On way to Kolkata from Nagpur we took in the Pench Tiger Reserve in December last. Made famous by Rudyard Kipling who used the jungles of Pench plumb in the heart of India and now in the two states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra as the locale for his widely read “The Jungle Book”, the Pench Reserve draws nature lovers like a magnet. Though I was once posted at Nagpur in the late 1970s and did a two year tenure there it never occurred to us to visit these jungles only a hundred-odd kilometres away. Perhaps, eco-tourism was yet to take a firmer root forty years ago. Besides, there was hardly any disposable income available with us then for such luxuries. Salaries were very low and pleasure jaunts were mostly out of our reckoning.
There are, in fact, two tiger reserves by the same name - one that we were booked into and the other of Maharshtra. The same jungles have been (politically) divided into two separate entities for reasons that are certainly not conservational. This division is seldom observed by the wildlife of the divided forests. They go back and forth feely whenever they feel like or whenever man or nature forces them to do so.
A visit to a tiger reserve is of no consequence unless one undertakes a jeep or elephant-ride in the forests - a ride that goes by the name of "safari". I came across this word way back in the 1950s when the Nobel Prize-winning author Earnest Hemingway went to Africa on a hunt of animal heads as trophies and also produced books on the then not-so-well-known continent of Africa. I recall two books of his, viz. "The Green Hills of Africa" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" - the latter became immensely popular and was also made into an entertaining movie featuring iconic actors of the golden era of Hollywood – Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Susan Hayward. Though the "safari" word seems to have been derived from the Urdu/Hindi word "safar" meaning travel I came across several cautionary signs "Safiri Salama" (meaning, I presume, safe journey) on the road to Mombasa from Nairobi. Obviously, “safari” or “safari” is now well-entrenched in Swahili and English lexicon.
Safari for vast numbers of new-rich has only one objective - that of sighting tigers, more the better. If the tiger proved to be elusive, as it was in our case, the whole trip would be considered a waste of time and money. For them tiger should be visible on demand. The forests, the majestic tall broad-leaved trees of teak, the beauty wrought by Nature by its exceptionally gifted hands do not seem to hold any meaning. They have heard only of tigers and they want it to present itself before them the moment they step into the midst of a clump of trees. They are not concerned about its role in our larger ecosystem or that of saving our pristine forests that are great carbon sinks helping in mitigation of warming of our planet.
So a large number of tourists who were roaming around the wilds of Pench that cold morning were disappointed as the tigers effected a “no-show”. I cannot hazard a guess how many jeeps had entered the core area of the forest after paying a hefty sum and braving that biting cold but I suppose there must have been at least two or three dozens. Out of all those dozens only one proved to be "lucky" as it came across the majestic beast who, it seems, was padding away on the jeep-track with utter disdain of those who followed him in their vehicle. We were the "unlucky" ones who could sight only a few spotted deer, large number of rhesus monkeys, a few contemplating langoors, a barking deer, a brooding sambhar and an owl quietly resting after its nightly exploits.
Maybe we were unlucky, but I found the teak forests glorious, more so in the morning sun the slanting rays of which made them a trifle more resplendent. Then, of course, was the fantastic landscaping designed by none other than Nature herself, the play of sunshine on which made the scene so breathtaking yet somehow defied capture by our unsophisticated cameras.
I never knew that Suzuki made jeeps but the MP Tourism Corporation had just them for safaris. We were on a four-seater that was comfortable to sit but was necessarily open to the elements and the cold. Three hours in the cold in such an open Suzuki jeep on a roller-coaster ride over hills, dales and deep gullies made our aged lumbars painful and also made us ravenously hungry. We also felt a bit tired as we had to keep our eyes peeled to sight the slightest movement in the moving jungle panorama. There were only few quiet halts of expectations of the presence nearby of the king of the jungle that, unfortunately, proved to be in vain. There indeed were unusual movements on occasions - of monkeys sprinting and climbing the trees in a jiffy or spotted deer suddenly scrambling and making a dash away from something they appeared to fear - but we never knew what induced the movements. Could be a predator or its co-predator was on the prowl. Whatever the reason, these by themselves were genuine jungle activities we rarely come across in our urban surroundings and were immensely enjoyable.
Reports have since appeared of poaching of tigers in Pench. The Tiger Reserve has lost as many as four tigers in the last three months. Only one of them died a natural death, the rest of them were plain killings by humans. Perhaps, that is why tigers have become somewhat rare in MP’s part of Pench. Maybe, that is why they did not show up for us that day.
Tearing ourselves away from the beautiful jungles prompted by that feeling of hunger we trooped into Kipling's Court, the lodge we were booked into, where waiters were waiting for us with the most appetising fare of hot "poories" and "aloo ki sabzi", with omlettes as side dishes and “jalebies” for sweets. After a hearty breakfast egged on by a staff ever willing to feed the guests we retired to our very well-appointed rooms. That is what one must say about Kipling's Court. Its rooms are very comfortable - four each in double-storied cottages - situated in natural surroundings and its staff are outstanding and highly hospitable considering that they are serving in a public sector hostelry. The Madhya Pradesh Tourism ought to be proud of them. The motif of tiger is omnipresent in the rooms – wall-mountings, bed covers, towels and what have you.
The visit to Pench was rounded off with a visit to a village in the buffer zone known for its artifacts of clay made in the traditional way with a wheel powered by sheer muscles. Though located in a remote area the products churned out by its artisans find a ready market in Nagpur. Obviously, it is a well-off village as in front of virtually every house one found a motorbike parked. Clearly, the village has been lifted out of poverty.