Monday, January 11, 2021

Pench (Dec 2020) - The Queen Mother grants an audience



It's always a privilege to meet with a legend, human or otherwise. And in the animal (especially tiger) world, Collarwali (or Mataram) is as legendary as they come. Through her 15-year life she has produced an incredible 29 cubs, most of whom she has nurtured through to adulthood, including one litter of 5 cubs! That is an insane record, given that half that number would be considered a fantastic achievement. She is born into a fantastic gene pool, daughter of the celebrated Badi Mada and has featured as one of the four cubs in the fantastic documentary Tiger: Spy in the Jungle, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

In a year devoid of wildlife, this trip to Pench was very, very much looked forward to, for the whole family. But the first flight since February 2020 was not without some nerves, such has been the impact of that-virus-that-shall-not-be-named-here. The short flight to Nagpur was followed by a comfortable drive to Pugdundee Resorts' stunning Pench Tree House. The beautiful property and an outstanding lunch erased all the nerves and we were all set to hit the forest. I've seen at least one tiger every year since 2002 so was all the more keen to ensure the run continued. And Collarwali was a particular quest, since at 15, she's in the twilight years of her remarkable reign as Pench's undisputed Queen.

We were led into the forest by Gaurav Dhotre, the property's head naturalist, very knowledgeable with Pench's topography and residents, tigers and otherwise. Over the next four days, he not only ensured we saw what we came to see and more, he also provided so much insight into the forest itself. Wildlife trips are made (or unmade) by naturalists and we were fortunate to have had Gaurav with us. Our first safari produced a 'near-miss' - a tigress named Langdi had been spotted sitting next to the road by a couple of jeeps but by the time we got there, she'd descended into a nearby nallah for an afternoon snooze. No sighting, but the excitement of the tracking and the sheer joy at being in the forest more than made up.

We spent the next three safaris chasing shadows. We heard that Collarwali had had a fight with a male tiger a couple of days earlier and she was probably nursing her wounds (ego?) So while we heard plenty of alarm calls in her territory, we saw nothing. There were stray sightings of a couple of other tigers but nothing that we could get a handle on. Gaurav tried his best, covering every tiger territory meticulously, but the tiger gods were not smiling. The jackals more than made up with some beautiful sightings, particularly one of a pair, very close to the road. These and some beautiful bird species (including some lovely sightings of Malabar Pied Hornbills)

On our fourth safari, we were heading again towards Collarwali's Alikatta area when we heard frantic alarm calls at one spot. Unlike earlier calls, these were urgent and close by. Adrenaline levels shot up almost immediately, at the prospect of a sighting and we kept our eyes peeled for any movement in the bush. And then we saw it! A leopard, walking straight out of the bush. He saw us, froze and promptly went back in. Then we saw him walk backwards, just keeping within sight. And then about 50 feet from us, he crossed the road in brilliant light. To see his golden coat with those gorgeous rosettes was just mesmerising. He didn't give us time for any photos as he disappeared into the undergrowth but he kept the whole jeep throng on tenterhooks as the spotted deer alarm calls rang out for nearly 20 minutes. He was obviously on the move, maybe late for a date! That sighting really lifted our big-cat hungry appetites and we were determined to be back for stripes!

The following morning saw frantic alarm calls very near our entry gate (Karmajhiri) but no sighting. It was apparently a male tiger who emerged much later, blessing a jeep of latecomers with a bonus sighting. It pays to be late at times, obviously! We plodded on, towards the Queen Mother's territory but apart from a lovely sighting of Indian Gaur right next to the road, the only highlight seemed to be the hot potato bondas at the Alikatta Camp. And as we gave up and headed back towards our gate, three canine forms appeared in the shade under the teak tree canopy. Wild Dogs!

The Asiatic Wild Dog or Dhole is one of my favourite animals. These beautiful (but lethal) carnivores are the finest hunters in the Indian forests and their declining numbers makes every sighting precious. This was a pack of 3 males, evidently cast away from their home pack and looking to further their own destinies. We spent a lovely half hour with this stag party before we had to head back to our gate. We'd now had Leopard and Wild Dog. Stripes would complete the big carnivore list for our trip and we had two more throws of the dice. The penultimate safari also threw up nothing special, so we were left with just one safari, and it had to be a truncated one because we had a flight to catch.


The final safari and as we got into the jeep, Gaurav said "We're going to see a tiger today. Naturalist's intuition". And once again, we headed in search of the Queen Mother. The mandatory alarm calls on the way were all false promises as we drove into her domain. And for once, we saw evidence.... Gaurav found fresh tiger pugmarks on the road leading to Alikatta. She was on the move and that was only good news. We hovered with other attendant vehicles on the main Alikatta road, till a Spotted Deer alarm call took us towards another group of jeeps. And then she emerged, like the Queen she is, walking through the grass in beautiful light. She stopped, turned and roared, maybe trying to coax her partner into providing a sighting too. But he probably wasn't in the mood, so she turned with a resigned shrug, sprayed a tree and walked up and crossed the road. There were many jeeps there, all at a respectful distance with all the humans awed into silence as the Queen Mother walked by. 

She crossed over into the bushes on the other side and kept roaring but her mate wasn't interested. And we decided to move on and have breakfast, easily the best one of the trip and one of the best of the whole year. We had finally broken our duck! We had seen one of the legends of the Indian forests and at 15, she was still mating. With a fervent hope for one more litter from this awe-inspiring tigress. May her tribe increase!

And so, 2020 ended with a tiger sighting! The 18-year record stays strong. Here's to more in 2021.

Pench Trip Guide

Pench (or Indira Priyadarshini) Tiger Reserve is spread across Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh (MP). The MP side has more places to stay and tourism is more developed here. The Maharashtra side has opened up for tourism less than a decade ago and is catching up really quickly in terms of sightings. We visited the MP part of Pench.

Pench MP has three gates, Turia (where most resorts are located) Karmajhiri (where we stayed) and Jamtara. 

Getting there

Pench is a couple of hours from Nagpur (slightly more for Karmajhiri and Jamtara) which is the closest airport and major rail head. Nagpur is reasonably well connected with most cities in India via rail and air.

Your hotel can arrange pickups from Nagpur station and airport else there are many good travel companies based out of Nagpur as well.

Safaris

You can book safaris on forest.mponline.gov.in or ask your hotel to book for you. Please carry original IDs when you visit the forest, these get checked when you enter the park.

I recommend that you do at least 4 safaris (combination of morning and evening) to maximise your chances of sighting.

Places to stay

Pench MP will have you spoilt for choice when it comes to places to stay, from full-on luxury to more affordable places. Earlier, at Turia, I have stayed at Pench Jungle Camp and Tuli Tiger Corridor - both excellent places to stay.

This time we stayed in Karmajhiri, at the wonderful Pench Tree House. This 12 room property is set about 14 kms from Karmajhiri gate. It has 6 cottages and 6 tree houses. We stayed in the latter and it was really well done, apart from the novelty of being surrounded by tree branches. The people are wonderful, the hospitality is excellent and I have already spoken about Gaurav. But what is insanely wonderful about this property is the food - it is all local cuisine, with the freshest of ingredients (some grown on their own organic farm) Every meal had us promising to eat less the next time around, only to gorge ourselves silly!

Other tips

Pench can get really cold in winter, so do pack in jackets and woollens. 

The park is very strict about enforcing COVID regulations, so a face mask is mandatory.

It can also get quite dusty, so the mask may also help keep dust away.

If you plan to stay in Turia, the Maharashtra gates are also accessible, so do try and book a safari or two in the Khursapar range in Maharashtra





 



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