Wilderness | Pench
What is it about tigers in the wild that fascinates us? We could watch a documentary on tigers in full HD on Netflix or go to the zoo and spend all day observing them go about their business and yet we choose to sit in an uncomfortable Jeep for a 3-hour ride, chasing a wild cat in its natural habitat, only to see it for a few minutes from 200 meters away. Odd, isn't it? I found myself thinking about this as I watched Langri, the tigress (named after her characteristic limp thanks to a birth defect), cooling herself rather vainly, by a watering hole. What if we hadn’t spotted her? Would it all have been a giant waste of an effort? Our on-board naturalist, Shree, said something that answered this very question - “If you go into the national park with the idea of enjoying the jungle, you’ll come out having seen so many things, but if you go in expecting to see a tiger and you don’t, you come out having seen nothing!”
He couldn’t be more right. The thrill is in submitting yourself to the law of the jungle - inside the park, animals come first. You, human, are a mere voyeur. And what better place to do this than in Pench, the land of Mowgli! While Kipling probably got some of the native species wrong (sorry, no Bagheeras here), it is still a fantastic cross-sectional display of nature and is every bit as charming. If you are patient, you will start noticing the scops owl meditating in the knot of a tree trunk, the langurs coolly sitting like wise men along the trail, the parakeets enjoying the fruits of summer. And of course, the ominous, but not always obvious presence of the tiger. In observing these animals, one learns a lesson or two in evolution and realizes the primacy of 'animal instinct'. We all abide by it - the protectiveness towards our young like a tigress and her cubs, the surprisingly strong grip of a new born like the baby langur hanging from its mother's belly and the urge to attract the opposite sex, like the 'dancing' peacock.
It’s not just animals, even the ecology of the jungle is fascinating. When was the last time we really thought about changing seasons or the source of the water we drink? Animals don't have the luxury of roofs and heated water supply. Pench is a dry deciduous teak forest, which means most trees shed their leaves at the end of spring - great for spotting animals who desperately flock to the nearest water source. Till years after independence, Pench served as a logging area - Central Province teak is world-renowned. However, since the 1980s, teak logging in natural forests has been banned and the forest habitat has been protected and allowed to flourish, contrary to the rhetoric of humans only ever contributing to the destruction of nature. Conservation efforts have made a huge difference - Pench now boasts of 50+ tigers, while India’s tiger population had increased by almost 50% to 2,226 in 2014 from 1,411 in 2008.
As I watched Langri get up and vanish into the bushes, I knew I’d be returning to the jungle soon. If you haven’t been on a safari, you must - it’s not only enjoyable but highly educational. If you have been on a safari, go again, maybe to a different forest - there’s always more to learn. For all you know, it might stir up a love for nature you never knew you had.
Pench is one of 50 tiger reserves in India, and is situated on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. A teak forest covering over 750 sq km of area, the National Park is home to 50+ tigers.
How to get there | A 2.5 hour drive from Nagpur Airport or a 5 hour drive from Jabalpur. The nearest railway station is Nagpur.
Where to stay | More than 30 lodges serve Pench, ranging from basic to luxury. I stayed at Baghvan by Taj Safaris which I highly recommend.
What to eat | Aloo bondas at the forest camp inside the park when you enter from Turia gate - The camp is mid-morning breakfast stop for all vehicles and the fresh bondas and spicy chutney are irresistible!
Tips for the Safari | Book well in advance as limited vehicles are allowed per time slot. Morning safaris are longer and cooler and the jungle is more active. While most resorts are near Turia gate, do try and take one safari from Khursapar gate, which technically falls in Maharashtra - it’s a smaller area with a higher density of tigers.
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY : VARUN BAJAJ