A wiry gray streak shot through the jeep’s highlights and down the rough dirt track of the Gangau sanctuary, where we’d headed for one of the few night safaris in India’s national forests. It was close to midnight, the storm clouds were gathering overhead, a few guests were shivering in the startling cold of March, and the beast, whatever it was, had been shot in the opposite direction of camp. Our spotter, Shekhar, a naturalist who studies smaller wild cats Panna National Park, was not deterred. “Just keep going,” he said. “This is something interesting.” Maybe something quick. Something blurry. But interesting?
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The jeep growled in pursuit. Before long, Shekhar caught the animal again in the spotlight, about 50 meters away, at the edge of the trees. It paused and looked at us, then walked into the brush. “It’s kind of a cat. Just keep going,” Shekhar said. He knew that this type of animal was curious by nature, and that it would double back to see what this flashing spotlight was all about. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the cat returned to trot across the road, allowing it to get closer and closer, until finally it stopped in a culvert against the hillside and peered into the viewer.”It’s a gray-coated leopard cat,” Shekhar said.” Very rare.” It wasn’t a tiger or a leopard, but it was rare and beautiful and wild, and not long after it filled up in the forest we remembered the cold and the approaching storm. I thought it ironic that the best wildlife sighting that I had experienced on my safari outside the confines of Panna National Park, but as I soon discovered, it wasn’t all that strange, the lesser cats actually prefer degraded forest, explains Shekhar, because the limited ground cover offers better hunting opportunities. This is one of the benefits of traveling with an expert guide – you learn so much more about the habitat you are visiting.
On my first day at the Ken River Lodge – by far the best option for tourists with money to spend – I awoke at 5am to the tea boy’s hilarious knocker, only to open the door of the house for a steady drizzle. Although it was March, a storm front had built up stubbornly over central Madhya Pradesh, making it all too likely that the park would be closed. A smarter, less optimistic man would only have fallen over and gone back to sleep, but I put on my windbreaker, grabbed a torch and headed for the treetop restaurant that serves as the lodge’s base of operations. I stayed in lavish luxury in one of the lodge’s three cottages, with the drawback of being a five-minute walk from my morning tea. No one had started the generator, so I made the walk in pitch black and landed in the treehouse soaking wet, only to find a group of similarly wet, sleepy, bewildered and tea-less tourists. Our hosts and guides, judiciously judging that the park would be closed, had fallen asleep again and ignored our alarm clock.
I spent so much of my second day indoors Panna, taking morning and evening drives where I saw most of the more common species and waiting a tense moment in a dense forest for a tiger to appear as alarm calls sounded all around us. The morning’s ride was more pleasant—and more fruitful—than the night before, when we had to head for the exit just as it had cooled down enough for the animals to come out. For that reason, on day three I tried again to spot the tiger in the morning, took the park’s crocodile spotting boat tour and observed a few crocodiles and some beautiful waterfowl. All these activities are available to tourists staying at the Forest Rest House, one of Panna’s private lodges or in Khajuraho.
In the afternoon I abstained from the barge ride through the desolate savannah in favor of a ride upriver in the Ken River Lodge boat. Because we made our trip close to sunset, just after a cooldown, the electrical storm swept across the area, it swept through the park. I saw at least a dozen species of waterfowl, including seeing a gray bald eagle and a baby owl so well camouflaged it was practically invisible on a river in the middle of the rocks. The trip also allowed for a stop at Bahaargunj Jungle Village, the other estate owned by the Ken River Lodge group that offers rustic yet beautiful accommodation on the grounds of the hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Panna. Built according to the traditional methods of local villagers, these six mud-plastered huts are surprisingly comfortable and attractive, with thick, cool walls and painted floors. No coughing generator to bother you here. The jungle village has no electricity. And the cheetal, sambhar and wild boar come right at your doorstep. When I visited, the Forest Department elephants, tied up in a rustic camp next door, had just reached out and were trying to arrange an early dinner by plucking the lids off their food bowls when the mahouts weren’t looking. A baby elephant was the main attraction.
Over Panna National Park
Established as a national reserve in 1981 and part of Project Tiger in 1994, Panna is one of India’s youngest tiger reserves. Spread over 542.67 square kilometers, Panna National Park was created from the hunting reserves of the princely states of Panna, Chhatarpur and Bijawar. In 1975, the northern and southern forest divisions of Panna were declared the Gangau Game Reserve.
There are a few villages within the boundaries of the park, and it hasn’t gained the prominence of nearby Kanha or Bandhavgarh, where forest staff can (or guarantee) a tiger detection almost certainly. In some ways, that’s a blessing. Unlike in Bandhavgarh or Kanha, you don’t have to queue up jeeps into the reserve and sit silently in exhaust fumes while waiting for a 30-minute zip through the bushes on the back of an elephant. On each of the four days I spent in Panna, the three jeeps carrying guests from the Ken River Lodge were the only ones on the reserve, making for a brilliant trip for a daydreamer with fantasies of unknown jungle tracks. This lack of tourists is remarkable, given the park’s beautiful location. Common trees in Panna are teak, tendu, mahua and salai. Panna claims to have as many as 35 tigers (estimates given by the park) but a more realistic figure would be around 20. However, in recent times, there are reports that the tiger population is declining in Panna. The proximity of the national park with diamond and sandstone mines proved detrimental to residents, and the fragile environment was polluted due to mining activities of the National Mining Development Corparation (NMDC) of Majhgaon/Hinouta. (Legend traces the Kohinoor diamond to this sleepy town in Madhya Pradesh.) The NMDC mines were recently shut down due to a lawsuit filed by the park authorities.
State: Madhya Pradesh Location In the Vindhya Range, on the outskirts of the ancient city of Panna, which has the largest diamond mines in Asia
Distances: 620 km SE of Delhi, 176 km SE of Jhansi, 27 km SE of Khajuraho Route from Delhi NH2 to Agra; NH3 to Gwalior; NH75 to Panna via Jhansi, Bamitha and Madla
When to go: The park is open from October 1 to June 30. The most comfortable time to go is from November to March. Best sightings May-June
Go there for Tigers
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