Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pench Tiger Reserve– Home of the super-tigress



Badi Mada - Pench's Queen Mother
Badi Mada (or Big Female) is the Queen Mother of Pench Tiger Reserve, immortalized with her first litter in the BBC documentary – Tiger-Spy in the Jungle. Since those 4 cubs, she has raised 6 more and has reportedly just given birth to another 4. One of her daughters, the legendary Pattewali tigress has raised 9 cubs, and has just given birth to another 4; another daughter, Baghin Nala tigress has raised one litter of 2 and now has 3 cubs. That makes it a total of 33 tigers (including cubs) in Pench who carry Badi Mada’s genes!! There are other, more celebrated tigers across India, but this quiet rockstar of a tigress should be up there with them all.

On our first afternoon safari in Pench, we saw the Baghin Nala tigress from afar, at a kill on the other side of a lake. Then, to our amazement, we saw 2 forest staff walk by casually, talking loudly. This was enough to drive her into thick cover and the two gents came to the kill and kept walking. And talking. Their supervisor, standing next to our jeep, tried his best to drive us away, saying we were waiting for too long, watching the tiger. The cheek of it all! When pointed out that his men had driven the tigress away, he just shrugged it off. Anyway, it had started raining as well, so between the men and the rain there was no way the tigress was going to emerge again.


Jackal eyeing breakfast
The next morning we went into the Pyorthadi area, Badi Mada’s territory. While we waited for her, we saw a beautiful pair of owls nuzzling each other affectionately, followed by a jackal contemplating whether to make a black-necked stork his breakfast and washed down by a Eurasian Thicknee and a gorgeous white-eyed buzzard. Pench is most definitely India’s jackal capital and has amazing raptor diversity as well. A lovely safari, but no Badi Mada.

White eyed buzzard

Thicknee on her knees
That afternoon, we headed back to look for Badi Mada, and this time she was gracious enough to provide an audience. She emerged from behind a hillock, crossed to the water, sat down for a wallow and disappeared out of sight. A while later, we saw her walking far away in the grass and our driver, Santlal, estimated where she would cross the road, back to her den. We waited there and sure enough, she walked right towards us, crossed in front of us and disappeared into the bush. My first sighting of this amazing tigress. Pench’s true heroine.
Badi Mada
Baghin Nala cub - she had amazingly beautiful eyes
The next morning we got a glimpse of the Baghin Nala cubs as they lay in thick lantana. Not great for photography though, so we left them and started to drive away. And to our surprise, less than 20 metres from the cubs, on the other side of the road was a huge male tiger, also in thick lantana. We’d heard alarm calls of monkeys but thought that they were calling due to the cubs. And here was this huge tiger, walking noiselessly through the bush, sitting completely undiscovered right next to the road.  Amazing stealth for such a massive animal. He then walked into the bush and we followed the alarm calls till we saw him again at a waterhole. He came in for a drink and a wallow then disappeared back into the jungle.


Large Male
That afternoon, we decided to go leopard tracking. Pench was a leopard haven till the tiger population exploded a few years ago, making the smaller leopards a lot more elusive now. But we’d met someone who’d seen a mating pair and we decided to track them. We waited and moved back and forth and waited the whole safari. But no leopards. To make up, we saw a beautiful Indian Hare really close and I just love the violet hues on the Hare’s ears.

Indian Hare
On our final safari, we came across probably the boldest mongoose I have seen. Normally they scurry away from the road but this guy remained where he was, helped himself to a little snack as well and gave us a quick demo of his canines! Just in case! So we left Pench with really happy memories of that wonderful tigress called Badi Mada.



The one thing I’ve experienced repeatedly at Pench is unnecessary interference by the forest staff. And while I really respect that a Forest Officer’s role calls for them to enforce strict discipline with tourists, they take it too far at times. I’ve already spoken about the staff disturbing the tigress on a kill. The Baghin Nala cubs were driven off the road and into the bush by a forest patrol. On our last safari, a forest training patrol all tramped off the road to see a leopard kill, possibly driving the poor leopard away. Now isn’t that disturbing the wildlife? I only wish that our forest protectors don’t get over-zealous with enforcing tourist rules and end up disturbing wildlife instead.

Pench Trip Guide

Getting there
Pench (MP) is about 90 kms north-east of Nagpur (the closest big city and airport) on the road to Seoni. A pleasant 2 hour drive, though the highway needs to be repaired.

Stay
Pench has a complete range of tourist accommodation, from the luxury (Baghvan from Taj Hotels) to very good mid-range MPTDC properties and budget hotels.

I can recommend two placed I‘ve stayed in - the Pench Jungle Camp (+91 7695 232817 or +91 9630222417) where I normally stay – a really nice, well spread out property with tents and cottages and a big lawn and pool.  The staff is excellent, the food is superb and Mr. Rathore, the manager is a real star.

Another excellent property is the Tuli Tiger Corridor (www.tulihotels.com), which is more high-end. It has lovely cottages and a spa as well.

Safaris
Safari bookings can be made online (www.mponline.gov.in) but the site is not always easy to use. Your hotel can also get your bookings done through the site.
We always do our safaris with Santlal Dhurve (+91 9479632387) as our driver. He’s an excellent young driver, can spot wildlife as well, knows the forest inside out and is very keen to ensure his guests have a very good time.

Spotted Owlet