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Into the wild

Dreamt of watching a tiger bathe? Or walking in the jungle after the sun goes down? It’s easier than you think.

Anamika Butalia | Print Edition: October 18, 2009

A YouTube link of a small pride of young lionesses battling a herd of buffaloes and a crocodile has had over 44 million views as of June 2009, just two-and-a-half years after the video was uploaded. In September 2004, at a watering hole in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, this video, titled “Battle at Kruger” was shot by a wildlife enthusiast and became an online sensation. And why not— everyone loves a dramatic description of what life in the wild is really like.

In India, wildlife tourism has gone up significantly in the last two decades. Jim Corbett and Kaziranga are probably the best-known of the 500 wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in India, but there are some better ones for tiger sightings.

PENCH NATIONAL PARK

Madhya Pradesh has three sanctuaries. Of these, Pench National Park is the largest in the state at 758 sq. km and is best known as the place where Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is set. Pench National Park has an area called Kala Pahad, a rocky hillock, where the entire tiger population resides, and which is out of bounds. “Mankind Forbidden”, it is marked. The activity of poaching is alarmingly high in such regions and, therefore, even patrolling officers and forest rangers need prior permission to enter this zone. Of the areas that are open to the public, designated routes within the jungle and past the grasslands are drawn up for jeep safaris. The route running between Kala Pahad and a watering hole is a favourite. The dry climate at Pench draws the animals to such watering holes, improving the chances of tiger sightings. Incidentally, on our last visit to Pench, minutes before exiting the park, at this very watering hole, two full-grown female tigers were spotted “bathing”. Disgruntled at having over 20 jeeps as audience, they leapt across the track and soon disappeared through the foliage, back to Kala Pahad. A full grown tiger’s leap can be measured by the length of two parallel-parked jeeps—and this sight had the whole crowd gushing for days. Given visitors’ expectations of wanting to spot the big cat, it is important to know that tigers are extremely shy and private animals. Therefore, the chances of spotting one are usually low, and the chances of sighting a hunt in action is practically nil. The forest authorities at Pench National Park do not allow visitors to stay on past 7 p.m.

PERIYAR NATIONAL PARK

Unlike at Pench, Periyar National Park’s main attraction comes after sundown. These “midnight trails” last for three hours as you’re taken on a tour of the trails on foot. Whether it’s the stillness or the excitement of exploring the wild, the Periyar forest is quite frightening. It’s dark, dingy and eerie. While most visitors opt for the 7-10 p.m. or 10 p.m.-1 a.m. slots, we choose the more adventurous 1 a.m.-4 a.m. trail. We head for the park’s gate earlier to prepare for the night. Torch, check. Noiseless shoes, check. No mobile phones, check. No camera, check. Long socks and boots as protection against leeches, check.

We’re set to go. The trail that’s marked for the night is an easy one—no hiking through very high grass, and generally keeping close to the gates. Despite this, we sight several animals—porcupines looking for a light meal, sambar as well as elephants.

In the dark of the night, minutes run slower than usual, but the excitement of being inside a jungle doesn’t fade away. To stave off the nervousness of being in a forest at night, we talk to the rangers about the kinds of animals spotted at such hours and if there are ‘accidents’ we should be careful about. The rangers speak confidently. They have tents within the park, and no, there have never been any accidents, as there’s an elephant shed nearby.

Halfway through, we reach the Periyar River that runs about 100 metres off the trail. Across it is open grassland and then the forest begins. We walk in silence towards the river till we reach a vantage point where an unforgettable sight takes our breath away. Right before us, close to a hundred deers are drinking water, their eyes shining like large fireflies in the night.

The forest rangers say such a large number of deer have never been spotted in a single night.

RULE OF THUMB

Trust your naturalist / guide

Respect the privacy of the animal

Do not step out of the jeep

Keep to the designated route and do not take detours off the route

Keep the forest clean and do not litter

Do not offer food to any animals

Keep your voices low

Do not smoke or drink alcohol within the premises of the park

WHERE TO STAY

Pench

The machan at the exclusive villas of Taj Baghvan, Pench National Park, Village Avarghani, District Seoni, Madhya Pradesh; Telefax: 07675-232829; baghvan.pench@tajhotels.com; http://www.tajsafaris.com/our_lodges/baghvan/default.php

Periyar

The Elephant Court, a five-minute walk from the Periyar National Park entrance. The Elephant Court, Thekkady P. O., Idukki District, Kerala; Tel: 04869 224696/ 7/ 8/

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