Pench Tiger Reserve is home to the big cat. But even though the majestic animal has a fair share of prey, the going is tough. Geetanjali Krishna gets a feel of the law of the jungle
It is 5.30 am. I’m in an open jeep outside the gates of Pench Tiger Reserve, waiting for our entry permits to be authenticated by an outdated bureaucracy. Half asleep, I watch tourists bribe their way past the 50 vehicles ahead in queue. An officer checks every person’s name on each permit. Have we actually come all this way to see a jungle when the one we inhabit is way wilder?
From all accounts, however, Pench Tiger Reserve (named after the eponymous river that meanders through it from north to south) is well worth this wait. One of central India’s lesser known reserves, the jungles of Pench stretch across Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and are home to some of India’s rarest animals — tigers, leopards, dholes, wolves and the formidable gaurs (Indian bison). A typical central Indian deciduous teak jungle, Pench has featured in tomes as diverse as Ain-i-Akbari and The Jungle Book. When we are finally given permission to enter 45 minutes later, I see why.
For most people who’ve been to jungles only in winter, the mile upon mile of leafless trees that the dry months bring to Pench come as a surprise. Every now and again, the gold of the bare branches and dry leaves is broken by a scarlet splash of mahua, in full bloom right now. “All the animals of the jungle eat the sweet mahua flowers,” says our guide, “including the two-legged types who distill it into alcohol!” We also marvel at the eerie kullu (a variety of gum tree) which locals call ghost. With its shimmering white bark and knobby branches shaped like crooked fingers, it’s easy to see why. As we drive deeper into the jungle, I notice the near absence of undergrowth beneath the densely packed teak trees. This makes animals easy to spot, I realise, when minutes later I see a normally reclusive wild boar pack up really close.
As we near the camp in Alicatta, leafless trees give way to grasslands. They say here that the deer’s constant grazing has created these stunning golden vistas so reminiscent of the African savannah. A stream meanders lazily to meet the river Pench, shimmering in the distance. A jackal wades in the cool water, transfixed by the sound of the jeep. Again we marvel at the ease of sighting of an animal usually so secretive. A herd of spotted deer grazes peacefully, watched over by a pair of beady-eyed wooly-necked storks. This is the area of the most famous tigress of Pench, Collarwali. She’s known for the size of her litter — her youngest cubs are now 15 months old and on the cusp of adulthood. Naturalists here are amazed at the fact that the cubs have all survived, for in the wild, cub mortality is quite high. The jungle can be cruel to tigers and their offspring, something we don’t often understand. Tigers find success in hunting maybe once in about 20 tries. Their prey is fleet-footed and canny. The tiger’s best weapon is the element of surprise, but sadly, langurs, sambar and deer alert each other of its presence. In spite of the difficulty in finding dinner, tigresses are devoted mothers, prowling across ever-increasing territories to feed their cubs and train them in the art of hunting. All in all, my sympathies are veering more towards the tiger than ever before.
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Since Collarwali’s area of operation is now quite huge to allow her cubs enough hunting ground, chances of seeing her are low. Instead we drive to Malakundam, territory of Collarwali’s mother, Badi Maa. We drive past hundreds of ungulates — spotted deer, sambar and blue bulls. Then, near a stream, we encounter a herd of ten majestic gaurs, the rare Indian bison numbering merely a thousand in the wild today. I realise that the 33 tigers resident in Pench have more than their fair share of prey. Maybe that explains the repeated survival of multiple litters, I surmise. Abheek Ghosh, cardiologist and founder of Wildcats Nature Club who’s been tracking tigers in Madhya Pradesh for the last six years, offers some tantalising theories. “We’re seeing a trend towards bigger litters not only at Pench but in Tadoba and Bandhavgarh too. This phenomenon may be the first indication of a genetic transformation of the Panthera Tigris species in response to the pressures of dwindling tiger numbers. We need to study this in depth…”
Multiple litters notwithstanding, the tiger population in Madhya Pradesh’s jungles (Kanha, Panna and Pench) has dropped to 257 from 300 in 2006. It’s the same story across India. When Project Tiger was born in the ’70s, there were less than 1,800 tigers in the wild. Today, after immense conservation efforts and creation of so many tiger reserves, tigers in the wild continue to number less than 1,800. Yet, the feeling one gets is that things are better now. Are they? Ghosh put things in perspective. “One thousand and four hundred or 1,800 or for that matter 40,000 (the figure 100 years back) is a very small number to represent an entire species. They are like the few grains of rice that get left behind after all the rice from a container has been utilised…”
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Back in Pench, we stop near a stream, its waters reduced by the summer heat to a mere gurgle. “Tigers often come here for water,” the guide whispers hoarsely. “We’ll wait here and see what happens.” A collared scops owl hoots softly from a hollow. Then it happens. A spotted deer gives a distinctly alarmed call and the guide galvanises into action. “A tiger’s on the prowl just behind those rocks!” he says, climbing on top of his seat to get a better view of the terrain. Another spotted deer takes up the alarm from the opposite ridge. Then we hear a sambar call alert. Sambars are the most reliable tiger spotters in the jungle. Once they see a tiger, they take their job of sounding an alert so seriously that many a foolish sambar has become tiger’s dinner when its attention has been diverted from fleeing to keeping its predator in sight. From the frequency of the alarm calls all around, it’s evident that the tiger’s out hunting. The guides, now standing here expectantly, signal everyone to keep perfectly silent.
I suddenly become aware of how loud the sounds of the jungle are. A racket-tailed drongo cries mockingly as it circles overhead. Langur monkeys chatter agitatedly perched atop trees, safe from the tiger. The spotted deer’s alarm calls rise to a clamour. The sambar continues to call quite agitatedly. I realise ruefully that with so much noise, the poor tiger’s probably not going to get much luck with his hunt this evening. An enormous feeling of respect wells in my heart as I experience the beautiful cruelty of the tiger’s world. It seems petty to want a glimpse of Badi Maa hunting for dinner a stone’s throw away.
That night, as the full moon rises over the Pench river, all I can think about is the feisty tigress hunting for her cubs, although all the forces of the jungle seem to be conspiring against her. I send up a little prayer to the stars that she may find a foolish sambar or unwary deer that night —for only if she and her cubs sleep on full stomachs can they hope to wake up to a better tomorrow.