Kabini safeguards not just flagship species like tigers and elephants, but also 350 others, including 270 types of birds. PHOTO BY PRUTHVI B
Even at 7 am, the thick blanket of fog masking the lush green banks of the Tiger Tank in the Kabini Forest Reserve was refusing to lift. The mild breeze made no difference to the white vapour, but sent a chill down the spine. Sitting in the front seat of a safari jeep with chattering teeth, my curious eyes looked out for slightest of movements on the other side of the lake bank.
I was at one of the famous water sources of the Kabini safari zone - Tiger Tank - in Nagarahole National Park (also known as Rajiv Gandhi National Park), known for the sighting of striped and spotted big cats. In summer, Bengal tigers, Indian leopards and herds of elephants come to this waterbody to quench their thirst.
However, I was there for someone else - my 'childhood hero' Bagheera who took on the mighty Shere Khan in the captivating lines of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Visiting the backwaters of Kabini had become almost irresistible, especially after watching the monsoon videos of black panther (melanistic leopard) on YouTube. Even on screen, watching the big black cat walking towards you with a majestic stride and staring with its emerald green eyes and tail up, gave a rip-roaring feel. The videos shot in the year 2017 showed an elusive black panther mating with multiple female leopards, and its hunting capabilities.
Tourists, who had visited the park the previous evening, had sighted it resting on a tree, far from the safari tracks. This made me hopeful that my hero would not disappoint me and would turn up to say 'hello'.
Even my friend Mysore Pruthvi, who had over the years captured various moods of black panther, tigers and other animals in Kabini, said that the black cat had become more 'brave' since the last season and had been crossing the safari tracks without being too shy. We waited at the Tiger Tank for almost 15 minutes. But there was no show.
The sun began burning brighter, unveiling the serene beauty of the Western Ghats. For the next one hour, we combed the forest on uneven muddy trails whose width was restricted by tall trees and weeds. Yet, I was not lucky enough to sight any one of the 120 tigers and the 100 plus leopards that roam freely in the thick woods of the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve.
However, the paradise of wilderness has something for each enthusiast. I enjoyed watching a pack of wild dogs (Indian dhole) readying themselves for a hunt, a herd of Indian gaurs escorting a new born to safety, an adolescent female elephant running in search of her herd, and at some distance, four to five elephants emptying the forest grass. Not to forget, I also got a sight of a herd of spotted deer.
Let aside the sighting of big cats, for an urbanite like me, the jaded soul was rejuvenated, my lungs got a chance to breathe fresh oxygen and my body hit the refresh button. This itself made my visit unforgettable. As Jungle Lodges naturalist Prasanna said, Kabini happens to be one of the best places for watching wild animals up-close in their natural habitat. River Kabini (the place is named after the river) takes birth in the Wayanad district of Kerala and flows through these woods before joining River Cauvery. In its womb, Kabini safeguards not just flagship species like tigers and elephants, but also 350 others, including 270 types of birds.
The greater chance of encountering animals has made this protected forest a paradise for wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts. Every year, thousands of tourists make their way into the wilderness to spot animals, especially the carnivorous, and majority of times, they don't return disappointed. The chances of sighting 'temple road male leopard', 'tiger tank female tiger' (and if you are lucky, its three cubs) and black panther are high. The luxuriant forest and bamboo thickets make it a perfect place for elephants, which number in hundreds.
Kabini, as part of Nagarahole, was a hunting ground for the kings of Princely Mysore and British officials. Then, the shallow waters of Kabini used to be the taming ground of wild elephants. Even today, we can see teak wood poles, which were used to tame the elephants, erected in the middle of the river.
It was in 1955 that Nagarahole was declared as a wildlife sanctuary and in 1988, it was elevated as a national park. In 1999, the 643.39 sq km of Nagarahole forest was recognised as a tiger reserve, thus boosting conservation efforts in the region. However, wildlife photographers, who have seen the green cover wane over the years, feel that we have lost a portion of paradise here.
This used to be such a thick jungle that rain drops never fell on the ground directly. However, after the construction of a dam across the river in 1974, the green cover began to disappear gradually. What used to be surplus water flowing area, now finds it difficult to meet the water needs of the animals in summer. To cope with the situation, solar powered borewells have been installed at several waterholes inside the park.
Human-animal conflicts have increased as there are several villages near the comforts of the forest. There are also reports of several acres of land being encroached, forcing the animals to enter the farms.
The jury is still out to know whether Kabini is a paradise lost or regained, but for nature lovers, it is a place must visit.