What are you hoping to see in the park?” asks Parikshit, the naturalist who has been assigned to me for the duration of my visit to Kanha National Park. I am climbing into the back of the jeep. Before this, I had gotten a chance to relax at the Taj Resorts’ Banjaar Tola room — a suite with a tent-like appearance that belied its luxurious interiors. Now, it is time to undertake the ‘nature drive’ through the interiors of the park.“Anything that would be interesting, I guess.” I am an amateur when it comes to wildlife, and painfully aware of probably having given the wrong answer. “You don’t want to see a tiger?” he asks. “Well, if it happens, it happens,” I reply. He smiles appreciatively. Turns out, I have accidentally given the right answer.
Of (no) tiger sightings
The hype of the coveted tiger sighting follows the guests at Banjaar Tola around like a juicy rumour. “I would advise you to not go for tea if you don’t want to feel bad about not seeing a tiger,” Parikshit said cryptically. I go ahead anyway. On the second day, most tourists — myself included — hadn’t sighted the big cat. On the other hand, the few that had were voluble about it. At tea time, the smiles of the tiger-challenged became particularly fixed at the approach of a family that has a bit of a reputation — as the Australian tourist to my right tips me off — for being extraordinarily lucky in this matter. They have spotted no less than three tigers during their short stint here. As they wax poetic about the tiger and the outstanding quality of the photographs they have taken, I too, begin to feel the twinge of envy. Where is my tiger spotting?
I retreat to the Banjaar Tola suite to sulk. On the plus side, there could be no better place to retreat from the forest, all the while remaining firmly in the thick of it. Opening the Taj suite’s door can have a disassociating effect — in the middle of the forest, the Banjaar Tola rooms are like teleportation devices that transport you to the very best of hotel living. The bedroom faces a wall of sliding doors that open into a viewing deck that looks directly onto the river and forest. The room features adivasi art and furniture constructed from bumpy tree trunks. The lavish suite, constructed mostly with bamboo tiles and fabric, affords guests the best of both worlds: a forest surrounding with a 5-star hotel ambience.
The next morning, we wake bright and early at 5am and set out. The morning light is generous to Kanha’s landscape; the Sal forest looks crisp and verdant. Nestled in the Maikal range of the Satpura Hills, Kanha covers 1,945km. We drive crunchily through the forest, flanked by the burnt undergrowth of shrubs and grass on both sides. Parikshit points to the horizon. Following his hand, I can see the grey figures of three elephants trundling in an orderly row into the forest. “These mahouts are expert tiger spotters,” he explains.
Because the elephant can go into the dense forests, where tourist jeeps can’t, they have a better chance of spotting a tiger. Tourists can then clamber on top of these elephants and take a look for themselves. Today, however, there are no tigers spotted by the mahouts or by anyone in the jeeps. Or so I think — just then, another jeep full of triumphant-looking tourists pulls up next to ours. “We spotted it,” says one uncle gleefully. “It was the tigress with her cubs. She was there for at least five minutes.” The rest brandish their professional-looking cameras in agreement.
A birder is born
I soldier on, hopeful for the day’s afternoon drive. It takes a couple of trips for your ears to retune themselves to their surroundings — at first the silence of the forest seems overwhelming. But once your guide reminds you that many sounds — a bird clacking, a monkey squealing or a Barasingha’s fading gallop — can be a warning for the presence of a tiger, your ears are pricked to the subtle shifts of the forest’s mood. We track various tiger pugmarks and warning cries, but to no avail. One species we do spot in hordes is the Chital, or the spotted deer. The delicate-looking Chital roams in herds of anywhere over forty. We also come across a number of preening peacocks, including one that is — rather mysteriously — doing his courtship dance all alone at the edge of the watering hole. “He’s just practicing,” explains Parikshit. Of course.
New to bird-watching, I take the binoculars with a feigned enthusiasm when I am told that a white-naped woodpecker, or a racket-tailed drongo, or a jungle owlet has been spotted. But by the time we spot the common tailorbird — a Nimbus-sized bird that flits faster than a camera can keep up — I am a convert. The common tailorbird is also known for its stitching skills, by which it is able to construct a purse-like nest with large leaves. The sighting of the endangered vulture brooding over a small watering hole is a conversation topic for the rest of the day.
But surely, by the law of averages, I should have spotted a tiger on my third drive out into the park? Ratna Singh has been a naturalist with Taj for the past six years. “Every naturalist is looking for the tiger when they enter the park,” she admits. “It’s an elusive animal. I do feel that some other aspects of the wildlife experience get ignored because of this focus on the tiger — while it is a magnificent animal, there is much more to be seen.” She rattles off a list of some missed out on rarities. “Rare species like the Chital and the Barasingha are fantastic sights. Birds such as the Indian Picca – which imitates other birds, and even cellphone ringtones — and birds of prey such as eagles and vultures, are all interesting facets which are often missed by tourists.”
At the end of my trip, I have tallied zero tiger sightings — but to whittle a visit to Kanha National Park to a tiger sighting would do it an injustice. With rare birds, startlingly untouched stretches of nature and animals such as the Barasingha — found only in this park — Kanha has a lot more to offer than an elusive sighting that lasts all of five minutes.