The Jungles of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat
India in March 2012
On several occasions I have read and heard that with its out of control overpopulation, India would have other priorities than to provide effective protection for its last remaining tigers and lions and would be incapable of drawing up and implementing a long-term conservation strategy. After visiting Kanha National Park and Pench National Park, both situated in the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh, as well as Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, I understand where the warning voices are coming from. My reccommendation to any one still wanting to see the fantastic jungles of Central India is: Go there as soon as possible...
Our general experience of travelling in India was a very positive one. Throughout the entire excursion, we had absolutely outstanding culinary experiences with no problems at all. We stuck to two simple rules: Drink bottled water only and don’t eat anything sold by roadside kitchens or fruit vendors. The camps and lodges spoiled us day and night. Our road transfers from Jabalpur to Kanha (4hrs), from Kanha to Pench (5hrs), from Pench to Nagpur (2hrs) and from Diu to Sasan-Gir and back (2hrs per route) were safe and as comfortable as road conditions permitted. Our drivers were very friendly and although there were some creative manouvers on the road, they never exceeded speed limits or took fate-tempting chances. Professional, attentive and geniunly very friendly is what best discribes the service we experienced all along in the lodges and camps we stayed at. In this regard, the tiny piece of Incredible India we got to see really won our hearts.
Two tiger cubs at Kanha National Park
The problem with human encroachment
encroach (on/upon): Gradually intrude on (a habitat, territory, rights, etc.), advance gradually beyond expected or acceptable limits
The term human encroachment today is used to summarise the negative effects brought upon nature in general and conservation areas in particular by the presence of humans and by their legal and/or illegal activities. And yes, human encroachment on the national parks we visited in India is beyond comprehension. The actual protected areas are very small to start off with. The parks are fragmented with little or no corridors between them to enable dispersal. Not only are there far too many people inside the national parks, but the land is farmed right up to the parks border. Human – wildlife conflict is a daily routine. Buffer zones are shared between pastoralists, tribal peoples, stray domestic dogs and wildlife that moves out of the protected core areas of the national parks. Trees are cut for building material and firewood and there is widespread poaching in some areas. Today, this is the reality in a nation where on average one suqare kilometre of land is shared between 368 people. To put this into perspective: At equal density, Brazil would have a population of 3.1 Billion, the United States would have a population of 3.6 Billion, the number would be nearly 1.6 Billion for the European Union, more than three times as high as it is today, or close to 450 Million for South Africa, (2011 census 44.8 Million).
The area right outside Kathia Gate, Kanha National Park
People in the parks
There are simply far too many people inside the national parks we visited. Too many visitors, too many vehicles, too many parks and forest management staff and too many forest dwellers. At Kanha National Park, up to 150 game drive vehicles are allowed to enter on every game drive. As the park closes between noon and 15:00h, all these cars have to pass the park gates four times a day. Some parks are divided up into zones and vehicles are allocated to these zones for each game drive. Other parks, like Pench and Gir Forest, split up the number of game drive vehicles among fix routes. However, whenever there is a sighting, any number of vehicles will end up at that particular spot. The situation can get very agressive, with revving engines and a lot of shouting from vehicle to vehicle. Some visitors have no idea of how to behave in the presence of wildlife. They are extremely noisy and will even wave at tigers. As a result of this, tigers will often just walk away and hide.
Anybody seen a tiger? A situation worth avoiding: Too many visitors in the park mess up things for everybody...
In addition to this, at Kanha National Park we witnessed outrageous behaviour by some of the Mahouts there. They were really bothering the tigers and in an attempt to chase out a tigress with her young, they messed up a potentially great sighting by scaring two tiger cubs and causing the young cats to move into a bamboo thicket.
The deal is that when the Mahouts find a tiger, they will radio parks management and ask to allow viewing from an elephant's back. When this happens, dozens of cars will speed off to a parks office, where they register and buy tokens for the elephant-back viewing. They then race back to the elephants where visitors cue up to climb onto the elephant’s back, ride up to the tiger, spend a minute or two there, before being taken back to their game drive vehicles. Imagine 20 – 30 vehicles with four to six passengers each wanting to do the elephant back trip... I believe the fee is INR 100 per local visitor and six times that per foreign visitor.
