Kanha National Park - The Pride Of Project Tiger

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 36 No. 8, August 2016

Of the thousands of visitors who enter Kanha National Park each year, no more than a handful are aware of the behind-the-scenes activity that is responsible for the success of this awe-inspiring jungle.

The author, who now heads Project Tiger, was at the helm of affairs at Kanha for many years. In his inimitable style, he introduces us to the fundamentals of good habitat management. He talks mainly of Kanha but the validity of his narrative would hold good for almost all our wilderness areas.

Where could she have vanished? For over 300 meters the tracks of the tigress and her three cubs had led me through the undergrowth to the sandy bank of the dry river bed on which I now stood. Earlier, I had come across the partly eaten carcass of a large chital stag which she had killed and I guessed that she would head towards the water before settling down to escape the heat of the day. I knew this particular tigress well as I had been following her progress carefully over the past few months. She had given birth to four cubs in mid-September but one had died, leaving her now with a seven-month-old litter - two males and a female. The tigress' movements displayed extreme caution, possibly because a large male had recently begun to operate within her sub-territory.

A ten-minute search enabled me to pick up the tracks once again, on the far bank some distance away, where the family had stopped by a shallow pool of water. Judging from the dampness of the pug-marks, the animals had left the pool less than half an hour ago. The sun was now almost directly overhead and I was bathed in perspiration, but I proceeded, nevertheless, for I was keen to see the cubs for myself. Manglu, a baiga tracker on whose jungle lore I had learned to rely, had told me the night before that one of the tigresses' three cubs looked weak and may not survive. I hoped he was wrong, and anyway, there was little we could do, as we had discovered long ago, that Natures ways are best not interfered with. Besides, even if we wanted to, separating the mother from the weak cubs was well nigh impossible.

My years in the jungle had given me a sort of sixth sense for which I was especially grateful that day. An instinct warned me not to proceed into the bamboo thicket, towards which the tracks now led. Instead, I circled round to higher ground and reappeared near a large outcrop of rocks from where I decided to survey the forest. From my vantage point, I spotted the female some 30 meters away, one of the cubs nuzzling her face while the other two lay sleepily in the shade. The jungle is a safe place if you know and respect its ways and one very definite rule is never to stray too close to a tigress with cubs. In this case, had I ignored my instinct, I would have suddenly emerged less than ten meters from the nervous mother, who might very well have interpreted my presence as a threat to her cubs.

I stayed on the rock for over an hour, making notes on the behavior of the tigers. I also made rough sketches of the mother's facial markings as these patterns identify tigers as surely as fingerprints do men. Though this was a fairly routine sighting, I watched with some disappointment when the tigress left - her cubs following as if on command.

The jungle around me was now quiet. I often sat like this, alone in the forest with my thoughts, absorbing its wonderful serenity, and learning more of its fascinating ways each day.

Kanha National Park. Grand. Larger than life. Serene. A multitude of superlatives come readily to mind, none even remotely capable of encapsulating the essence of this central Indian wildlife refuge. The Park nestles in the expansive forest belt between the Satpura and Vindhya ranges that stretch some 500 sq. km. from east to west. Compared to other Indian forests, the entire region has enjoyed an enviable degree of protection over the past fifty years. Paradoxically, however, it was gazetted in 1955 as a national park only because of the furor caused by the massacre of 30 tigers by a privileged hunter who indulged in a two-and-a-half-year long orgy of death and destruction. Today, as if to make amends for the inhuman act of that `sportsman', Project Tiger has greatly expanded and fortified the home of the great predator and its co-inhabitants.    The Kanha Tiger Reserve now encompasses 1,945 sq.km., an area comprising of rolling grasslands, plateaux, hills, and valleys, within which the National Park constitutes 940 sq. km. core. Here, a band of dedicated men, backed by a government alive to the need of the hour, strive to protect one of Asia's most precious natural assets.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT in India has been the responsibility of foresters for a considerable number of years. Lately, some accusations have been leveled against the forest department suggesting that it has been guilty of neglect or even of `stepmotherly' treatment to wildlife. Aside from going into the questionable validity of such aspersions, a brief glimpse into the chronicle of this activity of the Forest Department is necessary, to evaluate the "state-of-the-art" with respect to wildlife habitat management and to formulate strategies for the future.

