When the cows come home, an alternative safari, Kanha National Park, India.

Cropped tigerI do appreciate that when people come on a safari to India, they want to see tiger and yes, to see a tiger in the wild is a magnificent experience and one to be cherished. I used to have a few issues with this. A few years ago, in 2007 to be precise, I ran a lodge in Kanha National Park and in those days, in the rush to see these felines, and with many people operating with a lack of integrity that was astounding, these poor tigers were hounded to death, they were hemmed in by elephants in the tiger shows, followed and chased and it wasn’t unknown for them to be kept away from their cubs, a water body or their kill.  At times, especially during peak season, the way that these cats were treated was an abomination.  In Africa, if safari clients don’t see the Big 5, then it is tough luck, they either accept that they still had a great time, or they book again.  Why then in India is there this insistence on securing a tiger sighting? To see them in their natural habitat should be viewed as a privilege and not a right.

Last year I revisted Kanha National Park and was delighted to see that the way in which the park is now run has changed enormously, for the better.  The tiger shows have been banned, the number of jeeps allowed into the park has been limited and zoning has been introduced so that if a tiger is sighted in one zone, 100 + other jeeps can’t infiltrate that zone and converge on one animal.  With all the new regulations, this has made life tricky for the lodges, and if safari’s are not booked well in advance it is very difficult indeed,  but the tigers have a much better quality of life.  In addition, the jeeps are newer and smarter and the forest guides receive training and uniforms and there are now four female forest guides, one of whom we were fortunate to have with us for our morning safari, Ram Kali, who was absolutely fantastic.

However, all these improvements have not changed the attitude of the clients visiting the parks and so the focus, for the majority, is still solely on finding tiger.  But when this is the case, one misses so much more in the jungles of India. There are so many other animals in the parks, leopards and jungle cat, sloth bears and gaur, to name but a few, not forgetting dhole, the Indian wild dog, a truly beautiful animal.

?I had the treat of seeing dhole for the first time when I had persuaded clients not to join the circus that was the elephant back ‘tiger show.’  Whereas fifty jeeps careered off from our side of the park to join the other 100 at the point where the tiger had been spotted and where they would spend the next hours stationery, in a queue, waiting to board the long suffering elephants for their one minute photo opportunity, we remained in the area of the park which was suddenly devoid of traffic.  Heaven!

Immediately taking advantage of such a wonderful opportunity, we packed up breakfast and were enjoying spotting the birds flitting amongst the trees, flashes of colour and snatches of song, when we came across our first animal sighting, wild boar grunting and wallowing in the mud; this was soon followed by a small but beautiful jungle cat on the prowl.  Shortly afterwards, we came across a pack of thirteen dhole, and not too far away was a herd of chital (spotted deer and common tiger breakfast).  The hunters and the prey  didn’t seem to have noticed each other but we hung around to see if the dhole were hungry and as it turned out, they were.  They had obviously been marking their prey and, a few minutes later, they split up, and using their own unique form of communication, set off after the herd.  Having already established which was the weakest, they proceeded to scatter them with an exciting divide and conquer strategy until the frailest one was left alone, with the rest of the herd watching on helplessly. It was like watching a savage round of One Man and His Dog.   They then surrounded the chosen prey and attacked it enmasse. It was over in seconds and they trotted away a short distance and collapsed in the grass to rest their swollen bellies and lick the blood off their coats.  Gruesome, yes, but it is nature and an experience we would have missed had we gone off to battle with the other 150 jeeps to get a glimpse of the tiger.

cropped langur
Langur monkey

On another occasion, we sat and watched a troop of langur monkeys.  Usually these are offered a cursory glance, possibly a quick photo and then the jeep continues on its way.  However, we took time to watch and soon ascertained, thanks to our excellent naturalist, that these were two troops mid battle.  One had a new born, obviously male (I say that due to the fight, not due to an impressive anatomical aberration), and the other troop were determined to kidnap this potential future threat. Much screaming, scuffling and baring of teeth ensued for the 25 minutes that we watched the spectacle. Of course, not every safari provides a thrill, but even just watching  the profusion of birds in the parks should provide enterntainment – try and learn even 30 of the 280 species on your trip and you will be hooked!

We then opted to walk back to the lodge; well, I did and my hosts politely complied, and what a treat this turned out to be.  This is a magical time of day in the jungles of central India.  As the sun sets, one can immediately feel the chill in the air.  As one walks along tribal paths, the scents of wild mint and basil take flight in the air and then one can smell the wood smoke of fires being lit for miles around. Approaching the village, small groups and families gather around their own tree trunk, laid on its side and smoking at one end, under which the fire is burning, heating the food for their evening meal.  Over the hill we saw approaching a herd of cows and goats, this turned out to be well over 100 well-tended animals being brought home after a day in the fields, by the village cow herd.  We got caught up (deliberately) in this spectacle, commonly known as Cow Dust Time for very valid reasons, and meandered along, chatting amidst the sounds of the cow bells and the shepherds shouts to keep them in line.Last week saw me once again arrive in Kanha. I am lucky, very lucky. I live in India for part of the year, I do have the luxury of time, and so I decided not to book a safari for my first twenty four hours.  I spent my first night at Courtyard House, Kanha, a new lodge nr Kisli gate.  This is a tough part of my job, I do have to move lodges every evening, this is work after all and I do have to recce as many properties as possible so that I can give you honest feedback.  This lodge is in one of the best locations I have come across in Kanha, away from the main ‘drag’ and the main road.   More of a homestay than a lodge, it is situated in a remote area in the buffer zone, on the edge of a wonderfully traditional Beiga tribal village. After a delicious lunch and some chill out time on a charpoi we set off in the jeep and headed past the village and down toward the Banjar River. WOW. This was a simply stunning location.  No one to be seen apart from two fishermen down river and a troop of monkeys playing on rocks in its middle.  The water bubbled and gurgled past us as we sat and enjoyed the peace and tranquillity, the occasional pond heron flying by and king fishers well, fishing, as the sun gradually set creating a magical spectrum of colours through the trees and dancing on the water’s surface.

cow dustAs we followed through the village women opened the gates of the houses and the cows ambled through on reaching their correct abode. The further we proceeded through the village, the herd gradually diminished until the last three bovines disappeared into the last house.  We found this a fascinating and charming spectacle, only to be superseded by how fascinating the Bega tribals found me.  This hotel being new, and not many ‘foreigners’ venturing beyond the National park, I was as much of a treat for the Bega’s as seeing a tiger is for the foreigners. I half expected the jungle drums to signal far and wide and to be surrounded by a multitude of tribals clicking pictures!

The following morning on our safari with Ram Kali, we did see tiger, one of the best sightings I have ever had and it was a truly incredible experience.  But I still maintain, take time out, appreciate the rest of what the jungles have to offer.  As the tag line of Jim’s Jungle Retreat, Corbett says ‘Seek the tiger, find the jungle’ and we agree, you will be well rewarded by the experience.

 Cropped roller

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