Friday, March 16, 2018

Panna - The Tiger's Second Life (December 2017)

The tigress roared. Her confident voice reverberated through the magnificent teak forests that make up her home. She is T1, the Queen Mother of Panna National Park. Ruler she may be, but T1 was not born here. She was raised 300 kms away in another forest and was relocated here to rekindle the almost dead embers of Panna around 8 years ago. She and two more tigers (Female T2 and Male T3) were brought to help repopulate a forest that had lost all its tigers to poaching. And to have succeeded so dramatically against so many odds is a testament not only to the tigers of Panna but also to the forest department, particularly their visionary ex-Field Director Mr. Murthy.

Our annual year-end holiday ended with a couple of days in Khajuraho followed by New Year's in Panna. The magnificent temples of Khajuraho were simply breathtaking and the Sound and Light Show in Amitabh Bachchan's unique baritone was super special. But for me, Panna would be the highlight of the trip. It was a forest I'd heard so much about and while I wasn't expecting to see tigers up close, one is always salivating at the prospect of reacquainting with one of the most special creatures to roam this planet. And we arrived in Panna one afternoon, checking-in at the Ken River Lodge before setting out for the afternoon safari. The Lodge, set on the Ken River is Panna's oldest property and is comfortable, but not luxurious.

We entered Panna through the Madla gate with our driver/guide Swami. He's probably the most experienced naturalist there and an absolute fountain of knowledge and wisdom. He was barely able to hold back the emotion in his voice when he spoke about the wiping out of the tigers and their spectacular comeback. And with a fervent wish to spot one of these animals we drove onwards until we saw a white jeep parked with a couple of men inside. It was a forest department jeep and these men were tracking a tigress. Post the reintroduction, around a dozen tigers have been radio-collared and their movements are tracked 24/7 by a jeep dedicated to each tiger. It is tracking like no where else and the commitment is absolutely staggering. Anyways, we knew that the jeep was a sure indicator of a tiger's presence and we waited a safe distance around a bend. Seeing the forest vehicle drive off, we also moved on, assuming the tigress had gone. But just as we rounded the bend, we saw her cross the road right in front of us. She was P141, one of the second generation tigers of Panna, who was born in this forest. She crossed and moved on, accompanied by the frantic alarm calls of langur and spotted deer. We waited for her to come back, but she was on her way. And we drove on.

Less than a hundred metres away, a volley of fresh alarm calls greeted us and we (naturally) assumed that P141 had come back to the area. Much to our surprise, we saw it was a beautiful male leopard. He walked in the thickets above the road for more than a couple of kilometres before melting away from the throng of jeeps that waited for him. It was an incredible sighting, though there were no photos, of him or the tigress. And we we headed back, with a cool breeze blowing over the Ken River, I reflected on a magical safari where I'd seen both a tiger and leopard, only the second time it has ever happened to me. And suddenly, expectations of Panna skyrocketed!

Morning safaris in all MP forests are long affairs, from dawn till about 11 a.m. and we headed the next morning to find T1 who was sighted the previous day with her two cubs. We drove through pristine teak forests and then emerged into a large grassland (Bhadrun) where, once again, the telltale forest jeep told us what we wanted to know. The tigers were close by. And we settled there for the morning, along with the rest of the jeeps. The tigers were quite far, across a large meadow and under thick bush and trees. For almost the whole morning we got glimpses of face or tail or a flank here and there. But no quality sighting. And most of the other jeeps gave up and moved on. But we stayed put. And got our reward when mother and cubs briefly came out in the open before heading back into the thicket. Definitely not a close sighting, but a prized one for sure.

That afternoon, Swami wanted us to see the 'Vulture Point' or Dhundhwa. We headed uphill and stopped at a place with sheer cliffs to our left and right. And perched at various points on these cliffs were hundreds of Indian, White-rumped and Griffon Vultures. It was a majestic sight and the children were able to get some decent images of these wonderful birds reasonably up close. Vulture populations have dropped 99% over the past few decades and every single bird is extra-precious. We headed further and saw another vulture - The King (or Red-headed) Vulture sitting by himself near a waterbody. On a nearby tree we saw Lesser Adjutants and a lone Black Stork. All in all a fantastic half hour as a birder. But our mission included Pantera Tigris as well and Swami rushed us back to Bhadrun where as usual, all the jeeps had staked out the grassland. The two cubs had provided glimpses through the thick grass and everyone was waiting for them to emerge. And duly we took our appointed place between two jeeps and added to the list of 'waitees'.

Right in front of us was a little gully, the smallest of gaps through the thick grass. Probably enough space for a tiger to walk out of. My mind conjured up imaginary tigers in that gully while the rest of the junta were searching high and low elsewhere for a glimpse of face or tail. And then, unbelievably, there was a tiger right there. Barely 20 feet away and staring straight at us! At an angle where we were pretty much the only people to be able to see it. Tiger and audience locked eyes for a precious few moments and then it vanished as silently as it came. Though the undergrowth was too thick for photography, we'd been blessed by one of the finest sightings we could have ever hoped for in Panna. And then it was time to leave. Our jeep started moving, bang in the middle of a long convoy. And then suddenly braked. One of the tigers was in the open, sitting at the edge of the grass, with nary a care in the world. We got a precious few moments admiring this most magnificent of animals and then headed back to the hotel, feeling incredibly light headed. What a day!

The final day of our trip and the final day of 2017. This time I was all alone in the jeep as the kids were asked to take a break. Swami led us straight to Bhadrun once again, since there was no reliable news of any other tiger sightings. As we arrived there, we found the the grassland enveloped in thick mist, as if it was throwing a protective cloak over its precious denizens. We waited for it to clear (along with all the other jeeps) and did manage a couple of glimpses of mother and cubs. A repeat performance in the evening and it was time to wind down from a spectacular trip to one of the finest forests in India.

Panna's rejuvenation shows that Nature and its blessed ones can bounce back if given the opportunity and adequate protection. And that hope is what keeps all of us going. 

Panna Trip Guide 

Getting there
Panna lies in North Eastern Madhya Pradesh, less than an hour's drive from the famous Khajuraho temples, making it easier to access compared to many other parks in the state.

Khajuraho (45 kms) is the nearest airport and probably the best route to get to Panna. Khajuraho is connected by air with Varanasi and Delhi (via daily flights but a slightly convoluted route) and both Air India and Jet Airways fly out of Khajuraho

Panna has a reasonably good variety of stay options.

The Ken River Lodge ( is the oldest property and is set on the Ken River itself. It has regular cottages and Family cottages. I would recommend the former, since they're closer to the reception and also in better shape.
The naturalists at Ken are superb, the superb Swami and the venerable Shukra ji are not only experts but also wonderful people.

The Taj group of hotels has the Pashangarh, another highly rated property.

Panna offers gypsy safaris, booked by your hotel. Please do let them know about your requirements in advance, especially during season.

Other attractions 
The Khajuraho temples can easily be combined with a trip to Panna. These spectacular monuments have to be seen to be described. No photos can do them justice. And a couple of days in Khajuraho (at the fantastic Lalit property) dovetails very well with 2-3 days in the forests of Panna.

Other Tips
Panna can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen, comfortable clothes and headgear are a must. It can get equally cold in winter, so carry a thick jacket for sure.

Prepare for dust, so if you're troubled or allergic, a face mask will come in handy.