In the 120 years of systematic forestry in India, the main thrust, until the first quarter of this century, was at consolidating the legal and silvicultural management status of `reserved forests', which alone were the charge of the Forest Department. A large proportion of forested land was, however, privately owned and had not suffered pronounced ravage at that point of time. This was partly because of its relative inaccessibility, limited demand for timber, and the fact that totalitarian controls prevailed. (Such controls ensured effective fire prevention and grazing regulations in the reserved forests.) Significantly, the corresponding population levels of men and cattle then stood at less than half of what they are today. Additionally, the rural population had still not been exposed to `development' and agricultural practices were simple -- the use of chemical fertilizers had not yet been introduced. Most marginal lands around the villages were either used for pasture or left fallow for years. In effect, these `wastelands' provided a substantial supplement to the adjacent forests. Thus there was an abundance of wildlife habitat available over most parts of India, except in the intensively cultivated Indo-Gangetic plains and the major river valleys. Shikar pressure upon wildlife was moderate, as only a privileged few -- princes, high officials, and affluent shikaris -- had access to hunting. Even hunting by tribals had not been allowed to grow to menacing levels. Obviously, therefore, the status of animals and their habitat was fairly good over most parts of the country.

In the second quarter of this century, when the pressure on land increased because of rising human and cattle populations, a declining trend in wildlife became discernible. The first response to this was the creation of a few sanctuaries in rich wildlife belts and the provision of somewhat better legal protection to the animals, by amending the Indian Forest Act (1927) and introducing the Indian Game Act (1935). The correlation between habitat degradation and dwindling wildlife had still not become obvious in the areas under the control of the Forest Department, i.e. the reserved forests. Consequently, habitat management practices were relatively unknown - even in the areas specially constituted as sanctuaries - and efforts were limited merely to the protection and, occasionally, to elementary measures like providing a waterhole or a saltlick.

In the post-Independence era, totalitarian controls crumbled. The abolition of proprietory rights in private forests, without the simultaneous transfer of authority to the Forest Department, led to the rapid liquidation of forest lands which were usurped by cultivators and graziers. As private forests occupied a substantial proportion of the land, such decimation led to the fragmentation of the once continuous forest belts. Considerable expanses of woodlands were also officially released for agriculture, irrigation, power, industrial, and other development projects. Thus, in a short span of twenty years, wildlife habitats were not just drastically reduced, but also qualitatively impoverished. Although concern at this degradation continued to be voiced, it was only in the seventies that concerted conservation action was put into gear. In the last decade, a large number of sanctuaries and national parks were declared, and several special schemes were launched for the conservation of endangered species such as the tiger, lion, rhinoceros, and crocodilians. Such well organized efforts resulted in significant wildlife conservation success and, increasingly, the importance of habitat management became apparent. The planned management of wildlife habitats in India must thus be seen as a developing discipline with not much more than a decade of practice behind it. Considering this short period, we have fared rather well, vis-a-vis, the levels of both research-cum-training and field practices, though of course, the learning process is continuous. This then is the context in which one should judge the efforts of the Forest Department.

The fact that intelligent habitat management has paid dividends in Kanha is now an undisputed fact. Many of the practices we employed were tailored to meet specific contingencies while others were standard procedures, currently being followed in almost all Indian parks and sanctuaries. To understand exactly how and why Kanha has flourished, it would first be necessary to understand the problems we faced when the Park became a part of Project Tiger.

Initial problems

The Kanha forests had always been economically productive and hence, intensively exploited for over half a century. The consequent influx of labor, along with logging operations involving the transport of timber, interfered with the animals considerably, particularly with the care of their young. Cattle also posed acute problems as, even in 1974, about 15,000 animals from the adjoining villages grazed in the Reserve. Besides, in some areas of the park, a number of cattle camps (with an additional population of around 10,000 heads) existed. Under this grazing pressure, edible grasses and fodder were soon replaced by unpalatable weeds. In Kanha, water scarcity during summer is commonplace as the water table drops considerably and the streams tend to dry up. From early May to the onset of the rains, perennial pools survive only in the lower valleys and in the form of seepage springs on the hill slopes.

This precarious position was further aggravated by siltation caused by a history of unwise land use. The need for labor for forestry operations encouraged village settlements to grow inside the forest blocks and it was only a matter of time before the valleys and plateaux, conducive to agriculture, were colonized. These settlements were obviously concentrated near water sources thus denying wildlife in the area, it's normal supply.

Fire is a real threat to any forested tract and no less so in Kanha National Park. A heavy leaf fall in winter and spring leaves a carpet of dry litter on the forest floor in summer, which, along with the dry grass, poses a constant fire hazard. Often started by human negligence, such ground fires do not significantly harm the trees, but they do burn up much of the available fodder at the browsing level. In conjunction with water scarcity, fires, therefore, introduce a pinch period during May and June, the worst months for Kanha's animals. Poaching, a relatively minor problem, however, needed effective handling. All vehicular entries to the Park are now closely checked and poaching from vehicles is non-existent. Villagers in the vicinity have always had a tendency to sneak in small companies to poach for meat, but protection staff, equipped with guns and wireless facilities, funded by Project Tiger, have effectively curbed this practice.

