Thursday, June 04, 2009

Pench National Park: An experience with panther

pench national park
Walking open fields we pass majestic mahua trees laden with buds which will soon open up into the succulent flowers so loved by bears. Once the flowers drop, the bears from the nearby forest will gorge themselves on these sweet fleshy fermenting petals and get drunk. They are at the most dangerous then. Fortunately, we see no bears as we enter the dry,
winding river bed that flanks the forest.

We’re at the Bagh Van camp, at the very edge of the jungle at Pench, Madhya Pradesh, escaping from the dust, pollution and noise of urban life. Pench, 92 km from Nagpur, is a National Park opened to visitors a little over 2 years ago, and as a result unspoilt and unsullied by hordes of plastic littering city dwellers.

As we walk along the stream bed in a dark tunnel created by overhanging trees, I am conscious that tigers, panthers and other game walk on this same sandy soil after dark to get to the pool of water further on. I reassure myself that it is still another hour to sunset!

Entry into the forest is banned, but we cross over to a path along the periphery, past Teak, Saaja, Mahua, and Flame of the Forest trees. Young Garari trees line the path with their end of season leaves hanging like golden discs. This is early March and there is gold on the trees which have begun shedding their leaves to welcome spring with their fresh green offerings. We walk on a carpet of brown and amber and as we crunch the leaves underfoot, the slanting rays of the setting sun add their gold to the forest. The fragrance of
mango blossoms scents the air.

We startle a herd of chital who gracefully lope away into the trees. The air is still except for birdsong. I feel I have begun to live again. On our way back, as we approach the village, we hear cow bells and stand aside as a herd of cattle slowly make their way back in the mellow light of the dying sun.

It is dark now, but the half moon silvers the top of the forest trees as we sit by the campfire. The black forest broods around us. Suddenly we hear the alarm call of the sambhar across the dry river bed. It is repeated and then begins to come closer. The next call appears to come from the bushes just across us. The camp naturalist, grabs a flashlight and runs towards the river bed. I grab another one and run after him.

As we climb down the bank to the river bed, he whispers that a tiger or panther must be very close. Heart beating wildly, I follow him down the sandy bed towards the pool. We tread carefully in a vain attempt to avoid crackling leaves underfoot. We stop about 20 yards from the pool as the alarm call again rings out, seemingly only a few yards away on the left where the forest begins.

We wait in the dim moonlight, for any further sound. But, there is nothing more. The dark forest is eerily silent. I seem to feel the presence of something close by, my skin tingles, but I put it down to my over heated imagination. We finally make our way back to the security of the camp, and as we climb the river bank, I guiltily feel a sense of relief. A close encounter in a forest at night is wonderful to think about in retrospect, but at that time, fear is just a heartbeat away.

How close we were, became evident the next morning. The naturalist identified the fresh panther tracks very near where we had been standing. Whether they were made just before we
reached, or after we left, was not clear. If after, then the panther was but a few yards away as we stood on the river bank and, and waited for us to leave before going to the pool to drink. If before, then she (the naturalist felt it was a female) had finished drinking and hidden in the shrubs. Either way, she had not been far away, since the sambhar continued calling after we reached the spot.

The next evening we walk along a different route. As we reach the forest boundary, we hear chital alarm calls, which are very different from the honk of the sambhar the night before. But they are some distance away and we return to the camp in the gathering darkness. We barely sit down to a hot cup of tea when we hear the alarm call repeated – only much nearer now, coming from the forest on our right. The alarm call continues intermittently as I go back to our cottage to change into a long sleeved shirt against the evening chill.

By the time I return, the a l a r m calls have become more frequent and are moving from right to left in the forest across the river bed. I find to my disappointment that the naturalist has already gone down to the river bed accompanied by one of the camp staff. I grab a flashlight and go down to the edge of the river in the hope of being able to spot what is happening. I do not have the courage to go down on my own, and so miss the drama.

The naturalist and his companion return a little later – beaming. They had crept down the river bed to another pool, this time on the left of the camp, and stopped because they could smell a panther (those living in the forest apparently develop this sense of smell). Suddenly they saw a shape near the pool, but it melted into the darkness of the forest before they could use the flashlight.

The youngster accompanying the naturalist, a local familiar with wildlife, was very keen to go into the forest after it. But wiser counsel prevailed. If the panther had cubs with her, then following it could be hazardous. The next morning, tracks by the pool again confirmed a medium sized panther's presence.

The alarm calls continue for a little while after their return, but stop eventually. As we sit around the campfire with drinks, the talk is about other tiger and panther sightings close to the camp. It’s a moonlit night, but every rustle from the dark bushes around us seems pregnant with menace. Periodically we sweep the trees with a flashlight, because panthers are known to climb trees.

As we move inside for dinner, Wriggly slinks in and creeps under the table. This is totally unlike the spirited little pup who normally cannot be persuaded to come in. After dinner, on the way down the path to our cottage, only a few yards from the river bed, I again have the sense of discomfort I’d felt the day before.

Sweeping the flashlight over the adjoining bushes reveals nothing. But the eerie sense continues through out the night, and I keep waking up at the slightest sound outside. Is it my newly awakened sixth sense at work, sensing the presence of a predator? I’ll never know. But panthers have been known to hang around waiting to pounce on dogs.

I was reassured to see Wriggly safe and in good spirits the next morning. During the next couple of nights, Wriggly does not repeat the other night's behaviour, nor do I again have that creepy feeling. So maybe there had been something there that night... Who knows? The forest keeps its secrets.

All too soon, it was time to go back. The week had been enchanting and we felt restored in body and mind. We knew we would be back.

Image: India Wildlife

1 comment:

Avinash Upadhyay said...

You write too well. You had my heart pounding and you kept me engaged till the end. I am myself a wildlife enthusiast from nagpur. But my preferred beat is kanha and Bandhavgarh. I have several tales such as these hidden in my heart. I too write on a different blogsite. Someday I will write about these tales when they compel me to.

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