Pench Tiger Reserve (Maharashtra) “Bountiful Forestscape”

By Dr. Varun Kapoor, IPS

Though the area is contiguous to the Pench Tiger Reserve (TR) of Madhya Pradesh, the feel and the experience one has in this landscape is entirely its own. Perched on top of a small hillock is the quaint little Forest Rest House euphemistically called TIGERTOP

Though tigermovement around this rest house is not reported – the name does give a thrill to the first-time visitor to this land of the greatest of all wild beings–The Royal Bengal Tiger. On one side of this small perched building is a deep gorge through which flows the Pench River. The other side overlooks the Totladoh Dam. So, the location is very unique and often herbivores like Spotted Deer and Wild Boars saunter across the gardens and courtyards attached to Tiger Top rest house.

In India, Miyawaki technique has been used at various places. This technique has been used by Forest Departments in different States in India. In Odisha, this technique has been tried on experimental basis in Malkangiri Forest Division in 2019. I would like to share the experience while trying this novel technique in Malkangiri.

Totladoh is a rather large reservoir located right in the middle of this Tiger Reserve and is used for generating 160 Mega Watts of electricity and was officially completed in the year 1989. A strange feature of this colossal structure is that though the area under submergence and the dam wall itself are all in Maharashtra–the dam is maintained by the MP Irrigation department and the electricity generation looked after by MP Electricity Department. Both these departments also have picturesque rest houses in this area and the Irrigation Colony housing the few officers who stay here is also bang in the middle of the Reserve-prime tiger territory.

My visits to this territory have been so memorable because each time I saw the King and that too in plenty! My first visit was when I came to the Sillari to deliver my cyber related training to the field staff of the tiger reserve. There is a small British time forest rest house which is not in a very good state of repair but was used by me for my afternoon siesta. It does have an observatory with an installed powerful electronic telescope to observe the night sky and constellations. Lunch at a rustic private resort just near the entry gate was sumptuous and tasty. Just as I finished the session and was about to move to the Tiger Top rest house, I was informed that tiger movement was seen just below the rest house. The sun was setting, and we got onto our vehicles and rushed to the spot where the Range Officer was waiting. In a depression to our left was where a couple of tigers were seen a few minutes before. Now they had vanished and try as we did,we never saw them again.

Disappointed at missing the great beast by a whisker, we made our way to the hilltop perch, little knowing that the night ahead was to be full of wonder.

After dinner, we set out into the jungles to see the wild animals out on their night prowl. The jungle seemed strangely empty. We were losing hope when the wireless set in our converted Tata Mobile crackled to life. An entire family was on the road towards Sillari. Excitement mounted as we once again made a beeline for that spot. When we reached, the family had moved off the road and up a small embankment. But the spotlights had pinpointed a large male tiger peering over the edge of the embankment and right in our direction. It was an awesome sight! The huge head framed in a bright white light, resting on his own gigantic paws and large yellow eyes staring right at us – the image will remain with me forever. I slept well that night having sighted the king in itslair

The next day again as we were driving away from the Tiger Top to Nagpur – the great predator again appeared. This time there were two of them and that too in the same depression where we had tried to glimpse them the evening before. Just as we were driving by, a forest worker stopped us and informed us that a tiger was moving in the depression, which was earlier used as a settlement site by the labourers who had built the Totladoh dam and had never left after its completion and had been removed with great difficulty out of the reserve afew years back but that too only.

After the local Court’s order! We once again waited patiently and lo and behold, after a long and hot ordeal – one sub adult tiger appeared and skipped into the adjoining bush. Then after another 20 minutes, a sub adult female appeared rather hesitatingly and dipped herself in a small pool of water that was present.

But she remained only for a few fleeting moments and then she too disappeared into the bush with her brother. Having had our fill of this tiger family, we moved on. Pench Maharashtra had revealed her great treasure to us and that too twice in quick succession. I was very happy and contented.

I once again got a chance to visit this enchanting land a year later. It was 2016 and I came here with my budding photographer and developing wildlife enthusiast son – Keshav. The entire evening and night as well as the following morning, we roamed this jungle and saw some good wild creatures – Cheetal, Sambhar, Wild Boar, Gaur and a number of birds of value, but not the animal our eyes ached to see – the Tiger. Having given up hope, we were almost back at the Tiger Top and at 9 AM in the morning, we saw a tourist Gypsy waiting on an incline. As we approached, the dynamic Range Forest Officer Atul (who was escorting us in the park) made enquiries from the Gypsy driver, we were told that a tigress and her cub were moving in the dry nullah bed directly below our position. Suddenly we saw her going down the incline and into the nullah bed.

Trailing the majestic feline was her 8-9 month old single cub. She paused for a while and the cub emerged from behind her and looked directly at us. The perfect picture – which I clicked then will be a memorable one for me for life! She then languidly moved up the opposite bank of the nullah with her cub and disappeared from view.

Another perfect tiger sighting and that too in Pench the land of Kipling. A lovely denizen of the Pench Maharashtra, which deserves a mention is the oft neglected and overlooked Jungle Fowl. There are two varieties here – The Red Jungle Fowl and the Grey Jungle Fowl. I have spotted both and found the male cock of the Red Jungle Fowl is particularly of exceptional size here. They are hyperactive and in their full plume and glory in the earlymornings. In one drive, I waited for ten minutes on a road bend as I could hear very loud shrieks and clucks of the male from the surrounding bushes.

It was surely a predator that had alarmed this active bird. It kept on screaming but nothing broke cover in front of us. We drove away after its calls died down. After an hour or so when we returned through this path, sure enough a huge male tiger’s fresh pugmarks were seen right down the middle of the road following us in the direction we had gone towards. The Red Jungle Fowl of these forests are indeed a treat to watch and observing their behavior is a great training experience in jungle lore.

Moving forward from this landscape will not be complete without two experiences that I had here. One is that the Tiger Top serves only pure vegetarian food. Some years back, consumption of alcoholic drinks and non-vegetarian food was banned in the forest rest houses of Maharashtra.

The food, though vegetarian, is of exceptional quality and taste. The taste of plain yellow dal (arhaar or masoor) mixed with white steamed rice is priceless. The way it is served is also seen to be believed. A bevy of local and young boys and girls immaculately turned out in their back pants, white shirts and black waistcoats are at hand to serve with pleasure and aplomb. When I enquired how such high-class service was being provided in the middle of this wilderness, I was told that these young boys and girls were undergoing their practical work experience as part of their hospitality course. This course was being run by the local forest department from the funds in the Tiger Foundation. A real positive contribution to the local community and worth emulating everywhere!

Another experience was the trek down the small jungle path leading from the tunnel site of the powerhouse to a small waterfall below called Ambakhori. This is a scenic waterfall which is sort of perennial and the water falling from a small height filters through the hanging roots of a number of banyan trees in the vicinity. A small cove right behind the water stream houses a small Shiva temple and a worshipped Shiva Lingam, enroute to this place on the right side on the hillock is waste material dug out from the tunnel site and dumped in the jungle. The officer escorting me told me that when this huge amount of soil and earth was dumped here the entire forest bore a sort of scar which had ruined the natural foliage as well as the beauty.

But with passage of years – this soil and dirt dump has been taken over by nature. A variety of grasses, shrubs and small plants have appeared all along this long mound. Now it looks that the natural surroundings are back – the eye sore is gone the charm is restored!

“In the long run the jungle takes back what it owns”!

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