons wash the forests from mid-June to September when an average of 1,800 mm. of rain falls. Winters (November - February) can be quite cold, when frost often cloaks the meadows.
December to June is the best time for a visit. The park is closed during monsoon months as the roads are not navigable between mid-June and October (they are fully repaired by November). December-January happens to be the rutting season for the barasingha, whose raucous calls can be heard echoing across the glades. Large herds can now be seen in the meadows of Kanha and Sonph, where stags joust for the right to mate with females.
The Kipling Camp is an up-market camping and lodging facility situated near the Kisli entry to the park with good food and a bar. Contact: Mr. Bob Wright, in Calcutta. Tel.: 07649-277218; Fax: 07649-277219; E-mail: email@example.com
There are forest rest houses at Kisli, Mukki, Supkar and Garhi. For permissions contact the Field director, Project Tiger at Mandla.
Tourist log huts are also available. The Baghira Log Huts at Kisli offer 16, A/C and non-A/C at about Rs.700/- per double room. Tel.: 07649-277227; Fax: 07649-27722; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Kanha Safari Lodge at Mukki, offers 17, A/C and non-A/C at about Rs.700/- per double room, as well as dormitory accommodation at cheaper rates of Rs.250/- with vegetarian meals. Tel.: 9122-61506363; E-mail: email@example.com
Wildlife Adventure Tours has accommodation available. Bookings can be made from Delhi. Tel.: 9111-45616161/ +91-9818092235; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wild Chalet Resort is run by Indian Adventures. Tel.: 07649-277205/ 03; E-mail: email@example.com
By Air and By Rail: Jabalpur and Nagpur are easy to reach by air or rail. Taxis are available for hire from Jabalpur and Nagpur. Khatia and Mukki are the main entry points for the park.
From Jabalpur, Kisli (a village area close to the forest) where most of the tourist lodges are located is 165 km. Mukki is a little further (203 km.). There are daily bus services available to and from Kisli and Mukki (check timings on arrival). From Nagpur, Kisli is 259 km. by road. Mukki is 287 km.
Within the reserve: Park visits are permitted only during daylight hours. Elephant rides early in the morning from Kisli, Kanha or Mukki can be arranged. Four people sit on the howdah with an experienced mahout.
Fees must be paid while booking the ride. Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Department Corporation vehicles can be hired for wildlife viewing. Private vehicles can also be hired and these will often ferry visitors from Jabalpur, or Nagpur and will gladly stay with you for the entire duration of your visit.
They charge a little extra for night halts, but will see you off at the airport or railway station on your return. Most drivers are generally experienced and know the park quite well. In case you have not made prior arrangements for vehicles, lodge managers/owners can help you do so. A park guide in your vehicle is essential.
As always, however, advance planning helps. Remember, bookings for a morning run should be made the previous day and vehicles can be difficult to book during peak visiting periods (December/January).