Jungles of Central Indian Highlands Part II – Pench & Collarwaali

Jungles of Central Indian Highlands Part II – Pench & Collarwaali

On Day 4 of the “Central Indian Highlands” Jungle camp, we set out for our ultimate destination – Pench National Park from Pachmarhi. It is believed that the forests of Central India inspired Rudyard Kipling to write “The Jungle Book”. This is the same Pench jungle where Mowgli roamed with Bagheera, Baloo, Akela and Sher Khan. I was told by the Tour Manager, that Tiger sightings have been quite regular at Pench, which was a huge bonus for someone, who has never encountered a Tiger in it’s natural habitat. (In the Pic – statue of Mowgli at Pench National Park)

Pench National Park is one of the premier Tiger reserves of India and the first one to straddle across 2 states – Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. However I would recommend the Madhya Pradesh – Turia Gate for the best view of mammals and birds. This side also has clean toilets and a small cafetaria serving tea and snacks within the core area. The Maharashtra side has no proper toilets and there is even a fee to bring in the cameras, unlike the M.P. side. Pench Tiger reserve recorded highest number of Tigers in India – about 53 in number including cubs. It derives its name from its life line – the River Pench. On the Madhya Pradesh side, the Pench Tiger Reserve encompasses a core area of about 400 sq.kms. with a buffer of about 800 sq.kms. On the Maharashtra side, the Pench Tiger Reserve has a core area of about 250 sq.kms along with a buffer area of about 500 sq.kms. However the tourism activity in Pench Tiger Reserve is restricted to 20% of the core area. (In the Pic – glimpse of  Pench National Park at 6:00am)

 

 

Pic: Tented Cottage from Inside and Outside

Pench is about 170 kms from Pachmarhi and it took us about 5 hours to reach after couple of breaks. The roads during the entire journey, were simply superb and hence we could time our schedule efficiently and effectively. We were given a hearty welcome by the staff of Pench Jungle Lodge, so far the best accommodation during the entire trip. The tented cottages were luxurious and quite spacious with a large sit-out opening out to lush green lawns. The Hotel staff had planned a surprise dinner party in a mini forest located within the resort premises. One of the staff members mentioned in hushed tones, that a Tiger was spotted just 2 days before, who had actually strayed into the buffer zone in search of his favourite meal – the wild boar.

Pic: Mahouts on Elephants tracking Tigers ; Queue of Jeeps at the entrance of Pench

On Day 5, we left at around 5:30 am for the Pench jungle safari. Unlike Satpura, Pench is host to hundreds of tourists on a given day and hence the queue of jeeps lined up to enter the Park at 6:00 am was quite long. Our trip dates also coincided with “Mowgli Festival”, which hosts about 200 children selected from across Madhya Pradesh to participate in the jungle safari. The Safaris are conducted early morning and in the late afternoon by qualified and experienced naturalists in open 4×4 Suzuki jeeps that have been specially fitted with front-facing, elevated seats to enhance the safari experience. We started with a prayer to view atleast one Tiger during the safari. And yes we were indeed blessed with a glimpse of “The Queen of Pench” – the 13 year old tigress named “Collarwaali” and her 3 sub-adult cubs, who were 2 years old. She has a world record in her name – having given birth to 30 cubs in a span of 10 years. A radio-collar was put on her when she was a young cub to keep track of her movements, which is not there anymore, and that’s how she got her name. Collarwaali or T15 is most definitely a supermom! Some of our group members sighted another Tigress named “Langdi” or T20 alongwith her 4 sub adult cubs. She was lame when young and hence the name “Langdi” stuck to her. Both Collarwaali and Langdi are 2 iconic Tigresses among 53 Tigers/Tigresses located in Pench currently. Watch the lovely glimpse of Pench jungle at 6:00am in the morning, by clicking on this Video Link

 

 

Pic: Group of Langurs in a conference ; Golden Jackal quenching his thirst

The guides and drivers patiently wait to hear the calls, especially the monkeys, since it’s a sure signal that predators like Tigers or Leopards are around. The guide mentioned to us that the Langurs (monkeys) and Deer are good friends and they work in tandem and help each other spot a predator, complementing their sight and sound related skills respectively. However in the quest for spotting Tigers, we perhaps lost out on other mammals and birds. The focus of the guides and drivers is to show Tigers to their guests and it is considered a great accomplishment if atleast one Tiger is spotted. Other than Tigers, we sighted Langurs, Rhesus Macaques, Neelgais, Sambars, spotted Deers, Antelopes, Jackals, Bisons and wild Boars. Among birds, we spotted Tickell’s Blue flycatcher, Black hooded Oriole, Grey headed Canary Flycatcher,  Indian Hawk Eagle, Wire tailed Swallow, Serpent Eagle and Indian Owlets.

