PERPETUALLY PRETTY-PENCH

” And don’t spend your time lookin’ around

For something you want that can’t be found

When you find out you can live without it

And go along not thinkin’ about it

I’ll tell you something true

The bare necessities of life will come to you.”

Photo Credit-Wikimedia Commons

This probably makes for one of the simplest lessons in terms of the ‘art for happy living’, provided not by any spiritual leader but by Baloo the bear from Rudyard Kipling’s masterpiece creation ‘ The Jungle Book’. Many of us have grown up reading stories of Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera, Sherkhaan and other characters who gave us an insight into the simple but enjoyable life in a central Indian forest. But do you know where the inspiration for ‘The Jungle Book’ was derived from? It came from the beautiful forests of Pench and its surrounding areas.

Pench is located on both sides of the Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh border. Many sites mentioned on the site are actual locations in the Seoni district, including the gorge of the Wainganga River where Sherkhan was killed, the Kanhiwara village and the Seeonee hills. In fact, Rudyard Kipling studied Robert Armitage Strendale’s book ‘Seonee’ and other natural history books available then to understand and so effectively describe the animal behaviour in his captivating work. The character of Mowgli himself was inspired by the accounts of a ‘wolf boy’ nurtured by wolves in their dens near the village of Sant Baori in Seoni district.

Wildlife Treasures

Once you leave the Nagpur Jabalpur highway behind and move towards Totladoh and Silari guest houses of Pench, it is like leaving the civilised world behind and driving into the wilderness in the midst of the Satpura-Maikal hill ranges. However, soon you realise that these wilds are actually more civilised with their ‘real’ beautiful people sharing the 257 sq km of forest home. I personally am mesmerised by the wilderness of Pench. It actually gives one a realistic chance of meeting the carnivores like the tiger, leopard, jungle cat, wild dog, hyena, jackal and the civet. During the safaris, visitors often come across pugmarks, strong smells of territory markings and even direct sightings of these superstars.

Supporting these carnivores is the strong number of the prey species of herbivores, including the sambar, spotted deer, Indian gaur (wrongly referred to as the bison), neelgai, four-horned antelope, barking deer, wild boar and the absolutely elusive ratel. However, one animal that has fascinated me the most has been the sloth bear. Nature lovers often get a darshan of these fruit and insect relishing mammals in Pench.

A Wonderful Sighting

One summer evening, a few years ago, we were waiting at a waterhole. The light was fading by the minute. A short while ago we had seen the pugmarks of a tigress on the forest path and a little later the loud alarm call of a sambar deer had also announced the presence of a big carnivore around. Needless to say, everyone was on the lookout for a dash of yellow to suddenly make an appearance on stage. Necks were craning out when someone excitedly pulled my T-shirt to point out in exactly the opposite direction. A huge black object with two little soft ‘toys’ came bounding out of the forest and headed straight for the waterhole.

A mother sloth bear had brought her two small cubs for a much-needed drink at the end of a long hot day. Even as they had just started to quench their thirst, something seemed to disturb the mother and she started to beat a hasty retreat. The thirsty cubs, however, didn’t want to leave just yet. She tried to coax them initially, but when all her cajoling from a distance failed, she rushed back to the waterhole and in a distinctly alarmed call ‘reprimanded’ the cubs to follow her and very soon all of them dissolved into the darkness of the forest behind. She was right about the disturbance. Almost immediately, a huge male gaur arrived on the scene, who I thought must surely be over a ton in sheer muscle weight.

In the past, my friends had witnessed violent encounters with mother bears and tigers. Jim Corbett too mentions one such fight, where eventually both the animals met their bloody end. But in this case, the mother played it very safe and ensured that she did not have any confrontation with the huge bovine, which normally wouldn’t have bothered too much about the hairy mammal sharing his watering hole.

Feathered Friends

Many such experiences from Pench are deeply engraved in my mind. Though I must confess, I have been enticed to Pench more by its wonderful avifauna. The colourful forest birds here are very well complimented by a large number of migratory visitors. These arrive every winter on the huge reservoir formed by the damming of the north-south flowing Pench river. This water body now politically separates Maharashtra’s Pench National Park from its Madhya Pradesh cousin sharing the same name. Pintail duck, shoveller, gargeny duck, pochard, Indian skimmer and a large number of residents like the comb duck, spotbill, coot, heron and moorhen can be seen sharing the water eco-system. Importantly, it was a judgement of the Indian Supreme Court that totally banned fishing in this lake-keeping in the spirit of human non-interference in the wilderness.

The birds of prey who rule the skies in these forests include the serpent eagle, white-eyed buzzard and honey buzzard. Barred jungle owlet, collared scops owl and the weird looking mottled wood owl keep the death watch during the nights. Malabar pied hornbill, scarlet minivet, painted francolin, oriole, barbets, kingfishers and other colourful feathered bipeds bring up the bird list to over 225 species.

Woods and Beyond

When the Totladoh hydroelectric project was built, a large part of the forest, mainly in Maharashtra, underwent submergence. But now, the stabilised eco-system is a rich mix of dry and moist tropical deciduous forest with teak (Tectona grandis) being the dominant species. This is found in association with ain (Terminalia tomentosa), mahua (Madhuca indica), jamun, tendu, charoli, lendiya, tiwas, moi, salai and dhawda.

But for me, three trees that really stand out in the Pench forest are the ghost tree, Arjun and palas. The ghost tree draws its name from the smooth greenish white papery bark that has a ghostly shine in the forest on a moonlight night. This papery bark peels off, giving it the other interesting name-that of ‘the naked lady’ of the forest. No wonder, there are many tales associated with this tree. The ghost tree is also very useful to the local Gond tribals, who extract the ‘karaya’ gum from the bark and also eat the roasted seeds. The Sterculia part in its scientific name comes from Sterculius, the Roman god of dung since the flowers of this tree have a strong foul smell.

Second on my special list is a large handsome tree with its conspicuous grey buttressed bark. Many of these can be seen dotting the streams and rivulets in the forest. These are the Arjuna trees. Mythology has it that Kunti, the Pandava mother named her son Arjuna to motivate him to grow up and become as strong and stately as an Arjun tree. The bark of this tree is extracted for leather tanning and leaves are also used to feed silkworms in sericulture.

The third is the Palas tree, which probably is my most favourite tree. It is better known as the ‘the flame of the forest’ as its orange flowers burst open in January and February to decorate the tree and actually give the appearance of a tree being on fire. And a large number of such trees create an effect of a flame in the forest. This is one of our best-known bird attracting trees, whose flowers are pollinated by babblers, sunbirds, starlings, bulbuls and others who are attracted to the brilliant flowers in large numbers. I too have found myself attracted to the ‘birds and the bees’ and also the beautiful flowers.

Reaching there

About 80kms from Pench, Nagpur is the nearest airport and railway junction and is well connected to all the cities of India.

The nearest rail-head is at Ramtek (Its a very small station. Nagpur is a better place to change and drive) and a bus can be taken for the next 35km to the park.

Park details

The best time to visit the park is between February and April ( May is hot..but you tend to get good sightings if you can tolerate the sun)