To protect its wildlife heritage, India has established 96 national parks which attract visitors from all over the world. This represents one of the largest bases of biodiversity with a range and variety that is unparalleled.
These national parks contain more than 500 species of mammals and over 2,000 species of birds, several of which are unique to the Indian subcontinent. Of interest is that much of the flora and fauna of India has entered into the pantheon of the Hindu gods.
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Today, national parks encompass more than one percent of India’s total surface area.
Prior to independence in 1947, India did not protect its wildlife.
By 1970, there were only five national parks, and many species became endangered.
Tigers, the symbolic mascot in India were killed so frequently that by
1970, only 1300 remained. In 1972, the Indian government passed the
Wildlife Protection Act, which preserves natural parks and sanctuaries
and provides for the protection of wildlife, particularly endangered
A year later, the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi launched
“Project Tiger,” in which the killing of tigers was banned and 10
reserves were established aimed at protecting tigers and their
This conservation legislation has heralded the recovery of the tiger.
Today a total of 27 reserves take part in this project. A recent
encouraging report from the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests
estimated that the number of tigers in the wild is 1706 compared with
1411 in 2006.
Recently, we visited Kanha and Pench National Parks, both of which are
situated in Madhaya Pradesh, one of the largest states in central India.
This area was famed as a hunter’s paradise and was immortalized by
Rudyard Kipling whose epic Jungle Book was set in this vicinity.
Both of these parks rank as two of India’s finest wild life sanctuaries.
Kanha was declared a national park in 1955, is one of India’s largest
and covers an area of almost 20,000 sq. km, although only 300 sq. km are
open to tourism. The Banjaar River forms Kanha’s south-west border and
provides a steady water source for the abundant wildlife.
Pench National Park is located about 200 km from Kanha. It is
considerably smaller (1,400 sq. km) and tourism is restricted to 150 sq.
km) It was declared a national park in 1983 and takes its name from the
meandering Pench River which intersects the park.
Both parks are Project Tiger reserves and support a rich variety of
wildlife. Guides from the Indian Forest Service accompany visitors on
mapped out circuits. There are two viewing sessions, one in the early
morning and a second in the late afternoon.
The parks are closed during the hottest part of the day. There are
strict entry criteria and only 150 vehicles are admitted to Kanha Park
each day. Similar restrictions apply to Pench.
The vegetation in the thick jungle of these parks is very rich. The
commonest tree is the sal. The name is derived from the Sanskrit
language. The sal is worshiped by both Buddhists and Hindus. Legend has
it that the Buddha was born and died under this tree. The sal may reach a
height of over 24 meters, has a straight trunk that usually branches at
about two thirds of its height.
These trees are spaced at short intervals making the forest very dense.
Unlike other trees, the sal never loses its leaves completely even during the dry seasons.
Another notable tree is the ghost tree which has a distinctive gnarled
shape with a white to greenish grey trunk giving it its ghostly
The hard wood from the tree is used to make window frames, toys and
musical instruments, while the white gum resin produced by the trees is
harvested for use as adhesives and in cosmetics.
Lush sal and bamboo forests are interspersed with vast grassy meadows which support more than 22 species of mammals.
This includes a large population of monkeys, various deer and antelope,
gaur, as well as predators such as tiger, leopard, jackal, fox and wild
dogs and cats. There are also some 300 species of birds.
GAME VIEWING in India is not as prolific as in Africa. This is related to several factors.
In the first place, animal density in India is significantly lower than in Africa.
The sal forests and dense jungle growth provide excellent camouflage and this does not allow for easy viewing of the animals.
Tourists are compelled to drive on well marked tracks in contrast to
many parks in Africa where jeeps drive off the beaten track to follow
the game. Finally, in India, cell-phones and other communication devices
are strictly prohibited in the National parks. This makes it impossible
to notify other vehicles of an interesting sighting.
The Langur monkey is probably the commonest animal seen. They are sacred
in India and are worshiped as the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman. They have a
silver grey coloring with a black face and possess long tails and
limbs. These active inquisitive monkeys occur in virtually all habitats
and are always on the move.
Leaves, fruit buds and flowers are their main food and they spend much
time in trees, but frequently come down to the ground to socialize and
play. Troops of 20 to 30 are led by dominant males. They have a close
association with spotted deer providing them with fallen leaves.
Deer are the commonest herbivores.
Males are distinguished by solid branched bony antlers which are shed annually.
Antlers are made up of a honeycombed bone-like tissue. These antlers are
amongst the most rapid growing tissues in the animal world. Within one
to two months of their shedding, new ones spring up. While in the growth
phase, the antlers are covered in “velvet,” a layer of skin with a
network of capillaries that supplies the budding antlers with the
nutrients needed to build the bone mass.
After 2-4 months, when the velvet is no longer needed, a ring forms at
the bottom of the antler shaft and cuts off the blood supply. The velvet
then withers and begins to fall off, a process that is facilitated when
the deer rubs his antlers against trees. The cycle is repeated
Antlers are one of the most exaggerated examples of male secondary
sexual traits in the animal kingdom. They function as weapons in combats
between males and as a sign of dominance for sexual displays. In
contrast to the deer species, antelopes do not shed their antlers
The spotted deer (known as the chital) is the most ubiquitous of this
family. Possessing three-lined antlers, they occur in herds of 10-30 and
males battle one another for breeding access to females. They favour
meadows and forest clearings. The largest deer in India is the Sambar,
which has a dark brown coat. The male members of this species have
antlers that can grow to a length of 90 cm. These animals have a life
expectancy ranging between 16-20 years and are the favorite prey species
of the tiger.