Pench National Park is much better organised in this regard an there are generally fewer visitors. But then again, Pench NP is much smaller still than Kanha NP.
At Gir Forest, there are no elephants and no Mahouts. Instead, parks management sends in trackers on motorbikes to find the lions. They will then call game drive vehicles and / or guides on their cellphone (yes, in the field). Gir Forest allows private vehicles to enter. On one occasion we witnessed an unbelievable scene with a parks official chasing after a lioness with a stick, in order to get her to move towards a government vehicle with so-called VIP visitors...
Chasing lions with a stick: Parks official at Sasan-Gir
The driver of this vehicle shows nor respect for nature or the other parks visitors, as he pulls up in front of game drive vehicles at an early morning sighting of two lionesses.
Gir Forest is also special in that there are several maldhari tribal villages (called nesses) and an actively used temple inside the "protected area". According to the Gujarat State Lion Conservation Society, there are at present 54 maldhari nesses in the buffer zone with approximately 4’000 people and 19'000 heads of cattle.
Important: The Gujarat State Lion Conservation Society demands payment of a camera charge of INR 500 per camera and game drive, to be settled in cash before entering the park. There is no ATM in the village and the camp cannot provide cash. So make sure you have enough cash for your camera fees and guide tips.
Receipt for camera charge
Both at Kanha and at Pench, at some stage during our stay there were wedding ceremonies in the villages nearby. I don’t know anything about Indian weddings, but we found out that, playing very loud music throughout the night and into the morning, is a firm part of it. Just imagine stopping the game drive vehicle to listen out for sounds of the jungle and instead of animal voices, you hear music playing from a loudspeaker at a village outside the park...
The beautiful jungle
Originating in the Sanskrit word jangala which stood for „uncultivated land“, a jungle today describes dense (rain-)forests, grounds covered with a tangled growth of vines, shrubs and small trees. The jungles of Central India are amazingly beautiful and both at Kanha and at Pench, all the characters of The Jungle Book seemingly go through life just as they did when Kipling was there. Download the Jungle Book onto your e-reader when you travel there and read it with the parks, the animals and the farm villages around you, and you will add a further dimension to this experience.
Kanha’s jungle consists of moist and dry decidious forests. Some small streams, rivers and dams provide water in the dry months and there are a few sites where animal interaction near or in the water can be observed from up close. Particularly, the Sal forests at Kanha turn any wildlife encounter into a truly fantastic experience. There are some open grassland areas (Kanha Meadows, for example), where animals can be spotted easily and from a distance. The park stretches over an area of 940 km², with a surrounding buffer zone of 1’067 km². (For comparison: Botswana’s Chobe National Park alone is 11’700km² and it is directly connected to other game reserves, private conservation concessions and forest reserves.)
Sal forest at Kanha National Park
The area that today is Pench National Park, south of Seoni, is the place that inspired Rudyard Kipling to write one of his most renowned novels, The Jungle Book. Pench is mostly dry decidious and has the Pench river run through the park. There are some grassland areas around the Totladoh Reservoir, where we observed considerable herds of Chital deer in the open. The geological profile of the Pench area contains some impressive granite boulders. A fantastically beautiful landscape and – with some luck – a stunning frame for any wildlife observation.
We identified about 50 bird species at Kanha and Pench, and another 12 species that we only found at Sasan-Gir.
Early morning light falling on the Pench river bed
There is an early morning panorama on my site at panoramio.com.
The situation at Sasan-Gir
Gir Forest National Park, also known as Sasan-Gir is 258 km² in size and has a buffer zone of 1153 km². Of course this means that today, most Asiatic lions actually live outside the national park. Gir is dryer still than Pench, with lots of teak and some acacia woods. In March, some areas were extremely barren and dry and I wonder what this place will look like in a month or two, when it is at its dryest just before the rains start. The Kamaleshwer dam in the buffer zone provides the park with some water. There are hardly any open areas. This means that it can be difficult to get a clear and unobstructed view of the Asiatic lions.
The game drives are sent onto different routes every day. There are seven routes, but some of them are actually identical and are just followed in opposite direction:
In order to cover all the routes in one direction or the other I would recommend at least 5 game drives. (I had 7, of which the morning ones were more rewarding.)
