As tourist interest dries up, Panna in Madhya Pradesh works to retrieve its Tiger Reserve status even as it ably shelters a host of other wildlife, including the critically endangered vulture.
We didn’t plan a visit to Panna Tiger Reserve. The credit goes to Madhya Pradesh Tourism for recommending it, on the way from Bandhavgarh to Khajuraho. The suggestion proved rewarding.
Bandhavgarh National Park disappointed us. Leave alone tigers, the king of the jungle, there was little opportunity to spot any wildlife there.
The reason could be one of many — a biting early-January cold; or a drastic reduction in tourist corridors, in line with the recent Supreme Court guidelines; or the growing commercial interest to capitalise on Bandhavgarh’s tiger fame, at probably the cost of the forest and its inhabitants.
The mushrooming of hotels big and small, rush of tourists, craze for safari tickets… Bandhavgarh has perhaps fallen prey to its own glory. Here, wild animals are expected to justify their existence before carloads of visitors, who enter the jungle in two shifts with the kind of anticipation they reserve for a day at a glitzy multiplex.
But Panna is free of these evils. The credit, ironically perhaps, goes to the infamous distinction it had earned just three years ago. After allegedly inflating the park’s tiger population for years, the State forest department was finally faced with the truth in February 2009 — the Tiger Reserve was declared devoid of the big cat.
On the bright side, flagging tourist interest in the park — located 25-odd km from tourist hot-spot Khajuraho and diamond city Panna — has allowed a new set of forest staff, led by Field Director R.S. Murthy, to carry out restorative measures. They have embarked on one of the most successful tiger re-introduction programmes in the recent history of wildlife conservation in India.
Although just half the size of Bandhavgarh, what makes Panna Tiger Reserve so special is its topography and, most importantly, a near-unhindered access for the handful of tourists dropping in to enjoy the wilderness.
The entire area was shaped and reshaped by prehistoric volcanic eruptions (volcanic crater at Raneh Falls) creating some of the deepest gorges, canyons and series of falls, tucked deep inside the deciduous forest, along the course of the Ken — arguably one of the few unpolluted rivers in the country and home to the critically endangered gharials (fish-eating crocodile).
I had ample opportunity to click photos of a range of herbivores (spotted deer, sambar, nilgai, chinkara, Chousingha and others) grazing at peace; gharials basking in the sun, and a variety of birds. Carnivores eluded us, except for a lone leopard - which, however, proved too fast for my amateur photography skills. And we had to content ourselves with the sight of endless tiger pugmarks on the dirt roads.
Panna also offered me the unforgettable experience of watching vultures nesting in the dry rock shelters at Dhuadhar Falls, deep inside the park’s core area. A special sighting, indeed, given that nearly 97 per cent of the country’s vulture population has been wiped out over the past decade due to Diclofenac (painkiller) poisoning.