Barking deer

For the afternoon safari we headed towards the Maharashtra side of Pench, through the Khursapur Gate. Compared to the M.P. side, which was more open, the jungle here is located on a hilly terrain. Hence spotting mammals is tad difficult due to grass and shrubs. We were assigned a young lady guide named Mamta, who had about 2 years of experience but had good knowledge of most of the species found in the jungle.  We spotted a Barking Deer and it was making some strange sound, perhaps a signal that a Tiger was approaching. We waited for few minutes and left. Later we came to know, that a Tiger just passed by the same place we had stopped for sometime. We also sighted a Sloth Bear and an army of Bisons or Gaurs. Since we hadencountered Sloth Bears at Satpura, it was certainly not a novelty for us but definitely it was for Mamta, who had never seen a Bear in her 2 years tenure in the jungle as a guide.

Male Bison

The male bison is dark black and huge in size compared to a female bison that is dark brown and comparatively smaller in size. The lower limbs are all white, which seems as though they are wearing socks. In the evening we gathered at the Jungle lodge to discuss the day’s events and sightings. Watch the Golden Jackal running towards us after he got sense of a Tiger moving towards him by clicking on this Video Link

 

 

Pic: Tigress Collarwaali going away from us after giving us a good sighting

Day 6 was the last day of our Jungle camp and we had a strong greed as well as desire to sight atleast one Tiger in close range. The early morning safari at 5:30am (just like the previous day), had a huge rush of tourists. We did not lose hope. As we entered the forest, our guide and driver received a message from their counterparts, that both Collarwaali and Langdi were out in the open with their sub-adult cubs. The words were like music to our ears. The agricultural fields of Alikatta, overrun by grass and converted to meadows, makes for an excellent habitat for Tigers. This is also a common meeting point of the park, where all the safari vehicles round up for breakfast during the morning drive. Langdi and her 4 cubs were spotted just a few minutes before we reached there. We were disappointed but not disheartened. And while we just left the place, we could see atleast 10 safari jeeps before us waiting for the Queen. The mahouts seated on elephants were trying to bring the Queen and her children closer to us. Lo and behold there she was – Collarwaali walking towards us ….. as if an appointment to meet her had been fixed. Her 2 cubs stood their ground and did not accompany the mother. The spotted deers, in a group of about 20, were observing the great Tigress without panicking. Collarwaali walking in a relaxed and casual gait provided us with ample time to film her on camera. She made our day !! Later while we moved back to the breakfast area, we were lucky to spot not 1 but 3 sub adult Tigers, who were Tigress “Langdi’s” cubs. They were camouflaged in the tall grass but each time they moved, we could sight them clearly. The jackals were howling and the monkeys were chattering, all through this. Now we had sighted 6 Tigers/Tigresses in a span of just 1 hour. What more could we ask for? Pench had quenched my thirst to view Tigers in the wild. I had visited Corbett Tiger Reserve (Uttarakhand), Kabini, Nagarhole and Bandipur Tiger Reserves (Karnataka) but this was my first instance of sighting Tigers in the wild and that too in the winter season, when sightings are normally considered rare. Watch Collarwaali and her gentle gait befitting a Queen, by clicking on this Video link 

Upon return, we encountered Owls, Eagles and other mammals but after sighting 6 Tigers, we had lost our appetite to see the rest. This is the power of “Tiger” sighting, I thought to myself.  Our trip to this magical wilderness of Central India drew to a close. On the way back home, my thoughts revolved around the live experience I gained, that was only read before – The rules of the Jungle ; marking territory for ruling a certain part of the jungle ; friendship between 2 or more animal species for their survival ; survival of the fittest etc.

If you missed reading Part I of this blog, that covered my trip to Satpura and Pachmarhi, please click on this LINK

Trivia: The Pench National Park provided the location used by the BBC for the innovative wildlife series “Tiger: Spy in the Jungle”, a three-part documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough (aired in 2008), which used concealed cameras, placed by elephants, in order to capture intimate tiger behavior and also retrieved footage of various other fauna in the Tiger reserve. The series is now available on Amazon Prime Videos.

As I was writing the Blog, Collarwaali was attacked by her rival – Langdi’s sub adult male Tiger cub on 5th Dec 2019. Hope Collarwaali recovers soon and gives birth to some more Tiger cubs !! (article in Deccan Chronicle dated 6th Dec 2019)

 

Acknowledgements:

  1. BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) for organising the Jungle camp to the Central India Highlands from 23rd to 28th November 2019. Special thanks to Mr Asif Khan, the Tour Manager and Ms Drashti, the Tour Guide.
  2. Pench Jungle Camp near Turia Gate on Madhya Pradesh side
  3. All the Guides and Drivers at Pench – Turia and Khursapur Gates, who made our wildlife safari so enjoyable and memorable

Pictures of select Bird species sighted in Pench