Having identified the above limiting factors, our management objective became clear - quite simply, we had to try and return the land to its former health. This would automatically allow the natural complex of prey and predator to strike their normal balances within the parameters of the carrying capacity of the habitat. It was not considered prudent to induce the population growth of wild animals to artificially high levels by resorting to habitat manipulation. Not that we shied away from compensatory development. For example, where we found that heavy grazing pressure in the past had resulted in weeds dominating the meadows, we took measures to eradicate such weeds. We also created waterholes commensurate with the availability of fodder. Finally, in what was probably the most critical factor, it was decided that the 940 sq. km. core area should be sacrosanct - no exploitation of the forest by humans would be allowed. The land belonged to the animals.

The living land

Kanha's hilltops sport extensive plateaux whose edges fall steeply before yielding to gentler slopes that blend into valleys of varying extents. The plateaux have scanty, mixed tree growth and plenty of grass, with a variety of soils, ranging from rich clays in the flat folds, to marginal murram soils on the higher ground. The corresponding species compositions of grasses, whose growth is promoted by seepage springs and some perennial pools, attract a wide variety of game. The upper slopes and the plateaux with their folds are the favorite spots of chausingha, nilgai, sambar, gaur, wild pig, chital, langur, and sloth bear.

On the gentler slopes, mixed forests of bamboo, and other palatable shrubs in the understory of trees, provide rich forage. Winding streams which frequently collect a deposit of silt debris have succulent grasses growing on their banks. These are the favorite foraging areas of langur, gaur, sambar, and muntjac. Chital often uses the intermediate plateaux, particularly during the rains.

Lower still, sal (with forage value in leaf, flower, and fruit) gains predominance, with bamboo and a host of other shrubs flourishing in the understory. In the sal forests, small openings or stands with scant tree growth occur sporadically. These probably owe their origin to sal borer attacks but good grasses and other ground vegetation grow easily here. The valleys are graced with large clearings -- now excellent grasslands -- interspersed with stands of sal.

These extensive clearings are deserted villages and cultivation sites of the villages recently relocated under Project Tiger. This rich and diverse habitat comprising lower slopes and valleys is used by all species (except chausingha) and largely by chital, barasingha, wild boar, and blackbuck. The intermixing of vegetation and topography supports a sufficiently large biomass of varied herbivores which, in turn, provide an abundant food base for Kanha's carnivores.

The action plan

While protection of this realm began to be intensified in 1969, it was really in 1974 that the turning point arrived. We prepared and launched a systematic management plan (which in its modified form is still in use) to fulfill the objective of countering the limiting factors we had analyzed so painstakingly. We successfully relocated 17 villages, after paying handsome compensation to the people, and moved all the cattle camps out of the core. Subsequently, another seven villages accepted our offer of relocation as they too benefited from a generous allocation of arable land, new housing, community wells and schools provided at government expense. Modern methods were used for the first time and protection and anti-poaching squads were trained and equipped with the latest devices. This raised the morale of our staff and acted as a deterrent to would-be miscreants. Realizing the importance of tourism, and the risk of letting it run unchecked, we regulated the flow of visitors to pre-demarcated areas, which allowed them to savor the atmosphere of Kanha without disturbing the animals in the areas which we were trying to regenerate. With care and judicious distribution, 20 small dams, 35 earthen bunds, and another 20 seepage springs were developed. These still serve as watering points in areas scattered all over the Park and are of particular use to the animals during pinch periods.

No operation of this magnitude could possibly be executed without fault. We made our share of errors, but we were willing enough to learn from our experiences. At other times we felt elated by obvious successes, the return to safe numbers of the Branderi barasingha being a case in point. Their population now stands at 450, from an all-time low of 66 animals in 1970. Slowly, we found ourselves in tune with the simple demands of the land. Our people diagnosed problems almost as soon as they occurred, and well-tested solutions were put into operation almost immediately. Ultimately, even those that had defied solutions for half a century, were resolved. The central Kanha meadows, for instance, had started to deteriorate under the grazing pressure of the wild herbivores and also due to the faulty practice of cool-season burning of the grass in the winter months. By clearing corridors through thick jungle, we were able to disperse the herds, which immediately colonized vacated village sites. The winter burning was stopped and grasses, particularly those favored by the endangered barasingha, sprang up in response.

