A burst of rain delayed our afternoon game drive into Kanha National Park. To make up for lost time, we peered with urgency into the dense tangle of sal and mahua trees. Jeeps rolled by with news of the big cat’s movements earlier in the day. Instead of rushing off in the same direction as everyone else, Raj Gurung, naturalist at Shergarh, stopped and strained his ears at every fork in the road. Suddenly, a sharp noise pierced the air. “Sambar alarm call,” he said, head swivelling to the thick swatch of forest on our right. Minutes later, a langur’s grunt emanated from the same direction. Seema was our park guide for the day, one of the six lady guides at Kanha’s Mukki Gate. Together, she and Raj forged a course towards the sounds.
In the wild, following a series of alarm calls is the most definitive map to tracking a predator. It is common for passing jeeps to exchange notes and hurtle behind each other in a rush to catch the big cat. But there is a far greater thrill in understanding the tiger’s movements through the clues the forest provides.
Animals have specific reactions to a threat, producing distinct sounds to alert other creatures. Trained naturalists can instinctively distinguish these signals from an animal’s regular call.
With Raj and Seema on high alert, we slowly circled the trail around the calls. Fresh from the monsoon, the forest was an impenetrable tangle. We had not seen the animals, though the langur’s guttural sounds continued. “There’s definitely a tiger in there,” Raj said.
From their position in the canopy, langurs are the eyes of the forest. Often, deer species trail them from the forest floor, foraging for leaves that the primates shake off the branches. The symbiotic relationship between the two species also results in a sort of joint alarm system for the forest. An efficient system that also resulted in my first ever tiger sighting.
After circling for an hour, we heard the sambar’s resounding cry inches from us. “Be quiet and keep your camera ready,” a confident Raj told us. In the warm afternoon, a chill crept down my spine and my skin erupted in gooseflesh. The forest was communicating with us. We were lucky to be in capable hands, interpreting these signs in the most fascinating way.
When we pulled up behind a handful of jeeps, I knew we were in the right place. Orange and black stripes emerged from the thicket. Head raised, an 18-month-old male cub sniffed the air around him for signs of his mother, Mahavir, or his three siblings. With one disdainful look at our enthralled faces, he plodded back into the forest. “He might emerge on the other side,” Raj said, as we looped around the path. He was right. To me, the young tiger looked almost fully-grown, all sinewy muscle and handsome features. Cubs usually become independent between at 20-24 months of age. This youngster was going to grow much larger.
We spent a good ten minutes watching him wind his way between the jeeps, surveying his home in the fading sun. It was nearly 6 p.m. and time to exit the park. Raj and Seema were firm that the show was over. We were, after all, merely guests in the tiger’s realm. There will always be sights unseen and new paths to discover in the expansive forest. As responsible visitors, however, it’s important that we respect the rules, and leave the forest to its devices as dusk settles.
As we left, the cub softly padded into the grasslands. Long after we exited the park, I replayed the forest’s sounds in my mind. The thrill of spotting a tiger is unmatched, but it was the intimate and engaging way in which we did it that made the experience unforgettable.
- Wear neutral coloured clothing while on safari to blend into the jungle.
- Do not use flash photography; it is disturbing to the animals.
- Always respect your guide’s instructions—they know the forest like no one else.
- Avoid talking in loud tones or using your phone; you will only scare away animals in the vicinity.
Getting there: The closest airports to Kanha National Park are at Jabalpur (180 km/4 hrs) and Nagpur (260 km/5.5 hrs). The closest railhead is at Gondia Junction (120km/3 hours).
Safaris in Kanha
Although most visitors choose to book safaris through their lodge, it is possible to book independently.
Open: Oct 1 – Jun 30
Hours: The park administration runs twice daily open-top jeep safaris from 6 a.m. to 11a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.; park is closed on Wednesday afternoon.
Booking: Book permits online at forest.mponline.gov.in/.
Entry: Permits per jeep cost ₹1,550 for the core zones (Kanha, Kisli, Mukki, Sarhi)
and ₹1,250 for the buffer zones. Each jeep seats six. Vehicle and guide charges are extra and payable at the gate, shared by all occupants of the jeep. Carry government-approved photo ID.
Address: Kanha Tiger Reserve, Village Bahmni, Post Kareli, Tehsil Baihar, District Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh 481111
Open: Oct 15-May 15 only.
Tel: +91 9098187346)
Tariff: Luxury tented doubles cost ₹15,000 per night, including meals, plus taxes. Shared jeep safaris cost ₹5,800 per couple and ₹4,200 for a single person.