The burnt grass lines either side of the forest trail, as we venture yet again into the jungle. It’s my second trip to Pench and I still haven’t spotted the elusive tiger, yet.
Last year I ventured into the jungles of Pench in the hope of spotting the elusive tiger. I saw a lot of wildlife in that trip but didn’t end up seeing a single tiger. Funnily enough, everyone else on safari in the wildlife preserve saw one. So when Canvas n Chrome organized yet another Pench expedition, I joined with some trepidation – would this trip end up like the last one?
Pench National Park which was established in 1983, comprises of an almost 300 sq. Km core area of forest that is covered with a teak mixed forest. The forest is quite dense and this adds to the difficulty in spotting wildlife. But over a few safaris one can easily see spotted deer, sambar, nilgai, numerous birds and the occasional jackal and maybe even a tiger.
As usual we were based in the fabulous Pench Jungle camp, near the Turia gate entrance to Pench. I climbed into our Jeep along with the rest of our group and our driver Pawan and guide Vinod. We began our first safari of trip. Expectations were high, would we see a tiger?
Getting into the forest, the first thing I noticed was that the jungle seemed a little different. A little burnt actually. Vinod, our guide, explained that during February, the forest department undertakes controlled burning of dried leaves and grass so as to prevent future forest fires. Driving along we spotted a hoopoe, some wild boar and plenty of langurs and spotted deer.
The evening grew chilly and the daylight started fading. Suddenly, Vinod spotted an animal scampering away into the jungle. It was an Indian Wild Dog or Dhole (Cuon alpinus). The Dhole is a rare sight on Safari and so I took it as a good sign, maybe our luck was turning.
In the evening we decided to do a night safari in the extensive buffer zone of Pench. Armed with a powerful torchlight, our guide proceeded to point out the various animals that he spotted. Along the trail we quickly spotted some deer and wild hares. It was getting dark quickly and it was now time to venture deeper into the forest. We drove along in the pitch dark, with the stars rushing overhead and just the headlights for company. Our jeep suddenly stopped and there right ahead on the road was Eurasian Thicknee or Stone Curlew. The bird was momentarily stunned by the headlights of the jeep before it flew into the darkness.
We continued driving along, occasionally seeing eyes flash by us in the surrounding darkness. Our guide spied a canine form sitting in the opening up ahead. It was an Indian Wolf !!! Disturbed by the lights the wolf climbed up small hill up ahead. Shining the torch around on the other side we saw several pairs of eyes shimmering like diamonds in the dark. It was a pack of wolves. The animals were sitting on the other side, calmly assessing us in the darkness.
After that eerie encounter with wolves, we decided to limit our time in the forest and left after a quick recce near the small lake in the forest. Two safari’s in and we’d see two different types of predators but still no tiger.
The next day with eager anticipation we were up by the park gate by 5:45 am. Soon we began our expedition into the jungle. Vinod suggested that we try and spend maximum time looking for the tiger today as the morning time was often favorable for sightings. Running along our route, we stopped to look at the trail and there was fresh pug mark on the ground.
Elated, we renewed our pursuit of the tiger visiting the likely spots along the way. Crossing the rather flat grasslands, we began climbing a small hill when we spotted a fresh kill right by the road.
The tiger had probably killed this spotted deer and begun eating it when it was disturbed, maybe by a forest patrol, our guide explained. We spent some time waiting at this spot, hoping for the tiger to show up. But it was in vain.
Dejected we proceeded to try and see the other spots where a tiger might present itself. But our perseverance yielded no results. Returning back we saw several more jeeps had “discovered” the kill. And so had numerous crows, vultures and jackals.
By now it was evident that the tiger would not be returning to this kill. After shooting pictures of some of the other animals that the kill had attracted, we decided to head back to gate. On the way back though we did spot this brilliant parakeet in it’s nest.
By evening, we had pretty much given up on ever being able to see a tiger in Pench. We just decided to instead try and spot the other animals and creatures in the forest. Vinod managed to spot a pair of Scops Owls in their daytime roost.
We visited the kill site from the morning and to our surprise the site was clean!!! All that remained were a few white bones. Roaming around on the trail, we also saw what looked like a squirrel on the ground. But on closer examination it turned out to be a small little tree shrew. The sheer variety of animals in this forest was astounding.
We stopped by a water hole in the expectation that we’d see a tiger come by. While the tiger, as usual did not show itself, we did spot a pair of black headed storks by the water.
Finally as the day light was fading, we started our long journey back to camp. A little ahead on the way back we spotted a few jeeps waiting by the road. Overhead we could hear the langurs making agitated alarm calls, looking outward into the jungle. The atmosphere was suddenly electrifying.
There was something out there in the undergrowth, silently stalking about that caused the langurs to become agitated. Craning their necks our guide and driver spotted it first. A leopard was lurking in the undergrowth, almost completely camouflaged until it came against some rocks. This was our first sighting of a big feline predator.
The langurs gradually became silent as the leopard moved on to some distance and vanished. Thinking that leopard and returned into the jungle, the rest of the jeeps decided to head back to the gate. We chose to stick around for a little while longer and that made all the difference. Just as the jungle quieted down after being subjected to the roar of the jeep engines, the leopard made its move, elegantly moving across the open space deeper into the jungle. It was a thing of beauty giving us a glimpse of it spotted body for that split second before it vanished.
The next morning, it was our last safari. Still on euphoric high at having spotted the leopard last night, we decided to just enjoy the forest and not worry or obsess over spotting the tiger. We were the first jeep into the jungle and pretty soon on the trail we picked up another pug mark. A short distance ahead there was another pug mark and the trail seemed to be heading towards the water hole. The game was afoot and we began tracking the tiger that had walked on the road not too long ago. Maybe today was my lucky day and the curse of Pench would be lifted.
But alas, the water hole was empty and we couldn’t pick up the trail anymore. Dejected we decided to try one other water hole before spending the rest of safari birding. We were racing towards the next waterhole, when Pawan our driver braked suddenly. And lo behold, right across the road was magnificent male tiger. He looked at us and snarled, before turning his back and continuing his regal walk on the jungle trail.
Vinod and Pawan were excited, because this was the male tiger known as BMW, for the letter shaped stripe markings on his leg. He walked along for some distance, as we tried to follow him in the jeep. But evidently disturbed by our presence on his royal road, he preferred to soon vanish in the undergrowth.
Having finally seen a tiger, we all had a big wide grin permanently plastered on our faces for the remainder of the trip. We revisited the spot where we sighted the leopard and were rewarded with seeing two this time !!! Our luck had turned indeed.
We ended the final safari with a good sighting of some Indian Bison. Happy and content after finally seeing a tiger, we bid goodbye to the jungle book hoping to return again soon to read another chapter.
Pench is about 995 km from Mumbai. The closest airport is Nagpur in Maharashatra. By train, Nagpur is again the closest Rail Head. The Mumbai-Nagpur Duronto is an overnight AC Sleeper Train that is probably the best way to reach Nagpur by Rail. From Nagpur, Pench is about a 2 hour drive, so it is best to organize a cab from here.
Best Time to Visit
For best sightings of wildlife, late winter and summer are the best times to visit, as at other times the jungle is fairly dense.
Where to Stay
We stayed at Pench Jungle Camp (Starting at INR 6500 per night). Other options include MTDC’s Kipling and the more up scale Taj Bhagwan. Groups like Canvas n Chrome also organize more economical group tours to Pench.
Things to see and do
The number one thing to do is go on Safari in Pench. But it is advisable to book safaris in advance, as there are a limited number of vehicles allowed into the park each day.