Don’t worry if you haven’t spotted a tiger yet, it has already seen you,” said Naren Mallik, a safari expert and a naturalist, to a group of wildlife enthusiasts, as he prepared his open jeepsy before entering the tiger’s territory.

The Kanha National Park, which is spread over 1,945 sq km, in Madhya Pradesh, was established in 1955 and is dedicated to preserve and protect a variety of species especially the tigers. The park, which can also be termed as tiger country, serves as a home to both the predator and the prey. In the year 1973, when Project Tiger came into existence, Kanha too was declared as a Tiger Reserve, aiming to protect the National Animal at a time its number was going down at an alarming rate. The reports presented by the National Tiger Conservation Authority in the year 2006 marked that only 1,411 tigers were left in India and by the year 2014, the numbers rose to 2226.

On asking the officials the reason behind the success of this project here at the Kanha National Park, they informed that the whole region had to be divided into two zones ~ the core and the buffer. In the core zone human activities are strictly prohibited while the buffer zone serves as a place for agricultural patches and small villages. In the year 1973, a total 45 villages were present, out of which 28 villages had to be relocated.

The two major reasons, the officials pointed, behind the relocation was: first, to ensure safety of both the wild animals and the villagers and, secondly, to prepare grasslands for other species, which included mainly the Barasinghas (black buck), Sambhars, Gaurs and spotted deers. Most of the villages were established on these grasslands and were relocated outside the core zone, where human activities are strictly prohibited now.

“In 1973, when Project Tiger was started, government had to relocate the villages to a remote area. They did compensate the villagers but the major problem that emerged was the tribals, who were so deeply connected with the jungles that they didn’t want to relocate. Currently, the authorities are offering compensations of Rs 10-15 lakh per family member, who has reached 18 years of age, for relocation,” informed Rohit Tripathi, resort manager, Chitvan Jungle Lodge.

IN TIGER LAND

While all the human activities are strictly prohibited in the core zone, but as one treads in the buffer zone, small agricultural patches, decorated with paddy crops, which are almost ready to be harvested soon, beautifully captivates the eyes. In between the crop fields, small kids can be seen sitting on watch towers, which are not more the 8-10 feet tall ~ sights that can leave one alarmed and aware of the fact that they are villagers, but belonging to a tiger’s forest. This is Bandatora village, a few kilometres away from the main entrance of the Kanha National Park.

The mud huts, fenced with bamboo sticks and woods, are the only security they have to guard their cattle and themselves against the predators. Chhotelal’s wife NeematBai can be seen preparing dinner for her two children.

“Bhaat aursaag banegaaaj (I have prepared rice and spinach for dinner),” said NeematBai as her two children awaited Chhotelal’s return home. Chhotelal was once attacked by a tiger while he was collecting wood from the forest and luckily saved himself with the help of his axe.

Chhotelal’s family is part of the Baiga tribes who, along with the Gonds, form the major population of Kanha. When Project Tiger was implemented in the Kanha National Park, it was feared that it would majorly affect these two tribal establishments and their natural way of living might vanish but, interestingly, it worked in the completely opposite way. The Gonds were majorly benefitted by the policies and are now positioned in top notch government jobs. But Baigas are still unwilling to adjust with the outsiders.

“Humein kya zaroorat hai kahi ja ne ki, hum yahi rahenge. Humara sab kuch to yahi hai.Log aatehaiKanha mein to wo humara naach dekh te hai! (Why should we go anywhere? We will live here. People from different parts of the world come here to see our dance!),” said Iswar as he prepared his Mandhar and Nagada before performing “Karma”, the traditional dance form of the Baigas.

Though the Baigas and the Gonds are now living their life the way they want to, the debate still lingers on two major aspects ~ whether the relocation has altered the authentic tribal way of life and whether the human population spread around the National Park is threatening the wild species. The facts and figures remain obscure as there is no perfect record to examine these concerns.

But the fact remains the tourism industry developed because the Tiger Reserve is acting as a catalyst for the benefit of both the villagers and the wild species for sure.

KNOW THE TRIBES

Baiga

The Baiga tribes inhabit Central India and are one of the scheduled tribes of Madhya Pradesh. The Baigas are true inhabitants of forests, retaining customs and traditions handed down from their ancestors. They are fierce protectors and worshippers of the forest and mother nature. Their sacred beliefs prohibit them from ploughing the land as this is perceived as traumatising Mother Earth. They, therefore, adopt the slash and burn form of shifting agriculture, constantly remaining on the move (also known as Jhoom farming).

