Pench, Madhya Pradesh
The most striking thing that gets you as you enter Pench is the sheer number of spotted deer that live amongst the undulating landscape. From the main entrance at Turia gate small herds graze the red roads’ cut verges, move adroitly amongst the dappled shade of a forest reborn just fifty years ago after wholesale clear-cutting.
Drive along its winding roads to its numerous waterholes, the banks of the Pench river - from where it gets its name - the boulder strewn hillocks that provide perfect denning for big cats or the meadows and lakeshores of the Totaladoh reservoir on its southern boundary, your journey is never without nature’s infinite suspense.
It was only as recently as 1998 that scientists debated the implausibility of such prey rich habitat failing to sustain a large tiger population that everyone finally woke up to the park’s natural beauty and astounding wildlife, and some of Madhya Pradesh’s best woodland, raptor and wildfowl spotting. The growth of nature viewing put Pench onto the politicians map too and the result is huge rise in the density of tigers in the park, with better protection and resources over the last decade, alongside cutting edge research from the Wildlife Institute of India, and award winning BBC documentaries about its precious cats.
With spotted deer topping 25,000, it’s the highest density of these creatures in India today. But it’s not the only food for the expanding carnivore population including the striped cat, but also the leopard, wild dogs and hyena. Mighty sambar deer, huge wild gaur, and tiny barking deer live here too, with the speedy chinkhara and four horned antelopes making up the big cat’s menu.
The park is split by both a river running north south and a State boundary cutting it in two, west to east, with Madhya Pradesh in the north and Maharashtra in the south. With better road and easier access in the Madhya Pradesh northern half of the park including the areas of Pench National Park and Mowgli Sanctuary, it is easier to follow these tigers, so our efforts have concentrated here at this time.
Tiger densities have increased significantly over the last decade, with better protection and good management. Most recently a separate range of Rukhad has been added to the visitor area with further potential to hold tigers.
Pench is situated in the southern reaches of the Satpura hills, on part of what is known as the Satpura Maikal belt. It’s part of the catchment area for the Pench river itself. Here in the districts of Seoni and Chinwara lies the ideal habitat and soil for its best known tree species, the much sought after hardwood, the famous teak tree. The result was its almost wholesale destruction in the latter parts of the 19th century to furnish the sleepers of the railway boom. Today, alongside a host of other mixed forest and deciduous species including Saja (Teminalia Alata), Tendu (Diospyros Melanoxylon) Salai (Boswellia Serrata) and Mahua (Madhuca Latiflora) together with the white barked Kullu, or Indian Ghost tree that cling to the rocks and shine in the moonlight, the forest itself is little more than fifty year old, and the result of unplanned and natural regrowth. Where water is abundant old and evergreen Arjuna and Jamun trees cling to the riverbanks and around the few springs and natural waterholes.
However its undulating tree covered hills, ravines and boulders strewn ridges, provide a scenic and refreshing backdrop to the park, and tree cover surrounds the many rich grassy meadows, once the agricultural fields of villagers moved in the last twenty years, like Alikatta and Chedia. Old forest roads meander around these areas, once used to haul out the precious wood.
The man made reservoir, was laid down to supply irrigation to the surrounding area in the 1960’s and now creates a westernmost boundary. Its seasonal highs and low, both flooding and ebbing along its shoreline create fresh grasses for ground birds, waterfowl, waders, raptors and the herds of spotted deer that graze along its edges during the hot summer months. Also the Pench river which bisects the park, helps to nourish the region, with perennials streams and a few small springs. Artificial waterholes have been used to extend its capacity to harbour large carnivores and their prey.
Being one of India’s top habitats for herbivores it’s not surprising that it is also very good for predators too. It harbours within its wildness, both the dense population of the largest felines in the world, but also the smallest, the rusty spotted cat - itself the size of a very small domestic cat – and many other cats and carnivores in between. Observations over the last decade have revealed tigresses bring up whole families of five cubs to adulthood, a great testament both to the tigress herself – but also the prime nature of the habitat and the protection now afforded these tigers by the Forest Department.