The real achievements of a wildlife reserve must therefore be seen in the light of the quality of the environment contained within it. In Kanha we have reason to be satisfied with the results of our effort. The population of the animals that constitute the prey base has risen considerably. The consequent rise of predator populations, including that of the tiger, was a natural corollary. The census figures for 1971 and 1981 and the comparison chart showing the dispersal of chital herds in 1975 and 1981 speak for themselves.*

At Kanha, the management has no intention of resting on its laurels. The process of eco-monitoring is continuous and is increasingly supported by research, both on a long and short-term basis. Tranquillizing techniques are being perfected and a herbarium (where over 600 plant specimens have so far been mounted) has been developed.

We still have our problems: primarily the paucity of funds and staff. Nevertheless, ambitious plans such as the preparation of cover maps by means of an aerial survey are underfoot. The Sixth Five Year Plan proposals, approved by the Government of India, provide for a greater concentration of effort in the buffer zone. Here we intend to create two more mini-core zones of 50 to 100 sq. km. on the east and west of the reserve. We are fighting a battle to preserve our wild places and we have no intention of losing. For the moment, sacrifices must necessarily be made, particularly by the state of Madhya Pradesh which stands to lose astronomical sums on account of the cessation of lucrative forestry operations in the core zones. The sacrifices made by the local tribes must also be acknowledged. We hope that when the land is returned to health, the tribal children will benefit from the bounty. Till then, we must carry on undeterred, to safeguard the interests of Nature and the animals of one of the world's most impressive wildlife havens.


Kanha - an overview

Conservation history

The Reserve lies between latitudes 220 07'N/22027' N and longitudes 800 20' E / 81003' E. Within the 1,945 sq. km. area, a core zone of 940 sq. km. constitutes the National Park.

This remote, sheltered jungle was first given protection in 1933 when 250 sq. km. of the Banjar Valley was declared a sanctuary. In 1935, a second 300 sq.km. the sanctuary was created around Supkhar in the Halon Valley. (This effort was later abandoned.) In 1955, the Banjar area was gazetted as a National Park which after two extensions in 1962 and 1970, comprised an area of 446 sq. km. When the forests came under the fold of Project Tiger in 1974, an area of 489 sq. km. covering the Halon Valley and the connecting corridor between the Banjar and Halon valleys was awarded sanctuary status thus providing a total core area of 935 sq. km. In 1976, with some peripheral adjustments, the sanctuary was elevated to National Park status, and today the 940 sq. km. core, with a buffer zone of 1,005 sq. km. enjoys protection as a Game Reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972).


There are three well-defined seasons: monsoons, from mid-June to the end of September; winter, from November to mid-February; and summer, from mid-April to mid-June. Brief autumn occurs during October and a touch of spring from mid-February to the end of March.

The mean annual rainfall is 1,624 mm. The hottest period, in May/June, occasionally causes the mercury to rise to 420C. Fortunately, however, the area is not plagued with the hot winds that blow through some other Indian regions. During cold spells, in December and January, temperatures as low as -20C have been recorded in valley bottoms, when severe frosts have also been experienced.

The range of wildlife

The main herbivores to be found are spotted deer or chital (Axis axis), sambar (Cervus unicolour), barasingha (Cervus duvauceli branderi), muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak), chausingha (Tetracerus quadricornis), gaur (Bos gaurus), wild boar (Sus scrofa) and the common langur (Presbytis entellus). Among the main predators are the tiger (Panthera tigris), panther or leopard (Panthera pardus), and the wild dog or dhole (Cuon alpinus). The main scavenging mammals are the hyena (Hyaena hyaena) and jackal (Canis aureus), whereas the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) is an omnivore. There are nearly two hundred bird species. Stocks, teals, pintails, pond herons, egrets are among the water birds, whereas the peafowl, jungle fowl, spur fowl, partridges, and quails are the common ground laying birds. Ring doves and spotted doves are common as also parakeets. Green pigeons and rock pigeons are also numerous. Cuckoos, papiha, and a few other song birds are the common vocalists. Rollers, bee-eaters, hoopoes, drongos, warblers, kingfishers, woodpeckers, finches, orioles, and fly-catchers are very much a part of the jungle scene. Black ibis and crow-pheasants are also present. Eagles and kites are the main birds of prey whereas vultures are the scavengers. Several species of owls, owlets, and night-jars represent the birds of the night.

Author: H.S. Panwar, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. III No. 1. January/March 1983.  

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