In Search of the Elusive Wild Tiger
On her most recent adventure in Central India’s Pench Tiger Reserve, the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’, travel writer Lauren Hill pursues her life long dream of finding wild tigers.
Our jeep moved slowly along the dusty track passing through forest that had become dry and golden in the long hot summer months. Monkeys sat in the shade of trees and scampered along the roadside, while spotted deer grazed peacefully. “Look – a spotted deer dancing in the road.” Our guide said, eagerly pointing to the track ahead. As we took another turn a royal blue peacock was stood waiting, preening its feathers proudly.
Pench Tiger Reserve in India’s central province Madya Pradesh, covers a vast 757 square kilometers, comprising of Western Chhindwara and Eastern Seoni, divided by the Pench River. I was originally drawn to this reserve by the knowledge that the jungle here had inspired Rudyard Kipling to write ‘The Jungle Book.’ Now this little piece of history conjures of romantic images of adventure in the minds of many travelers coming to the reserve.
Each day a local guide, my traveling companion and I set out in the jeep before sunrise in our search for the jungle’s predators. Despite a decline in recent years Pench is still very much alive with tigers and leopards. The land’s diverse range of forest, grassland and plain is rich in wildlife with the highest number of herbivores anywhere in India. At every turn we were faced by Indian bison, sambar, spotted deer, wild dogs, jackals and some of the 285 species of birds that can be seen in the park, including hornbill, Indian roller, grey-headed fishing eagle and vulture.
I had spent three glorious days on safari being spoilt by the nature, but regrettably still hadn’t realized my dream of seeing wild tigers. I was teased by the deer’s alarm calls and stories of other people’s sightings. I could see the black territorial scratches on trees, and hear about the tiger with her three cubs that had marked their territory in the area, but I yearned to see them for myself. It was starting to feel personal.
Each day we returned from safari late morning before the heat rose too high. Then, the middle of the day was spent languorously, sheltering from the midday heat in wicker chairs under whirring ceiling fans, sipping cups of piping hot ginger tea. Lunch would come when dish after dish was presented with spiced aromatic curries balanced by coconut cream, cumin infused rice, piping hot whole-wheat flat-breads, sumptuous dhal with crisp poppadoms, hot red lime pickle, cool creamy yogurt with chunks of sweet pineapple and whole green chilies. A myriad of color and flavor that tingled on the tongue: both fiery and cooling.
By the afternoon, as a warm breeze blew and the sun shone less fiercely, we would be ready for our next safari into the tiger reserve.
On my last afternoon at the reserve I still had the same feeling of anticipation that came with every safari that I took. Perhaps this was going to be my day to see the tigers.
In the forest there was a tension that I hadn’t felt before and the animals were sparser than any other day since I’d arrived. Only a short time passed before our guide motioned to the driver to pull over. “There must be a leopard nearby,” he muttered softly. Not far from the track was the carcass of a young spotted deer. “The deer was killed from behind and has been left for later.”
Intermittently sambar and spotted deer cried out from the surrounding forest warning the rest of the herd of the unwanted presence.
As we carried on moving a Blue Roller flew past in a flash of neon and a stag bounded across the dusty road ahead. Again, our jeep ground to a halt and slowly reversed on the sun-baked track. This time a tiger had left its paw-prints in the dust at the edge of the road and the now urgent alarm calls of sambar told us that this tiger was still nearby. So with the guide’s prediction of the tiger’s desire for water in the summer heat, we headed for the nearest waterhole.
Here we sat and waited. By now I was happy to wait and would stay there for as long as it took. “The tiger is sleeping now but there’s a good chance he’ll come down here to cool down,” whispered the guide.
As we waited, two stags fought on the slope up to forest and an innocent young deer splashed clumsily in the water, but all the other animals seemed tense and monkeys cowered into the shadows beneath the trees.
The peace was broken as our guide stood up excitedly with his binoculars pressed to his face. ‘Tiger Tiger,” he yelped, “look.” He thrust the binoculars towards me and pointed to the trees on the other side of the waterhole. A magnificent tiger emerged, slinking through the trees with an overwhelming presence, before slumping down listlessly into the cool muddy water, watching us across the waterhole with indifference. The forest at that moment was silent, absent of the animal calls and the usual chatter of monkeys. The rest of the waterhole was now deserted, only moments after it had been teeming with wildlife. All that remained was an unwitting peacock, sitting just feet away from the tiger, displaying its full tail of feathers.
There’s a quote by Rudyard Kipling that still seems relevant to this day. “There are four that are never content: that have never been filled since dew began – Jacala’s mouth, and the glut of the kite, and the hands of the ape, and the eyes of man.”
We watched the tiger until, satisfied, it strode off back between the trees. As we drove away from the waterhole I was struck by the forest’s effortless beauty. Dusk is an enchanting time on the reserve when the sun casts a soft light across the jungle.
We passed through the reserve’s gates for the final time and sped off on the open road, throwing up dust as we wove through the arid farmland. My adventure trip now felt complete, and we still had time to indulge in one last Indian feast.
From Changi airport I flew with Indigo airlines to Delhi. I then took an internal Indigo flight to Nagpur, the closest city to Pench. From here it is a 2.5 hour drive. It’s possible to take a bus or taxi but the many of the resorts offer an airport pickup service.
Places to stay:
There are resorts ranging from budget to luxury accommodation. A list of these can be found on the official website: www.pench.net
They also offer package tours.
Timing your visit:
The park is open from 1 October to 30 June. The summer is hot and dry, so the landscape becomes arid and tigers often come out in search of water. In winter the park is cooler and greener with vast areas filling up with water. At this time the tigers can often be seen walking along the roadside. Each season offers a different adventure experience.
Lauren is in constant pursuit of adventure, new knowledge and experience fueled by her passion for travel, photography, writing and the world we live in. She is originally from England and currently living in Singapore, while striving to travel as much as possible. This passion for travel has so far taken her through almost 30 countries, with time spent working, studying or volunteering in Cuba, Colombia, Costa Rica and Australia; and over two years of living, working and travelling within Japan. Visit Lauren’s website to find out more about her adventures abroad.