Searching for tigers in the forests of central India

The flora and fauna in central India is breathtaking. Just make sure you don’t walk underneath a monkey

ALANGUR monkey was squatting on a ridge overlooking the waterhole scratching its grey belly and yawning. A sambar deer barked a warning, and the monkey scampered for the safety of a tree. Birds rose skywards. Over the ridge appeared the white and black face of a tiger. “Badi Maa,” whispered my guide, “The Great Mother.” Badi Maa is a legend in India’s Pench National Park. She was the star of a BBC documentary that captured her life for over two years using cameras attached to the trunks of elephants – animals to which tigers pay little attention – as she raised her first litter.

Several litters later Badi Maa is the Tina Turner of tigers, a glamorous grandmother indeed. She padded down to the waterhole to drink deeply before immersing herself up to her powerful shoulders. After a blisteringly hot day I envied her as she wallowed for half an hour, eyes half-closed, a picture of quiet sensual enjoyment. Then she stood, shook water from her coat and walked off with a slow, bowlegged gait. The markings that had stood out so vividly against the grey rocks and dried mud of the waterhole soon camouflaged her as she disappeared into the dry grasses and dappled teak forest beyond.

Badi Maa wasn’t my first tiger nor Pench my first Indian game reserve. Two days earlier I’d arrived at the nearby Kanha National Park, five hours by road from Nagpur, a city literally in the centre of India – a monument marks the spot – and one of India’s newest test cricket venues. Driving to Kanha along rutted roads overhung with dense-leaved mango trees and misty purple jacarandas, I had wondered whether I’d see any tigers at all – a blur of fur amid the vegetation if I was lucky. Only around sixty tigers inhabit Kanha’s 750 square miles of bright green leaved sal trees and between thirty and fifty live among Pench’s 290 square miles of teak forest. No one knows precisely. Tigers are solitary creatures with wide territories. They do not respect park boundaries – villagers on the roads sometimes get a shock.

Tiger tourism in India has attracted criticism for lack of regulation but, as my guide told me as we queued to have our permits checked, the authorities have now restricted the number of visitors and Jeeps. The sun was just rising as we drove through the gates. Langur monkeys were already breakfasting in the trees. Linger beneath them and they’ll pee on you, I’m told. I kept a discreet distance as the group selected the most succulent shoots, dropping rejects to the jungle floor to be eaten by spotted chital deer beneath. Chitals and langurs work in partnership, warning each other of approaching carnivores – necessary measures given that a tiger can cover thirty feet in a single leap and bite with the force of 1,000 pounds.

At dawn the danger’s real. Tigers and leopards – slightly more numerous but even harder to spot than tigers – are still hunting. Park rangers go out early on elephant back – unlike the Jeeps they are permitted off road – looking for droppings, paw prints or a recent kill. Above all they listen for “alarm calling” by other animals, the best indicator that a predator is close. On my first morning in Kanha, rangers tracked a young tigress to where she lay in a tangle of lantana bushes and my Jeep driver positioned us where we could get a look with our binoculars. Our tiger was rolling on her back, paws in the air like an overgrown domestic cat and seemingly as unperturbed by our presence.

As the sun rose higher, we checked waterholes and peered into deep shadows beneath clumps of bamboo where tigers like to sleep. We saw no more in Kanha during early morning drives or in the late afternoon when the heat fades into purple sunset and the cacophony of cicadas rises to a scream. In Pench, we caught a glimpse of another lazily snoozing tiger before the unforgettable experience of Badi Maa’s evening bathe.

It’s easy to succumb to tiger fever, but there’s plenty of other eyecatching wildlife too. These parks are birdwatcher heaven. A young peacock danced with its shimmering tail feathers outspread while kingfishers and long-tailed drongos swooped along a riverbank. A tiny jungle owlet sitting motionless on a tree stump alert for prey fluffed its feathers when a technicolor jungle fowl – progenitors of the domestic chicken – began scratching noisily in the nearby dust for grubs.

Gaur – massive relatives of the domestic cow – browse the parks. It’s quite something to see a glossy sable-coated bull weighing over 2,000 lbs crash from the undergrowth. These are the world’s largest bovines, heavier even than the American buffalo. A wild boar trotting through the long grass, white-tipped tail erect for its youngsters to follow, looked tiny by comparison. At dusk, as nightjars flitted overhead, two flying squirrels left their tree holes to climb high and launch themselves, limbs spread wide, nearly 100 yards. A low rumble announced the return of giant honeybees to their hives in the branches. The vegetation is equally exotic. From tall mahuas – known as the “tree of life” because of the value of their creamy white flowers and olive-sized fruits as food and medicine – to gnarled ghost trees whose silvery-white trunks would grace Arthur Rackham illustrations. (Less romantically, they produce a gum resin used as a denture adhesive.)

At Kanha and Pench I stayed in safari lodges on the edge of the parks. Some claim that Rudyard Kipling chose Pench as the setting for The Jungle Book. True or not, I could imagine Mowgli swinging from the leathery creepers of a banyan tree or swimming in the shallow river beneath my veranda. I was told that tigers sometimes sat outside my bungalow. The thought certainly focused my mind while taking an outdoor shower or sleeping in the machan – a rooftop platform swathed in mosquito nets. But it was magic to feel the jungle so close and hear its sounds. Lying in the soft darkness I vowed to read The Jungle Book again and perhaps even to give the magnificent Badi Maa her own part in the tale.

Diana Preston travelled to Pench and Kanha with Greaves Travel (www.greavesindia.co.uk), and stayed at Taj Safaris’ Banjaar Tola and Baghvan lodges at Kanha and Pench (www.tajsafaris.com). Be warned, during the monsoon from July to early October the parks are closed.