An unseasonal thunderstorm pounded through the night. Rain gushed through thick foliage, the wind rattled the windows of my room, and thunder and lightning provided a freaky sound-and-light show that let up only in the wee hours. When morning dawned, it was nippy and ethereal though it was mid-March, and the cluster of safari vehicles at the entrance of Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) was shrouded in a translucent haze.
When the gates opened and vehicles entered the reserve, we were greeted by the smell of damp earth and a cold wind that seeped into my bones. The ground was covered in a thick layer of fallen leaves, and water droplets dripped from the forest canopy. Visibility was less than 20 feet and the few vehicles around were quickly swallowed by the fog. Nothing stirred, and the forest appeared ghostly. In fact, the safari experience was vastly different from the previous days, when mornings were bright and sunny and the forest flush with animals and bird call.
Spread over a core area of 576 sq. km as a national park, with an additional 1021sq km as buffer, Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR) straddles the districts of Panna and Chhatarpur in northern Madhya Pradesh, close to the border with Uttar Pradesh. The Ken River winds its way for 55 km, forming the western boundary of Panna for some distance, and then running through the park.
Entry is through two gates: Madla and Hinauta. Madla is located on NH 39 (Panna-Khajuraho main road), just past the bridge on Ken River, and is more popular since it is closer to the airport and accommodation is concentrated nearby. The gates are 30 km from each other, and both have little museums with pictographs of the local topography, wildlife distribution, and species of birds found here. Unlike many other reserves, PTR doesn’t have zones; about 20 per cent of the core area is open to tourists via safari trails on which vehicles are free to wander within the region. The PTR is predominantly a dry deciduous forest of mahua, arjuna, tendu, kullu, and kardhai trees, mixed with extensive grasslands (more on the park’s habitat can be read here).
Visitors can alight from the vehicle at several points. At Bhoura Dau, a jetty point on the Ken River, boating services are offered to observe water birds and crocodiles. If lucky, one might chance upon a tiger quenching its thirst or swimming across the river.
Dundhwa Seha is an enormous gorge with a viewing point and a watchtower that is ideal for observing nesting vultures. Other watchtowers include Kamani, Titli, and MahuaPani, which offer sweeping views of the river valley, grasslands, and forest canopy.
Local guides say the tourist area intersects with the territories of at least three tigers, though others too wander in occasionally. This means that tiger sightings are frequent, but not guaranteed. To better your chances of sighting the big cat and other animals, experiencing at least 3-4 safaris is recommended, with a mix of morning and evening outings.
Predictably, the tiger is the overwhelming favourite with visitors, but there are also several elusive species such as leopard, jungle cat, chousingha, and sloth bear. The sloth bear is commonly seen in March-April when the mahua trees flower and fruit. Sambar, nilgai, chinkara (Indian gazelle), and spotted deer are easy to spot, as are wild boar, mongoose, and langur. It is difficult to spot hyenas, civets, dholes, and wolves, though they do inhabit the forest.
Guides say the reserve has 250-300 avian species, including migratory birds. Early mornings seem to be the best time to spot birds, even rare ones such as the brown fish owl. Birds found in abundance include peafowls, jungle babbler, common and pied kingfishers, rufous treepies, lapwings, green bee-eaters, spotted doves, Indian robins, magpie robins, nightjars, blue rock pigeons, woodpeckers, shikras, wagtails, bulbuls, honey buzzards, drongos, flocks of rock petronias, whistling ducks, painted storks, long-tailed shrikes, sandgrouses, and several species of vultures.
The reserve is open from October 1 to end-June though opening and closing dates vary depending on the monsoon.
Winter stretches from October to February with temperatures ranging from 5°C to 28°C. The weather is cool and pleasant for much of the day, even a bit chilly early in the morning. December to March are the coolest months. The park is fresh and green following the monsoon, but dries quickly, making wildlife sighting easier as it heads into summer. Migratory birds arrive by the end of October.
Summer begins to set in by March and lasts until June. Sighting are much more abundant at this time, as animals tend to frequent watering holes, however, as summer progresses, it also gets very hot and humid, and quite uncomfortable to drive around. Temperatures range from 25 to 45 degrees C.
Monsoon is in full swing from July to September, and the park is closed at this time.
Open: The sanctuary is closed from July 1-September 30, but dates vary depending on the monsoons). Of the two entry gates – Madla and Hinauta – the former is more popular and hence, more crowded.
Timings: Safaris are allowed twice a day, from 6.15 -11 am, and from 3 – 6 pm (4 pm to sunset in summer).
Permits: Safari permits can be obtained online at https://forest.mponline.gov.in/ and at a designated counter near the park, but only a limited number of permits are issued per gate, per session, per day, so it is recommended to book online in advance. Alternatively, you can get your hotel to book your safaris for you.
Cost: When planning a safari, there are three costs to consider: the entry permit for the vehicle, the cost of hiring the vehicle, and the mandatory guide fee. Entry permits cost Rs 1,550 per vehicle, holding a maximum of six people. Gypsies can be hired for Rs 2,000 per safari, and the guides, allotted by the sanctuary, cost Rs 480. So, all in all, a safari for six people would cost around Rs 4,030.
Night safari: About two years ago, PTR introduced night safaris in the buffer zone, with entry from a small gate called Harsa though the number is heavily restricted. The safaris are from 6.30 – 9.30 pm and cost around Rs 3,700 for six people (Rs 1,250 for entry permit, plus Rs 2,000 for vehicle, plus Rs 480 for guide). Permits for night safari can be obtained only offline, at the ticket counter near the park, for safaris happening that very night.
Panna Tiger Reserve is spread over the districts of Panna and Chhatarpur in Northern Madhya Pradesh. The nearest airport is at Khajuraho (25 km/45 min/Rs 1,200 by taxi). The nearest railheads are at Satna (90km/ 2 hr 30 min), Jhansi (180 km/ 4 hr 30 min) and Katni (150 km/ 3 hr 30 min).
Sarai at Toria is a luxury resort that sits by the Ken River, on wide open grounds filled with tall grass and towering trees. It has eight independent rooms built in cottage-style with mud walls and elegant interiors. Doubles from Rs 17,700, including breakfast and dinner.
Ken River Lodge is spread over 50 acres on the banks of the Ken river, and has eight village-style huts scattered on forested, undulating terrain. Doubles from Rs 12,500 with all meals, served on a machan.
Tendu Leaf Jungle Resort is named after the abundant tendu tree. It has 24 cottages, split into three categories, built with local materials and decorated with chic interiors. Located on the banks of the Ken, the resort has an al fresco dining area with sweeping views of the riverscape. Doubles from Rs 6,500, with breakfast.
MPT Jungle Camp is run by Madhya Pradesh Tourism and is conveniently located next to Madla gate. The camp sits on spacious grounds and has fairly large, comfortable rooms. Opt for rooms at the back of the complex; the balconies abut the sanctuary perimeter and it is common to see a variety or birds including peafowls. Doubles from Rs 3,000 for AC rooms, with breakfast.
is a travel and freelance journalist based in Bangalore who considers the forest as her bolthole. Find her work at https://anitaraokashi.contently.com/
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