Kanha National Park

Famous as a place to see tigers, Kanha was established to save unique water-dwelling swamp deer or barasingha, slaughtered to the edge of extinction for their long, curving antlers. This graceful large deer, found nowhere else, with a downless coat that sheds water and splayed hooves that find easy support on mucky lake bottoms, was reduced from thousands to 66 individuals in the 1960s. Now a stable population of several hundred graze Kanha’s meadows, an Indian conservation success story.

Kanha, one of the first reserves designated under Project Tiger, was the beautiful setting for Kipling’s “Jungle Boy” and today is a world of interdependent creatures not too different from those Mowgli found in Kipling’s tale. Its 750 square miles (1,945 km2) combine with meadowlike grasslands crossed with rivers and streams, surrounded by the wooded Maikal Hills in a natural amphitheater reminiscent of Africa’s Ngorongoro Crater, abutting large forest reserves on the north, west, and south, to protect many of India’s most impressive animal and plant species.

Huge gaur or Indian bison weighing a ton or more (1,000+ kg)—world’s largest wild cattle— add to the theatrical effect of this great grassland bowl, along with thousands of other grazers: sambar, largest Indian deer; chousingha, world’s only four-horned antelope; horselike nilgai or blue bulls (males drop to their knees when fighting, usually avoiding fatal damage); handsome chitals; rare blackbucks with magnificent twisted horns (also a target for trophy collectors); and occasional muntjac or barking deer.

All these are especially vulnerable to an array of predators when calves are born, a tempting meal for leopards, jackals, wild dogs or dhole (also known here as sonha kutta) as well as tigers. Langur monkeys alert all in earshot at approach of predators. Chital and wild boar follow the langurs, gobbling up pieces of fruit and leaves dropped in their untidy treetop foraging.

Shaggy sloth bears, usually unthreatening, are touchier when they have cubs on their backs.

Marsh harriers swoop to flush quails or small rodents in the waving grass, among some 300 avian species. Formidable crested serpent eagles and honey buzzards, black-winged kites, shikra, laggar and black shaheen falcons go for snakes and small mammals and even birds.

Peacocks are everywhere in gorgeous courtship display. Jungle fowl, handsome ancestors of barnyard roosters, proclaim the dawn. Multicolored Indian rollers pursue airborne insects and use aerial skill in hair-raising loop-the-loops to impress prospective mates. Racket-tailed drongos cement woodland nests with cobwebs and drive off intruders with such pugnacity they attract gentler birds as companion nesters in a neighborhood protection group.

Red and yellow-wattled lapwings are a bright presence, with green bee-eaters, black-headed and golden orioles, painted partridges, green pigeons and, around waterways, black ibis, whitenecked and lesser adjutant storks, white-breasted and pied kingfishers, and hundreds of herons and egrets. White-backed and scavenger vultures take their turn at luckless corpses. Barn owls, brown fish owls, and nightjars enliven the night.

Best way to see tigers is from the back of an elephant. Both these impressive animals carry such authority that neither seems to alarm the other—but there is no guarantee of seeing tigers, even here. These rare, beautiful cats whose skins, bones, and body parts can bring poachers $10,000 U.S. in oriental markets have learned to be wary. Still, it is worth the effort. No wildlife experience surpasses the increasingly rare sight of a magnificent wild Bengal tiger in its native habitat, especially seen during a forest exploration on the back of a powerful, intelligent elephant.

Best times are March and April. The park is closed during July–October monsoons, and December–January can have severe frosts.

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