Silence hung in the air. Even the birds on nearby trees flitted around silently, the human equivalent of walking on eggshells. In the heart of Panna Tiger Reserve, half a dozen vehicles stood noiselessly on the path. All ears were tuned to a few specific sounds: a sambar’s occasional low grunt and a langur’s high-pitched squeak. “These are calls to alert each other about the presence of a tiger or leopard,” my guide explained under his breath.
Our euphoric anticipation turned to impatience. Restless children were hushed. Just when it got tedious, we heard a high-pitched grunt, followed by rustling in the bushes and the crunch of dry leaves. All eyes, cameras, and binoculars swung in the direction of the sounds. The rustling and crunching grew louder, a shadowy movement visible behind the curtain of tall grasses and bushes. Seconds later, a majestic tiger emerged from the dense undergrowth into the open grassland, blazing yellow-orange with thick black stripes.
All us safari-goers gazed upon it, but it seemed unfazed and confident. It glanced nonchalantly at the gathered audience and strode off. Vehicles scrambled to clear out of its anticipated route. The sambar, the tiger’s favourite prey, continued to emit warning calls, picked up like a relay by other sambars, though the rest of the animals were silent. A tiger was on the move and the warning had been heeded, since it is known to hunt more by sight and sound than smell.
I watched mesmerised as the big cat, a glorious specimen easily over six feet long, strode with regal gait, its head held high. Despite the distance and fading light, its rippling muscles indicated latent brute force. Its banded tail, curved upward at the end, was stiff and alert. When it reached the path, it turned its head briefly to gaze at us with a mix of haughtiness and indulgent benevolence before disappearing into the dense undergrowth. The silence continued, with everyone processing what they had seen, in sheer disbelief. The tiger had been visible for less than a minute, and yet it felt like time had both slowed down and speeded up.
As vehicles departed, the tiger continued to occupy centre stage. Over four days, this was the second time I had seen a tiger. The very first morning in the park, barely an hour into the safari, I came across the first one. From a vantage point above the Ken River, I trained my binoculars on one at a considerable distance as it emerged from lush greenery, swam across the river to the other bank and disappeared. I was told that tigers rarely climb trees due to their body size and weight (130-280 kg) but have an affinity for water and are excellent swimmers. On the last morning, we followed fresh pug marks, convinced we were close behind a tiger, but it was well sheltered in the thick undergrowth.
Park guides and drivers often told me sighting a tiger is commonplace in Panna every few days. An estimated tiger population of around 55 is scattered across a core area of 576.13 sq km. Even though only 20 per cent of the park area has visitor access, the territories of 3-4 tigers fall within it, while other tigers occasionally wander in. Considered both a flagship and umbrella species, the tiger is at the apex of the food chain. For it to thrive, it takes the wellbeing of an entire ecosystem. The presence of tigers is an indicator of an overall healthy forest ecosystem. In Panna’s case, the relative abundance of tigers points to a flourishing ecosystem, though it wasn’t such a happy story a decade ago.
Panna National Park was carved out in 1981, a 542-sq-km forest once the hunting grounds of the princely kingdoms of Panna, Chhatarpur, and Bijawar. In 1994, it was designated a tiger reserve and gradually several additional forest areas were added to it and a buffer created, taking the consolidated Panna Tiger Reserve to nearly 1,600 sq km. By the year 2000, Panna’s tiger population was estimated between 24 and 40, but systematic poaching and bureaucratic apathy led to an alarming dwindling tiger numbers. By early 2009, only one male tiger was left. By the time a pitched conservation programme was launched to translocate two females, the sole tiger had vanished. Nevertheless, two female tigers, one each from Bandhavgarh and Kanha, were translocated, while a male tiger from Pench was introduced by November 2009.
Strangely enough, the male soon began walking out of the park in a southerly direction, ostensibly towards Pench. It was supposedly the first time a homing instinct was noticed in a tiger. It was caught and reintroduced to the park, and stayed put the second time around. Over the next year, the two females mated with the male and produced litters, taking the overall population close to a dozen. This was further augmented with a couple of orphans from other parks and the tiger population grew. In mid-March 2019, a set of three cubs were introduced taking the current population estimate to 55. Panna’s story is hailed as one of the most successful tiger conservation efforts in the country.
I heard this story repeatedly during my stay in Panna. But one of the guides had a different take. “As long as Badami Baba is around, there will always be tigers in Panna,” my guide for the day, Ramesh said. When I looked askance, he pointed to a white square platform, a grave by the side of the trail heading towards Pipartola.
“Badami Baba was a sage who lived in these forests…probably 500 years ago…’’ he began. The Baba, he said, had the respect of the tigers and could summon them at will. Kings and commoners would come to him for a glimpse of the beast. One such visit by a king went horribly wrong; he shot at the tiger. In turn the enraged wounded beast killed the Baba. “He’s buried here and is believed to protect the forests and its tigers. Anyone who offers a coconut or even sincere prayers is certain of sighting a tiger,” Ramesh said, adding that it is lore that guides, drivers, and locals believe. As myths go it was an engaging one; and coincidentally, I saw a tiger that morning. His face said “I told you so”, mine mirrored healthy scepticism.
Curiously, all Panna’s tigers are numbered. The first two translocated tigers were T1 and T2, the male was T3. From there on, the system gets bizarre though all cubs born in the reserve get the prefix “P”. My close encounter had been with P151 while I had seen P141 swimming across the river. In March 2020, P234 gave birth to three cubs, her third litter; she herself was part of T2’s third litter. I wondered aloud how guides recognise individual tigers. “Each one is very distinct, especially the ones whose territory falls in the tourist zone; a few have radio collars, but even otherwise, we see them quite often and can identify them easily…each behaves differently,” Ramesh said.
As we exited the park, I was still on a high from sighting a tiger. Every encounter with the beast left me overwhelmed. I recalled William Blake’s poem The Tyger, and the conflicting duality between beauty and ferocity. Fresh from sighting a magnificent specimen, it did not seem conflicting at all but more like synergy.
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