The Baiga seldom interact or intermarry with other tribes, often avoiding formal settlements, formal education and formal trades or work. The members of this tribe often tattoo themselves in very elaborate and colourful manner using elements and materials from the forests they live in. Karma is the most important dance and song of the Baigas, with various forms of Karma songs and dances being popular.

The advent of the most common Karma festival observed by the Baigas is before the onset of the summer harvest. It begins by planting a branch of Karma tree in the dancing arena and the community members dance around it. Karma songs involve both men and women.

Sometimes they sing as duets, or as singing dialogues between men and women, seeking answers to riddles. Moreover, many Karma songs help the new generation learn from the sayings of the ancestors, hence many songs convey teachings.

Gond

On the other side, Gond is a very large tribe of Central India, numbering 12.7 million. Traditionally, they have been cultivating land, producing crops and raising livestock. They grow rice, wheat and different types of lentils, sesame, millet and cotton. They are spread across Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal. The derivation of the word Gond is uncertain.

According to some, it may have come from Khonda, which means hill. In the eastern state of Bihar and Jharkhand, they speak Sadri and Gondi. In Assam, where they are migrants from Orissa, Oriya and Assamese are spoken.

The Gond tribe is listed as a Scheduled Tribe (ST) in all states except Uttar Pradesh and Assam. They are listed as a Scheduled Caste (SC) in Uttar Pradesh, which they resent, preferring to be listed as tribals. The Gond cultivates land, produces crops and raises livestock. Pressure from the government to preserve forests and to change the way they farm has led many to do well by adopting better methods.

Many still live off the land by hunting and gathering fruit from the forests. Others raise cattle for sale.The literacy level of the Gond is below national average. They are becoming more amenable to family planning and use both modern as well as local herbal remedies. Unfortunately, they have not taken advantage of the development schemes that the government has provided for them.

The majority are Hindu. Some are animists, who believe that things in nature ~ trees, mountains and the sky ~ have souls or consciousness, and that a supernatural force animates the universe. Village gods are worshipped by the villagers as a group and a priest conducts the rites.

Idols of gods are often spear shaped, made of iron and are smeared with vermillion powder and kept at a special place called DeoKhulla, the threshing floor of the gods.

THE JUNGLE BOOK

Situated in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the picturesque Kanha National Park was the inspiration behind Rudyard Kipling’s unforgettable classic The Jungle Book. The romance of the Kanha National Park has not reduced over time ~ it is still as beautiful.

The most captivating and striking features of this park are the open grassy meadows, where sighting blackbuck, swamp deer, sambhar and chital is common. The Kanha National Park is divided into four zones: Kanha, Kisli, Mukki and Sarhi. One can book a safari, in which the local guides take the travellers for tiger sightings into the core zones of the jungle in open jeeps. The way these local drivers follow the pug marks and sounds of monkeys, who are busy in alerting their friends about the presence of the predators, is exhilarating.

The major wildlife attractions in the park are tiger, bison, gaur, sambhar, chital, barasingha, barking deer, black deer, black buck, chousingha, nilgai, mouse deer, sloth bear, jackal fox, porcupine, hyena, jungle cat, python, pea fowl, hare, monkey,mongoose, tiger, and leopard.

The birds species in the park include storks, teals, pintails, pond herons, egrets, peacock,pea fowl, jungle fowl, spur fowl, partridges, quails, ring doves, spotted parakeets, green pigeons, rock pigeons, cuckoos, papihas, rollers, bee-eater, hoopoes, drongos, warblers,kingfishers, woodpeckers, finches, orioles, owls, and fly catchers.

TRAVEL GUIDE

Best time to visit: The climate of this region is tropical. Summers are hot and humid with maximum and minimum temperature of 40.6°C and 23.9°C respectively. Winters are pleasant with an average maximum and minimum temperature of 23.9°C and 11.1°C. Apart from that the grasslands covered with fog presents a perfect picture frame for the photographs. The park is closed from July to mid-October during monsoon.

How to reach: In order to reach Kanha National Park by flight, Jabalpur is the nearest airport, having daily direct flight connectivity with Delhi and Mumbai. Second option could be Raipur or Nagpur airports. Direct train options are available to Jabalpur or Raipur as well, from where one has to take a 3-5 hours’ drive to Kanha National Park.

Best stay option: Chitvan Jungle Lodge, Kanha To suit every traveller’s budget, the lodge has accommodation options that range from grand and luxurious suites to appointed rooms that overlook the jungle and surrounding hills.

The lodge is a good place for people from all walks of life such as leisure traveller, a peace finder, families, students and wildlife enthusiasts, who are willing to comeKanha and enjoy an adventurous vacation or a quiet getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life.