There are days when you head into the forest and you wonder why you bothered. The trees are there and they are as beautiful as ever, but not a bird stirs, not a monkey jumps, not a junglefowl crows and certainly not a tiger prowls. There are days like this when clients put on a brave face and tour leaders bear everyone’s lead-grey disappointment on their shoulders. Yes, there are days like this.
Today was nothing like that; nothing at all. It was astonishing.
Entering the forest we found fresh tracks of a leopard in the unmade road. A short distance further, there he was, padding nonchalantly ahead of us in the blithe cool of early morning. Our leopard, a male, stopped to scent-mark a tree and doing so turned the full stab of his gaze on us. He sprayed again and was lost in a dense stand of bamboo. Moments later he strolled through the long grass beyond and was seen no more. Magnificent.
The F9 female tiger at Katezari was not to be seen, though her family’s tracks were all over the road. In the dry hills above this wetland a chowsingha, a four-horned antelope, peered at us from the safety of the forest’s edge and, after a moment’s look, bounded away. Near here were very fresh tracks and fresh scat of the sloth bear, though the bear itself eluded us.
Abruptly one of our jeeps stopped in the road ahead of us. Here were three Asian wild dogs, flopped lazily in the road and at its edge. These gorgeous, lean animals are, quite unfairly, cast as the vicious red dogs of Kipling’s Jungle Book, the villains who murder Akela the wolf. In truth they are animals of incomparable grace and power who, through their intelligence and social bonds, hunt in packs and are as feared by herbivores as the tiger. Lying in the road and trotting through the grass beside it, waving their feathery tails, they looked far too friendly to be feared and we were thrilled to see them.
Reaching Pandherpauni what should we see but two of our familiar female tiger cubs, one in the road and another pottering through tall grass at its edge. Time and words fail but these peerless cats were a fitting end to our incomparable stay in a wonderful park.
This evening we are in Pench Tiger Reserve, which straddles the border of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in the Seoni Hills, quoted by Kipling as the home of Sher Khan. There were many more creatures in the forest this morning and many along our journey to Pench but all I can name now are those which are new. New for our tour: rhesus macaques along the roadside close to Pench. New for my yearlist: Indian grey hornbills planing through the forest edge on long wings as we arrived.
Tomorrow Pench. Another forest, another dynasty of tigers, and the promise of another adventure.
Panthera pardus fusca
Asian wild dog
Indian grey hornbill