How to find a tiger
Remember, there is absolutely no point in being at a tiger sighting with 10 or 20 other vehicles full of noisy people. It will just be a huge disappointment. So you need a driver who is a very experienced naturalist and whos primary interest ist nature and conservation. Arrange with your driver to avoid the crowds and then count on your luck. Any wildlife encounter will be fantastic when you’re in the jungle on your own. There is a lot to see, but since you are in dense forest most of the time, game drives require a lot of patience. There are two strategies: Sit and wait vs. drive and search. Personally, once I have familiarised myself with an area, I quite enjoy finding a beautiful setting at a water crossing or near an open area and just wait for an hour or two in the shade. Chital deer, sambar, peafowl and langurs are excellent indicators for moving cats. Especially Chital and peafowl alarm calls can be heard from far away and langurs show different alarming behaviour for leopard than they do for tiger. - When you are positioned at such a site and alarm calls out of the otherwise dead quite forest start drawing closer, then get ready for magic moments. At first, you may be able to spot deers, alarm calling while looking at at the area in which a tiger is moving through the forest. Next, the deers will move out and moments later you will discover stripes deep in the dense jungle, moving silently and with supreme confidence, until the huge and breathtakingly beautiful cat walks right past your vehicle.
A tigress moving through the jungle at Pench National Park
Moments like these are what the Central Indian jungles are all about. For me this means that even with all the negative aspects mentioned above, I will definitely return to India. Probably at different times of the year and not only to Madhya Pradesh. I will keep avoiding the crowds and see what the jungle holds for me.
For photography, light and trees are the big issues. It is not easy to get a clear shot. But again, with some luck there will be acceptable results. Unfortunately, even if you avoid the crowds and are in an area on your own there may be trouble. When you’re observing and photographing more common wildlife like Chital deer, or even smaller birds, as I like to do, other vehicles on the same route, insetad of approaching carefully and slowly, will speed up to your car to check out what you’re looking at and then race off when they see it’s not a tiger, often ruining your opportunity in the process.
So again, it is absolutely essential that you get together with a driver and natuaralist who knows what he is doing:
But how many tigers are there in these parks?
According to current census figures, there are about 80 tigers at Kanha and 30 tigers at Pench. Both parks have breeding females. In theory, tiger dispersal between the parks is possible as there is a forest corridor connecting the two areas. However, the WWF India has recently published a document about yet more fragmentation threats to this corridor.
Villages around the park
All Madhya Pradesh national parks are closed on Wednesday afternoons. This provides you with the opportunity to visit local villages. At Kanha, Karan and Isa took us to a market at Mocha village, where farmers and fishermen offer their produce. At Pench NP, Yusuf offered us to visit a pottery village about 20 minutes driving from Bagh Van Lodge. Both these outings were very interesting. Take a somewhat longer and a wide angle lense, a flash and then be discrete with your camera. You will be able to capture fantastic impressions of Madhya Pradesh’s country life.
In general, calculate an average of 40 – 50 km/h for your road transfers between airports and national parks. Our road transfers were safe and as comfortable as road conditions permitted. Travelling from Kanha to Pench requires some patience, as south of Seoni a little mountain pass has to be crossed and there is quite a chaos with trucks getting stuck and breaking down.
En route from Jabalpur to Kanha National Park
We arranged this excursion through Indian Explorations Ltd. in London. Harsha Oagle was our main contact: Congratulations on a super service! All transfers, all domestic flights (even around the collapse of Kingfisher Air) and all our hotels and lodges in Delhi, in Kanha and Pench, as well as in Mumbai were perfect while the Camp at Gir Forest was ok, being the best accommodation in that area.
Swiss International Airlines offers daily direct connections from Zurich to both Delhi and Mumbai.
Evening over snow-capped Caucasus mountains, LX146 headed for Delhi
Access the national parks of Madhya Pradesh via Air travel through Delhi and on to Jabalpur or via Mumbai to Nagpur. Access Gir Forest via Mumbai to Diu / Gujarat. Jet Airways is one of the leading addresses for domestic air travel. Unlike in Africa, there is no easy way to arrange private charters between parks and lodges. So you will have to pre-arrange road transfers. One of the many services the guys at Indian Explorations sorted out perfectly.
Patrick Meier - April 2012