Kanha National Park

The Tiger Land

Kanha Kanha Kanha

General Information Area: 1,945 sq.kms.
Altitude: 600-900 metres
Temperature (deg C): Summer - Max 44, Min 23; Winter- Max 23, Min 1
Rainfall: 152 - 180 cms.

OverviewThe Kanha Tiger Reserve is prime tigerland, the epitome of Kipling country with sal forests of sunlight and shadows, a myriad streams, rolling meadows and all the wildlife imaginable. Home to one of the world's most endangered deer, the hardground barasingha, this amazing National Park helped pioneer the advent of wildlife conservation management in India. It is justifiably regarded as one of Project Tiger's star success stories and set the path for other wildlife conservation projects in India. Virtually everyone who visits Kanha comes away moved by its magnificent diversity. The verity of wildlife, birdwatching and adventure activites encourages most visitors to return.

History and CultureThe State of Madhya Pradesh, geographically the heartland of India, is part of what used to be called the Central Province. Here rich mixed, moist sal forests once existed, but most have been felled for cultivation, hydropower and industrial projects. Predictably, much of the wildlife has disappeared or on the verge of extinction.

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 hunting (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, with the Mukki Valley too coming under its protective umbrella in 1970. In 1974, with the beginning of Project Tiger, a vital chunk of the upper Halon Valley towards the east was also included. 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.

TerrainKanha lies to the east of the Central Indian highlands (that stretch east-west across Madhya Pradesh) in the Maikal hills of the ancient Satpura mountain range. Its flat-topped hills (500 - 1000 meters) support grassy meadows, or maidans. Well-watered valleys, rich with forests, ascend in steps from West to East. The river Sulkum, a tributary of the Banjar, flows through Kanha and is its principal source of water. The area teems with diverse wild animals typical of Indus-Ganges monsoon forests.

Kanha is one of the few Indian wildernesses, where grasslands permit 360 degree visibility and herds of animals can be spotted from relatively great distances. Most Indian jungles are more closed and such sightings are difficult. 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.

Vegetation/Flora 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, in which tiger and leopard cubs are often deposited by their mothers when they must leave their defenceless young to go out and hunt.

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 Themeda that grow to heights of one-two metres in the monsoon. Bamboos also form dense clumps along the banks of rivers and streams. 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.

Animals 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 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, blackbuck and nilgai can also be seen, but less frequently.

The Hanuman langur (a primate) and palm squirrels are ubiquitous.

Some animals are difficult to sight. These include the hyena, blackbuck, chevrotain (mouse deer, only 300 cm. tall!!!), porcupines, sambar and barking deer (or muntjac).

Pythons and cobras, though common, are difficult to spot.

Birdlife Kanha is a birdwatchers paradise. Both migrant and resident avians are found here in winter. Some visitors choose to stay away from the best frequented tourist routes just to listen to early morning birdcalls.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.

Whitebacked, Longbilled and Egyptian Vultures can be seen on the remains of carnivore kills. Since 1999, when worrisome reports of mass vultures deaths began to pour in from different parts of India, naturalists are keeping a strict lookout for the early signs (a drooping neck display) as they are concerned about possible viral infections that are taking a toll of these scavengers.

Junglefowl, Grey and Painted Partridge, Alexandrine Parakeets, Koels, Kingfishers, Woodpeckers, Bulbuls and Redwattled Lapwings are common. Hornbill 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 peacock (National bird of India), especially in the weeks leading up to the monsoons in April-June.

Trails & Excursions 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. 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.

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. Pugmarks or drag marks of a kill, or langur and deer alarm calls provide clues to the whereabouts of the secretive cat. 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 oxen, 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 meters) makes for an unforgettable outing. The drive takes through rich forests of haldu and dhaora, festooned by climbers and framed with clumps of giant bamboo. Leopards are frequently spotted on this track, as are barking deer, sambar and jungle fowl.

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. Hindi is spoken everywhere and some guides may be able to translate some of this into English. 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.

Birdwatching on the park peripheries is sometimes better than inside the park for the birds come to feed on the easily available crops and pests in the fields.

Do something different (but make arrangements with lodge or resort owner/travel agent in advance). Take a trip to the Mandla Fort (1600 AD), 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 storied 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 (24 Kms) is on the schedule, Marble Rocks are a spectacular site and deserve a couple of hours of visitors 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 ask around and be cautious about the personal safety).

Best season The climate is extreme, with summer (April-June) temperatures rising to 44 degree Centigrades. 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.