Hunting wild dog are seen quite commonly, in packs of up to 15. Striped hyena leave their traces behind every carcass, while leopard also breed well in the park and around its peripheries, together with the elusive Indian wolf. Sloth bear leave their scratch mark too, living and denning in the rocky hills, while jungle cat, jackals and the common palm civet make up the remaining carnivores.
With huge herds of spotted deer, congregating during the monsoon rains, by the dry summers they have split into small herds overseen by strutting male stags. The bark of rutting stags is a common sound in these jungles from winter onwards. Sambar deer are numerous in the forested areas, with wild Gaur migrating between the hills and the lower lands depending on the season and water availability. The continent largest antelope, the nilgai, are common too, together with small four-horned and chinkara antelope, and the barking deer making up the key ungulates of the region. Wild pig sounders abound throughout the park, providing the ploughing necessary for forest regrowth.
Large troops of common langur and rhesus macaques represent the primates in the area and both porcupines and black-naped hare come out at night.
Pench is a good birding destination with over 260, particularly for central indian woodland species, and waterbirds predominating and nesting in the old waterlogged tress of the reservoir. Many are permanent residents but many also winter migrants. Nesting in the reservoir one can see Painted, Open billed and white necked storks, and raptors include serpent eagles, crested-hawk eagles, honey buzzards and fishing eagles. Few waders exists but waterfowl include lesser whistling teal, pintails and brahminy ducks, together with darters, cormorants and white and black ibis.
In the woodlands look out for the paradise flycatcher, with its gorgeous tail, the noisy pied hornbill and brown and coppersmith barbets, orioles, a host of woodpeckers, jungle babblers, fly catchers and the ubiquitous treepie. On the ground red spurfowl, red jungle fowl, quails and sandgrouse prevail, alongside peacocks.
Nature lovers are assured of a privileged insight to India’s extraordinary wildlife here in Pench.
Pench was only established as a fully-fledged Tiger reserve in 1992, but its history and status as a wildlife sanctuary go back long before then. The richness of its wildlife was first mentioned in the 16th century Ain-i-Akbari, a chronicle and gazette of Emperor Akbar’s empire. Here large Gond tribal communities, under Gond and Marati kings, carried on their hunter gatherer lifestyles.
In the 1860’s a British army officer and conservator of forest, recounted the wildlife of the area in his classic book, the ‘Highlands of Central India’, and helped initiate some protection of tracts of forests he hated to see being decimated by the demand for timber. He also noticed the change in climate the wanton destruction of forests was having on the whole region.
Later it was always claimed to be the setting for the famous ‘Jungle book’ of Rudyard Kipling, with one of its sanctuaries named Mowgli after the book, but this claim is fairly tenuous.
Unlike many other parks - once great estates of powerful maharaja’s within which great forts and temples lie - Pench was better known as a good hunting block at the time of the Raj, and a Forest Rest house was situated in its midst in the late 19th century for this purpose. Slowly its wildlife diminished with overhunting and extraction pressures, as well as clear cutting of its rich timbers. During the Second World War it was often used as an area to practice long range artillery firing.
However, with relatively low human population in its midst, its herbivore numbers remained, and it was in 1977 that it first gained some protection status as a wildlife sanctuary, then made a National park in 1983 before gaining its present Tiger Reserve status in 1992.
Research has been going on since the 1990’s and its renown was sealed with the screening of the BBC’s ‘Spy in the Jungle’ series, which focused on a tigress mother and her four cubs within the park, using ‘trunk cams’ and ‘rock cams’ to shoot the daily drama.
Todays it attracts visitors from around the world but also from big cities like Nagpur, only two hours drive away.
* Fine central India woodland stuffed full of herbivores and birdsong
* Big herds of spotted deer congregating in the meadows and lake shorelines
* The wild gaur herds that live in the densely forested hill tracts
* The range of waterbirds and raptors that live on the reservoir and lake shoreline.
* Ability to walk in buffer zones surrounding the park
Sighted tigers in reserve learn more
Help us find these tigers learn more
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