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Kanha: A Jewel in the heart of India

One of the brightest and most dazzling jewels adorning the wild wonders of India, Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh takes your breath away. It happens without fail every time you visit it.

Lest you begin to laugh at my ostensibly tall claim, consider this: The first- and arguably the most exhaustive study till date-on a tiger's behavior was carried out by the noted American conservationist George Schaller in 1960. And what was the area he chose for his 11-month long research? It was Kanha.

Schaller's seminal work, titled The Deer and the Tiger, is a must read for anyone wishing to go deeper into the mysterious world of tigers. Recently, Raheja Productions (which produces wildlife films that are telecast on National Geographic channel and Doordarshan) spoke at length with George Schaller while he was in India. Schaller's enthusiasm for India has not diminished one bit, and Kanha is still precious to him.

For long, Madhya Pradesh has been called the tiger state of India. And it is at Kanha that their roar is heard most clearly. The tiger show of Kanha is what makes this national park truly unique. Though somewhat controversial, this method ensures that most, if not all, visitors to Kanha manage to spend a few minutes with the tiger inside the forest.

This is how the tiger show works: Early in the morning, a group of trained elephants spread out in a pre-decided patch of jungle. Armed with walkie-talkies, the mahouts move around with just one objective- to locate a tiger. And once they zero in on a tiger, the big cat is quickly surrounded by all the elephants. For the next few hours, the tiger cannot move away as it is effectively pinned down by the tuskers. In the meantime, tourists start assembling at Kanha's interpretation centre. Most seem to have just one question on their mind – Have the elephants managed to locate the tiger or not?

Of all the interpretation centres in India's national parks, the one at Kanha is the oldest and most exhaustive. But when a tiger is the priority of the day, how many of us would pay attention to anything else?

Now comes the breaking news. The tiger has been spotted and tracked down a kilometer from the interpretation centre. The tiger show is about to start. But before rushing to the spot, please make a payment at the forest counter. The rates are reasonable – Rs 250 per person, for two minutes of guaranteed tiger sighting. Tickets purchased, visitors start making a beeline to the place where the tiger show is taking place. From a safe distance, the tourists hop on to the trained elephant, which then takes them to the spot where the beleaguered tiger lies. They approach the big cat, click photographs, and come back happy.

You cannot spend more than two minutes with a tiger, because other tourists are waiting…Coming back to George Schaller, one of the most respected names in wildlife management internationally, he still carries fond memories of Kanha. As also of his path-breaking study on a tiger's behavior in this national park, conducted 52 years ago. Today Schaller holds a holistic view of nature, and believes that the tiger is the crucial link in the eco-system of India.

Among the many grasslands which dot Kanha National Park, the one which goes by the name of Bishanpura is perhaps the largest and most popular. So large that it would take you two hours just to drive around it. These grasslands, surrounded by stately sal forests, are the pride of Kanha. It is here that most of Kanha's wildlife can be viewed.

And then there is Bamni Dadar… The highest point of Kanha. The views from Bamni Dadar are simply unforgettable. It is a treat for the eyes any time of the year. Even a full day's stay at Bamni Dadar will not be enough to appreciate its beauty properly, and we could manage only a few hours. Once seen, Bamni Dadar is etched in the memory forever…

The Tiger may be the flagship resident of Kanha, but believe it or not, it's not the most crucial. The most important is the hard-ground barasingha, found only in a particular patch of Kanha and nowhere else in the world! Only a few hundred hard-ground barasinghas survive, all of these in Kanha, and utmost care is being taken to ensure that the breed is not wiped out. For over the past two decades, a team of dedicated forest officials count their hard-ground barasinghas daily.

Yes, daily, and maintain their records! The fact that a tiger population is normally counted only once a year, this level of attention given to the hard-ground barasingha surely takes away some shine from the coveted big cat!

Bison is another major draw of Kanha. Easygoing but tough as nails, they can be found aplenty in the grasslands and elevated areas of the park. Don't try to go too near a bison, more so if it's a loner. It can be a crafty animal and is known for sudden bursts of aggression….

Last year, Madhya Pradesh forest department initiated a unique and ambitious programme. It started relocating some bisons from Kanha to Bandhavgarh, another prominent national park in the state. Till about 15 years ago, bisons were found in large numbers in Bandhavgarh, but one day they disappeared suddenly from the park. Under the relocation programme, some 50 bisons have already been shifted from Kanha to Bandhavgarh. A team of experts from South Africa is assisting the state forest department with the project.

For over five decades now, Kanha has remained one of the best managed national parks in India. It is still one of my favorite destinations - but managing the business affairs often keeps me away from this jewel in Central India.

For more stories and films on wildlife which has run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel
and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.raheja.com

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