Tiger watching in Kanha National Park, India
At 6am the gate opened. It was beginning to get light and the air was cool as we drove into the park. The pale orange sun peeped just above the crest of wooded hills in the distance as we made our way along a sandy yellow track which cut across the plain where the village of Kanha used to stand. To the left grazed the shadows of Gaur, heads down, oblivious to our cause, but the deer, alert with ears pricked, watched nervously.
As we drove into the forest between an avenue of enormous Sal trees, their leaves produced a lime green luminescence and speckles of sunlight flecked the road. Occasionally the jeep stopped. With the engine turned off we could appreciate the sounds of the jungle even more – the hoots, the screeches, the repetitious melodies of exotic Indian birds. To our right Wild Boar rooted around on the forest floor and Black-faced Langurs straddled precariously on fine curving branches high in the canopy. Circling above against a background of blue soared a Crested Hawk Eagle and camouflaged on the branch of a red flame tree perched a pair of Scarlet Minivets. But the deer were far too relaxed for what we had really come to see.
Eventually we arrived at an open area of short grass punctuated with ghost trees. We aimed our binoculars towards their tops as the birdsong was prolific. Flame-backed Woodpeckers and smaller Pygmy Woodpeckers spiralled up the pure white trunks towards their tops whilst Magpie Robins trilled melodiously. We scanned the plain imagining that iconic face suddenly peering out from between the long grass – but alas – no luck.
By late morning the temperature had risen as the sun was beating down. It was now too hot so we left the park. Later that day we set off once again. It was still sunny and warm as we proceeded on a different track to climb a ridge with a steep drop to one side. We wound down the hill on the other side until we came to a crossroad of tracks where we stopped. Imprinted in the sand next to our jeep were the paw prints of a large cat. Then, through the chattering of Jungle Babblers, there screeched an alarm call from a deer nearby, hidden from view in the thick vegetation. Our hopes were suddenly raised and we peered eagerly into the bushes bordering the road desperate to see its prey. But soon the alarm call subsided as the doe moved away into the distance and so the jeep set off once again to continue with the search. We toured the park scouring the meadows dotted with termite mounds and noticed three Egyptian Vultures circling overhead. With the remnants of a deer’s leg between its jaws a jackal trotted across our path but the light was beginning to fade as 6 o’clock approached so we made our way back to try our luck another time.
The next morning we were once again snaking along the tracks between the Sals which were just beginning to bloom. Like snowflakes their delicate white flowers drifted down upon us with their delicious sweet aroma. Our journey led us out of the forest across a large plain resembling the African bush with Spotted Deer happily pinpricking the landscape. We peered through binoculars praying for a glimpse of that elusive animal. Perhaps the late evening storm from the previous day with its slate grey sky, lightening streaks and squally winds had sent the birds and animals to sleep. Then, just ahead on the track, loped an elephant controlled by his mahout riding high on a green wooden seat. Patrolling off-road through thick tangled bushes he reported a sighting nearby on a dry river bed. The jeep turned quickly to head off in the opposite direction accompanied by a trail of dust – but, on arrival, we were too late and the female and cubs had gone.
Eventually after several hours of driving, listening and scanning we headed for the gate. But no sooner had we left the park, and just before we entered the local village, than our driver stopped to converse in his native tongue with a man in a passing jeep who was travelling in the opposite direction. He turned and pointed to the way he had come and when we heard the word ‘Tiger’, amidst his babbling of Hindi, our excitement grew. We drove a little way forward and there, to our delight, lay a golden-brown Tigress with bands of black stripes, gazing down at us upon the road from her shady spot on the top of a mound of large grey boulders. What a relief! We had seen our first Royal Bengal Tiger in the wild.
For further details about our 13-day ‘Just Tigers!’ holiday to Kanha Tiger Reserve please visit the tour webpage.