A third of Madhya Pradesh lies under forest cover. In a state with many wildlife reserves, Kanha National Park’s USP lies in its stunning range of landscapes. The scene morphs from tightly packed forest to endless grassland, low-lying plateau to rocky riverbank, giving visitors a chance to spot a wide range of wildlife that inhabit these diverse habitats. No two game drives in the park are the same.

On an afternoon drive through the park, as the lowering sun painted Kanha’s meadows golden, our safari guide pointed out a set of sprawling antlers rising high above the grass. He counted 12 tines — a distinctive feature that indicated we were seeing a barasingha. This hard ground swamp deer is endemic to Kanha, and is a shining example of conservation success in the region. Spotting them in the meadows they so love to inhabit was just one among the many special moments in Kanha.

The barasingha is the state animal of Madhya Pradesh, and is frequently seen roaming in herds in Kanha’s grasslands. Cover image: Robust sal dominates Kanha’s forests, growing up to a 100 feet in height. Traditionally, the hardwood’s timber was used in construction of local homes, and the leaves were repurposed as plates. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The lure of the forest lies in its biggest and most majestic of creatures — the Bengal tiger, the stealthy leopard, the hulking gaur. But it also lies in the sights, sounds, and smells of smaller creatures and lush foliage: the nonchalant swagger of a jackal on the safari path; the myriad calls of its 300 species of birds; the mud-puddling butterflies, and the fallen fruit of an ever-giving mahua tree.

EXPLORE
At 2,051 sq km, Kanha is among Central India’s largest national parks, stretching across the Maikal range of the Satpura Hills. Dense forests of sal, mahua, and jamun block out the sun, thick bamboo groves conceal a variety of birds, and expansive meadows offer unparalleled views of the horizon. On afternoon safaris, views of the Bamni Dadar plateau — the highest point of the park at 870 metres — are especially beautiful in the fading sunlight. As you drive past the many small streams and watering holes, keep an eye out for well-camouflaged animals and birds taking a drink.

The park is divided into four core zones — Kanha, Kisli, Mukki, and Sarhi. The buffer zone is spread over a 1,000-sq-km area. Khatia, Mukki, and Sarhi are the three entry gates into the park, and are a considerable distance apart. For ease of access, choose accommodation close to the gate you will be entering the park from.

The Indian bison, or gaur is the largest surviving bovine in the world. Both male and female gaur have white or pale-hued “stockings” that contrast with their ebony-coloured bodies. Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques - CC BY-SA 3.0

WILDLIFE
In the 1970s, an aggressive conservation programme called Project Tiger helped revive the Kanha ecosystem by adopting an umbrella approach. The protection of the apex predator — the mighty tiger — effectively led to the protection of smaller species and the entire habitat.

Left: In the main rutting season male chital, or spotted deer, will spar using their antlers, even getting onto their hind legs to assert themselves. Right: Dhole, the Indian wild dog, is an adept predator that lives and hunts in packs. Groups work together to bring down prey much larger than themselves, like sambar and spotted deer. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Today, the varying landscapes are home to a healthy population of the striped cat, which is a major lure for tourists. But on a game drive, visitors can spot several other animals, birds, and tiny creatures as well. Watch out for herds of the mammoth gaur, or Indian bison, which can weigh more than 800 kilograms. You might easily spot packs of dhole, or wild dogs, curious jackals, and wild boar. Sloth bears roam the park snacking on termite mounds, while chital and sambar are easily spotted grazing and foraging for leaves. Along with the tiger, the stealthy leopard remains among the most elusive of creatures. With their handsome 12-point antlers, sighting the barasingha is one of the highlights in Kanha. Brought back from the edge of extinction in these parts in the ‘70s, the story of the hard ground swamp deer is one of Kanha’s most heartening conservation stories. Up in the trees, look out for the racket-tailed drongo, orioles, bright blue Indian rollers, and several hundred other species of avifauna.

Look up into the branches to spot the yellow-footed green pigeon — a fruit-eating bird commonly seen in Kanha and other Indian jungles. It’s also the state bird of Maharashtra. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

SEASONS
Each season offers a different experience.
October: After the monsoon, the jungle is lush and dense in October, the park isn’t as crowded, and visitors have the chance to experience the jungle intimately.
November to January: Safaris are pleasant in the cooler months of November-January. This is the peak season with large crowds and cold temperatures.
March to May: In the warmer months of March to May, animals frequently wander out in search of water, and sightings are highest in this season.

Caption: The short-statured Indian jackal often waits among tall grasses, hoping to chance upon a meal. They are predators as well as scavengers, hunting small rodents and cleaning up after a tiger or dhole’s kill. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Caption: The short-statured Indian jackal often waits among tall grasses, hoping to chance upon a meal. They are predators as well as scavengers, hunting small rodents and cleaning up after a tiger or dhole’s kill. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

SAFARI Costs and Timings
Open: October 16 to June 30. Closed for monsoon July 1 to October 15.
Safari timings: The park administration runs twice daily open-top jeep safaris from 6 am to 11 am and 3 pm to 6 pm. The park is closed on Wednesday afternoon.
Entry: Permits per jeep cost Rs 1,550 for the core zones (Kanha, Kisli, Mukki, Sarhi) and Rs 1,250 for the buffer zones. Each jeep seats six. Vehicle and guide charges are extra and payable at the gate, and shared by all occupants of the jeep. Carry government-approved photo ID.
Booking: Full vehicles or individual seats can be booked online at forest.mponline.gov.in. Many wildlife lodges organise game drives into the park, for a fee.

In Kanha, open meadows stretch between dense sal forest, providing habitat and grazing ground for the endemic barasingha. The conservation of this native grassland played a significant part in reviving the once almost extinct barasingha population here. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

In Kanha, open meadows stretch between dense sal forest, providing habitat and grazing ground for the endemic barasingha. The conservation of this native grassland played a significant part in reviving the once almost extinct barasingha population here. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

GETTING THERE
The closest airports to Kanha are at Jabalpur (180 km/4 hr) and Nagpur (260 km/5.5 hr). The closest railhead is Gondia Junction (120 km/3 hr).

STAY
Kipling Camp – Located near the Kisli Gate of Kanha National Park, Kipling Camp is set within the wilderness of the park’s buffer zone. Stay in cosy mud and wood cottages built in the local architectural style, eat in the shade of a mahua tree, and go on nature walks with a knowledgeable guide. Doubles start at Rs 18,800 inclusive of cultural activities, nature walks, and all meals.

Shergarh – Near the Mukki Gate, Shergarh has luxurious tents set in a campsite, flush with high grasses, jamun and mango trees. Cycle to nearby Gond villages, explore nature trails, and eat hot meals by a fireplace in a wooded camp house. Luxury tented doubles cost Rs 15,000 per night, including meals.

Salban Homestay – A brick and stone bungalow inside the jungle near the Mukki Gate, Salban is a family-run homestay that offers an intimate forest experience. Doubles inclusive of meals from Rs 7,000.

Pugmark Resort – Near Kanha’s buffer zone, comfortable cottages are set within a lush garden frequented by a variety of birds and small critters. Doubles inclusive of meals from Rs 3,500.

Malavika Bhattacharya

is a travel and culture journalist always looking for an excuse to head into a forest or an ocean. Find her work at www.malavikabhattacharya.com

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