Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book immortalised Pench National Park, which provided the inspiration and setting for his timeless tale. On the border of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the protected reserve harbours a healthy population of tigers, along with stealthy leopards, the massive gaur, wolves, and sloth bears.

On an early morning foray into the park, the weak sunlight fights to penetrate the dense teak canopy cover. Dominated by a native teak forest, the vegetation stands apart from the predominantly sal and bamboo of other parks like Kanha and Bandhavgarh. Luminous white ‘ghost trees’ — as kulu trees are popularly called for their eerie appearance — break the colour palette of the forest. The gnarled, stately trees are a glorious phenomenon, changing colours with the season, from silvery pink in the monsoon to dry white in the winter. Traditionally, the local Gond community would bind their laddoos using the gum from these trees. The park also has mahua, saja (better known as the crocodile-bark tree for its scaly trunk), and tendu trees.

Male chital, or spotted deer, have three-tined antlers that shed each year. Males have a soft velvet skin on their antlers, indicating that their antlers are still developing. Cover image: Some of the open grasslands in Pench are former pastoral lands, of villages relocated to the fringes of the national park. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee

With easy access from Nagpur and Jabalpur, Pench lures many visitors with its healthy population of large cats. As the seasons turn, and the forest transforms from dense to dry, sightings vary vastly. Just after the monsoon, expect to see swarms of dazzling dragonflies and colourful butterflies soaking up nutrients from the soil. Winter is the best time to spot migratory water birds such as brahminy ducks and bar-headed geese. Look towards the forest floor to spot smaller creatures.

EXPLORE
At 758 sq km, Pench National Park offers a smaller, more intimate forest experience than other parks in Madhya Pradesh. Unlike the state’s other parks, there are no zones that tourists buy tickets to, but safari vehicles have to operate on designated routes. There are three entry points to the park, with limits set on the number of vehicles that can enter from each. The Turia Gate is the most popular, while the Karmajhiri and Jamtara gates are relatively quieter.

Left: In the warmer months of the year, a variety of birds can be spotted around Pench’s large watering holes and small puddles. This flock of Brahminy starlings had stopped for a drink and a bath. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee Right: With its brilliant blue wings and penchant for aerobatic displays, the Indian Roller is easily sighted in forests, farmland and cities. Photo: Ranjan Ghosal - CC BY -SA 4.0

WILDLIFE
The forest may not be vast, but the range of landscapes provides diverse habitats for all forms of life. The Pench River runs north to south, neatly slicing through the reserve forest. The high banks of the river are the perfect setting to spot a variety of bird life. Pench is home to more than 200 species of avifauna, including raptors such as endangered vultures, and fish eagles that swoop down to catch prey in the water. Even deep within the dark forest, flashes of colour are common: the turquoise hues of the Indian roller, the bright reds of the plum-headed parakeet, the glossy ebony feathers of a drongo.

The dense forest gradually opens up into low, grassy hills and meadows, where jackals and wild dogs often skulk in search of prey. Leopards like to roam unseen in the narrow gorges and stacks of rocks, while sloth bears inhabit cool, dark caves. Just like in The Jungle Book, packs of wolves roam the terrain. Chital, sambar, and nilgai are easily spotted along the safari trails, snacking on low leaves and grass. The Bengal tiger is the apex predator here, and knowledgeable guides regale visitors with stories of the many, rather iconic cats that inhabit these parts.

Jackals often roam the park in male-female pairs and raise their young for up to 12 months. Undoubtedly, the mother is nearby, keeping a watchful eye on her two young jackals. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

SEASONS
The park is open from Oct 1 to June 30. It remains closed for the monsoon from July 1 to Sept 30. Each season offers a uniquely different experience. Right after the monsoon, the jungle is lush and dense in October. Crowds are thinner, and visitors have the chance to experience the jungle intimately. Safaris are pleasant in the cooler months of November-January, but this is the peak season with large crowds and cold temperatures. In the warmer months of March–May, animals frequently wander out in search of water, and sightings are highest in this season.

Tigers are territorial creatures, and a single cat’s home turf is upwards of 20 sq km. Shrinking forests and sharing the same patch of land leads to territorial wars between the animals, often with grievous outcomes. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Tigers are territorial creatures, and a single cat’s home turf is upwards of 20 sq km. Shrinking forests and sharing the same patch of land leads to territorial wars between the animals, often with grievous outcomes. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

SAFARI COSTS & TIMINGS
The park administration runs twice daily open-top jeep safaris from 6 am to 11am and 3 pm to 6 pm. The park is closed on Wednesday afternoon.

Entry: Entry permits per jeep cost Rs 1,500. Each jeep seats six. Guide charges are Rs 360 or Rs 500, depending on their grade. Vehicle and guide charges are payable at the gate, shared by all occupants of the jeep.

Carry government-approved photo ID.

Full vehicles or individual seats can be booked online at forest.mponline.gov.in
Many wildlife lodges will organise game drives into the park, for a fee.

GETTING THERE
The nearest airports and railheads to Pench National Park are Nagpur (130 km/3 hr) and Jabalpur (210 km/4 hr).

Left: As night falls, the water thick-knee bird emits a shrill, whistle-like call. This bird gets its name from its thick-jointed legs. Right: Grey langurs are often called the ‘eyes of the forest’, watching from the treetops and making distinct alarm calls to warn other animals when they sight a predator. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee

STAY

Pench Tree Lodge – Located near the Karmajhiri Gate, Pugdundee Safaris’ Pench Tree Lodge has elevated tree houses and ground-level cottages set right within wild grasses that are home to a variety of small animals and bird life. Doubles inclusive of meals start at Rs 19,500.

Taj Baghvan – At the Turia Gate, the Taj Safaris property offers a luxurious stay in the midst of nature. Rooms are modelled on colonial cottages with open-air machans that overlook the forest, and a river that frequently draws wild visitors. Doubles from Rs 31,000.

Kipling’s Court – The state tourism board run accommodation offers comfortable lodging in pleasant rooms, set in large grounds with a garden and pool. Doubles inclusive of meals start at Rs 6,500.

Mahua Vann – The lush, sprawling property features modern rooms with sit-outs, a pool, and plenty of common areas. Doubles inclusive of all meals from Rs 8,700.

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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