Another interesting deer species is the Swamp Deer or Hard Ground Barasingha.
An adult male swamp deer has huge antlers, which branch to over twelve
points. The name Barasingha in Hindi means the 12-antlered deer.
Their staple diet consists mainly of grass and leaves. Kanha National
Park has been instrumental in rescuing the Swamp Deer from extinction
and their conservation effort represents one of the major success
stories in Indian wildlife.
The gaur is the largest bovine in the world and is commonly seen in
these parks. Also known as the Indian bison, it has a massive head and
It resembles a water buffalo from the front and a domestic cow from the
back; the lower part of the legs is pure white or tan. These are the
heaviest and most powerful of all wild cattle and only elephants, rhinos
and hippos consistently grow larger.
The weight of a male gaur may equal or even surpass that of a giraffe.
One of the most spectacular of all birds is the peacock, which is also
sacred in Hindu mythology as the vehicle of the son of Lord Shiva and
his consort Parvati. They are seen in groups of three to five hens and
an adult cock.
These magnificent birds are shy and spend the heat of the day in the
shade, emerging to drink at dusk. Peacocks utilize their impressive
plumes to attract females in a fanning courtship ritual known as the
“peacock mating dance.”
The Asian elephant has played a major role in Indian history, tradition and culture.
It is revered by Hindus, as Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati. There are
few temples without sculptures or murals of Ganesha and many even have a
For over 3,000 years they served humans as working animals. With the
advent of machinery and the tractor, the need for elephants has been
greatly reduced. Today, within the parks, they play a major role in
tiger viewing. Trackers establish the whereabouts of tigers and once the
site is located, radio contact is made and small jeeps arrive with
their passengers. Guests have the opportunity to board an elephant and
approach the tiger while seated on the elephant’s back.
Of all the animals in the wild, the most majestic as well as the most
elusive is the Bengal tiger. India is home to roughly half the world’s
population of wild tigers. The ancient Romans imported tigers from India
for gladiatorial contests.
Tigers have been hunted for centuries but it is only since the advent of
the rifle that their number dropped drastically. Tiger hunting was the
favorite pastime of army officers in the British Raj.
However, Indian maharajas also took their toll and there are reports of
some who hunted and killed over 1000 tigers in their lifetime. Two new
factors have contributed to the fact that the tiger population had been
reduced to the brink of extinction.
The first involves the felling of forests to clear land for agriculture
and timber. By 1980 only 14% of India’s forests were still standing. The
second are the poachers whose nefarious activity has contributed much
to the demise of the tiger.
The tiger is the largest member of the cat family and unlike the lion,
it is a solitary hunter. Males and females occupy distinct but
overlapping well defined territories.
Cubs are raised exclusively by the mother and they remain with her until
they are 18 months of age, after which they are forced to leave as she
prepares to raise a new litter.
Tigers are well camouflaged and extremely difficult to detect. Shere
Khan, the tiger featured so prominently in Kipling’s Jungle Book, proved
to be rather difficult to find in reality. This is really not so
There are only some 70 tigers in Kanha and 30 in Pench. Considering the
vast size of these parks and the fact that most of the terrain is closed
off to vehicles, it is a wonder that any are seen at all.
Due to the vigilance of our tracker and guide, Veerjeet, we did manage
to get two sightings. Trackers can get a lead of a tiger’s whereabouts
from their footprints on the roadside. When the tiger is on the prowl,
the quiet of the jungle is abruptly interrupted by piercing alarm calls.
Spotted deer give a sharp ack–ack, the Langur monkey emit a coughing
sound and gaurs snort and sneeze. These intense sounds disturb the
tranquillity of the jungle and are the most important signal for the
rangers. Jeeps rapidly converge on the scene of the alarm call and at a
potential sighting, there is a veritable jungle “traffic jam.”
During our visit to the parks, we stayed in jungle safari lodges owned by the travel company &Beyond.
Accommodation represents the last word in luxury. Together with Taj
Safaris, they operate a total of four lodges in Pench and Kanha National
Parks as well as in Bandhavgarh and Panna National Parks.
In these parks, &Beyond has specially trained naturalists who
accompany guests on jungle drives, pointing out and explaining details
about the fascinating animals and plants. They are conducted in
specially designed open safari vehicles.
Baghvan Pench Jungle lodge comprises 12 charming fully equipped
cottages. Stairs lead up to a beautiful rooftop platform where an open
wooden deck overlooks the sights and sounds of the Indian jungle.
Baghvan has been listed in “101 Best Hotels in the World” by the Tatler
Magazine and among the top five hotels in India in Conde Traveller’s Hot
At the Kanha National Park we were accommodated in the most recently
completed luxury camp called Bajaar Tola. The name derives from the
Banjaar River and “Tola” means cluster of houses in the local language.
Banjaar Tola provides stunning river views from the privacy of a private
veranda facing the Banjaar River. It comprises two camps, each
consisting of nine elegant tented suites, which feature bamboo floors,
canvas roof and walls and glass doors opening onto the veranda
overlooking the river. Each camp boasts its own spacious open air dining
All told, this trip represented an unforgettable and unique opportunity to experience Indian wildlife first hand.Irving Spitz, Emeritus Professor of
Medicine, is an avid traveler and photographer. He writes, reviews and
lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel. Additional
articles and reviews can be seen at www.irvingspitz.com and pictures
from this as well as other trips on www.pbase.com/irvspitz Illustrations