Call of the wild

Magical Emerald forest

Call of the wild

Dense emerald forests in Panna National Park are home to some of the most endearing species of flora and fauna. Exploring the banks of Ken river, Nilanjan Coomar is transported home to the beginning of life on earth

No matter how long we may have been gone for and how far we may have travelled, there is always a bit of our first home that remains in us forever. It gets into our blood, like a virulent bit of memory — never truly forgotten, but just in remission. Such is the pull of our first home — and when you visit Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh, you will realise that this is as true for beasts as for men. Panna is a place of many stories, but the most amazing of those stories is about how a tiger has finally come home.

This doesn’t begin on a happy note, though. Panna, once a crown-jewel in MP’s tiger reserves, had gone the way of Sariska in Rajasthan, and by 2009 had lost all its tigers to poaching, official apathy and even criminal collusion. A couple of female tigers were brought in from Kanha and Bandhavgarh, but by that time the last male tiger had also disappeared. A male tiger was then re-located from Pench Tiger Reserve, 400 km away. He was christened T3, and a lot of hopes were pinned on him, and it would seem that there would once again be a new beginning at Panna as he settled in.

Stories around a fire

Of course, the script didn’t play out as expected. T3 wasn’t going to play by the rules. He was going to try and go back home. It was 400 km away, but he had decided that he would walk back, no matter how far. In a landscape hemmed in by man from all sides, with fields and villages and trucks and buses and highways, and with so many out to get him with traps and poisoning and electrocution, he could only move at night, under the cover of the dark.

But it didn’t matter. If that was how he would have to move, then that was how he would make it, unseen and noiseless. Scientists would call it the ‘homing instinct’; but he was just a tiger and the pull of home was tugging at him, the smell of it strong enough to make him try with just the night on his side, for the daylight was his enemy.

There was one thing, however, that T3 couldn’t have known. It didn’t know about a certain R S Murthy, the director of the park, who was a man possessed by a mission. His dream was to see the tigers bouncing back in Panna, and this relocation was his grand experiment and there was nothing he wouldn’t do to make it happen. 

So began one of the greatest tiger-hunts in the annals of tiger conservation in India. Elephants, jeeps, forest guards were pressed into service. For 50 days and nights, the park director and 70 of his men, tracked and followed the tiger, shadowing his every movement. In the bitter cold, the men stayed on the tail of the beast night and day, every hour, every minute, camping on the river bank, combing every blade of grass in the jungle, making sure that the tiger didn’t come to harm or harm anyone else. A huge length of white cloth stretching into miles was put up with the staff desperate not to allow the tiger to cross the river and leave the forest.

Prey animals were also released in the buffer area. Finally, they got to successfully tranquilise him on the night of Christmas, 2009, in the neighbouring Tejgarh forests. Mr T3 was brought back to Panna all right, but from all his wanderings one thing was clear — there had to be something to entice him and keep him in Panna. And then the forest department had a brainwave! Female tiger urine was painstakingly collected from a zoo in Bhopal and brought all the way to Panna. It was sprayed all over the area to keep T3 interested in his new surroundings. And it worked! Shortly after, T3 met a resident female of the park and decided that there was reason enough to like his new home after all!

It is this and other stories of the jungle that swirl about you in the voices of the men around the campfire at night, and you sit and listen, and the old wood scrunches in the flames, and you can sense a feeling of homecoming and worship as well. In the morning, the river is a joy to behold. The snipes and the sandpipers are poking around the banks for breakfast; the cormorants are busy with their communal dip before taking off in a smooth, shimmering formation towards the skies in the west.

The storks come in a little later and stand almost frozen, their eyes intent and watchful, as if mesmerised by their own reflections in the water. A small canoe brings us right up close and personal with a few more denizens: a mugger crocodile that sunbathes with a toothy grin oblivious to our presence barely 10 feet from it, and a Eurasian eagle owl that is not so oblivious, and whose eyes widen not so much from the sunlight as from the surprise at seeing our motley group that cannot hide its delight and keep off its cameras. 

At Panna, you will not want the time that you have on the Ken river to come to an end. It’s not just the beauty that makes you want to linger; it’s how the river stills the passing of the moment and how you are humbled by the simple serenity of it all. Of course, the park itself is a visual delight. Its landscape is a breathtaking mosaic of scrublands and rock caves and teak forests, interspersed with plunging gorges, savannah grasslands and spectacular waterfalls like the Raneh and Pandav.

We make it to Dhunduwa, one of the many deep ravines for which Panna is famous, only on the last day. It’s a magical place, with mysterious, jagged rock faces that dive deep into the dense canopy of the forest below. High up in the thermals above we see the endangered white-backed vulture. And then, thrillingly, in the dark shade in a small nook in the rocks, a Peregrine Falcon — the bird that is the fastest in the world — waiting, most likely for a mistake from its prey. 

The final surprise

The jungle surprises and often keeps the best for last. The evening before we had come across a leopard in the bush, and even though it was just a silhouette, it had whetted our appetite for more. So in the morning our jeep stays near the riverbank where the big cats are known to lurk. We are training our eyes on a pair of pied kingfishers and a grey-headed fish eagle putting on display an avian master class of dive-fishing, when our guide draws our attention to a magnificent sambhar stag with huge antlers to the right of the road in front of us.

 But as we watch them, we can sense a wariness — tails are upturned, ears are flapped and cocked at every angle, legs are stomped, and the eyes bore through the bushes at an unseen enemy. And then suddenly, there is a squeak of surprise from our guide — he points ahead and says, “Tiger”, and the jeep rushes down the road and there it is! It’s not just a tiger, but T3 himself, the King of all Panna, and he crosses the road into the bamboo thicket as we rush up to catch a glimpse of him.

He notices the commotion and for a moment he deigns to pause and look back at us piercingly through the bamboo. We are held in awe of its majesty for a long, long moment and then, before we can recover from the heart-stopping thrill of it all, he’s gone like a ghost and fades into the bush.

In the end though, the emerald forest is precious and unforgettable because it is home. It is home not only to the tiger and the leopard and all the birds and all the flora and fauna that live there every day of their lives, but the forest is home to us as well. Because, part of it always stays with you like a memory that you will never forget. And in a sense, it is home not only as just a bit of memory, but because in mother Nature and what it teaches us, lies our first and most important lessons of humility and interconnectedness.

 When we head back to the forest we are more than just going back to our first home; we are going back to our first cradle. This is the pull of a place like Panna. To stay human, we must protect and conserve such places with all that we’ve got, and its tug at our heartstrings must be yielded to.

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