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Kanha National Park.

Kanha in Madhya Pradesh (five hours driving from Jabalpur, six from Nagpur) has sometimes been called the N'Gorongoro of India. The simile is apt, albeit Kanha is far greener and its cordon of hills far more densely wooded. Unlike Tanzania's N'Gorongoro, the Kanha valley is not a volcanic crater, though the enclosing hills are a consequence of geologically ancient volcanic activity. The horseshoe-shaped Kanha valley, which accounts for nearly a third and the oldest part of the Kanha National Park, is bound by two distant spurs emanating from the main Mekal ridge, forming its southern rim. The spurs, in their gently tapering traverse, nearly close in the north leaving but a narrow opening for the meandering Sulkum or Surpan river, the valley's main drainage.


Herds of the Kanha miscellany, the axis deer (chital), the swamp deer (barasingha), the blackbuck (hiran), the wild pig and occasionally the gaur, throng the central parkland of the valley, providing the basis for the com­parison with N'Gorongoro. With its confiding herds and relatively tolerant predators, Kanha offers an almost unrivaled scope to a keen photographer of Indian wildlife.

The forests of the Banjar valley and the Halon valley, respectively forming Kanha's western and eastern halves, had, even at the turn of the century, been long famous for their deer and tiger. Expectedly, therefore, they were reserved as the exclusive hunting grounds for the most privileged, the British Viceroy, as early as 1910. The ups and downs in the ensuing decades gave an in­teresting conservation history to Kanha which celebrated its golden jubilee in 1983. It all started with an area of some 96 sq miles (250 sq km) in the Kanha valley being gazetted as a sanctuary in 1933.


This was followed by 116 sq miles (300 sq km) of the Halon valley around Supkhar also being declared a sanctuary in 1935. However, because of extensive deer damage to tree saplings in the forests and crops in nearby villages, the Supkhar sanctuary was denitrified within a few years. Both these areas at that time still harbored teeming populations of the Central Indian barasingha (Carves duvauceli branderi). This majestic cousin of the nominate swamp deer (Carves duvau­celi) of the sub-Himalayan flood- plains had adapted itself to the hard-ground grasslands and until the turn of the century dominated the Central Indian highlands.

Mounting pressures on the wilderness not­withstanding, Kanha valley survived as a sanctuary into the 1950s. Excessive stock grazing had, however, jeopardized the bara­singha's grassland habitat and its numbers had greatly declined. Yet a few thousand still found a home in Kanha valley's central maidans - meadows with sporadic groves of trees. Then in the early 1950s, a blessing in cruel disguise, as it was, a privileged hunter was allowed to shoot 30 tigers in and around the sanctuary. The furor that followed led to a special legislation and the Kanha valley was declared a 96-sq-mile national park in 1955. Since then, the gains have been steady. In 1962, the park was ex­panded to 123 sq miles (318 sq km). In 1970, the area south of the Mekal ridge and down to the river Banjar was added raising it to 172 sq miles (446 sq km). Finally, Project Tiger paved the way for the integration of the eastern Halon valley into the park system, initially on a actuary status in 1974 and as a full national park since 1976. This gives Kanha National Park its present area of 363 sq miles (940 sq km) which is further buffered by an additional area of 388 sq miles ( 1005 sq km). The total conserva­tion unit encompasses 750 sq miles (1945 sq km) and is called Kanha Tiger Reserve under Project Tiger.

Rich Habitat: Kanha's topography and geology combine variously to give it its rich habitat diversity. The range of elevation is from 1480 to 2950 feet (450-900 meters) above mean sea level. The bauxite-capped hills sport extensive plateaus, locally called dadar, which carry extensive grasslands with only sparse tree growth. Folds at their fringes, where bauxite yields to basalt, have perennial springs. This combination is an ideal habitat for gaur (Bos gauras), the largest of the world's cattle, sambar ( Carves uncolored), the largest of the Indian deer, and chousingha (Tetraceros quadricornis), the only four-horned antelope in the world. Nil­gai antelope (blue bull) are common here and sloth bear are frequent visitors. You may see a pied or a marsh harrier (Circus melanoleucus or C. ferruginous) hovering in the air and swooping on to a cluster of bush quail (Perdicula asiatica).


The rims of the plateaus have steep rocky slopes and often, escarpments. The latter provide a rare stance for breathtaking views of the valleys below and the hills beyond. Many of these plateaus are large enough for runways and indeed Bamhnidadar, 2780 feet (850 meters) above sea level, on the southeastern rim of the Kanha valley had one operative until 1976. A late afternoon visit to Bamhnidadar to see some of these animals is a must. Watching from here the changing hues of the verdant Banjar valley below, against the backdrop of a gradual, glorious sunset, is an enthralling experience indeed.

The drive down from these plateaus is through exquisite wild country. Huge trees of bija (P/erocarpus marsupium), haldu (Adina cardifolia) and dhaora (Anogeissus la/ifolia), along with a host of other large and small trees comprise the thick forests on the slopes. Garlands of massive mahul (Bauhinia vahlaii) climbers span the spaces between trees. Dense bamboo (Dendrocala­mus s/ric/us) thickets occupy the under­story. Much of these mixed forests in such difficult terrain have escaped any form of exploitation and are a picture of raw wilder­ness. Sighting the red jungle fowl, the painted spurfowl, a shy barking deer (Maniacs muntjak) pausing at the road­side glade and some gaur and sambaI', is common. What may distinguish such a drive is a leopard hurtling down a tree or one simply walking along the road. Water is generally scarce on the slopes during the dry season. But in the upper reaches of the major nul/ahs where they flow through gorges carved in basaltic rock, the flow is perennial. There are also some seepage springs scattered amid the slopes. These water holes are the focal points for numerous animals and birds, large and small. In the lower slopes the forest cover changes, often abruptly, from mixed deciduous to lush green sal (Shorea robus/a), with or without bamboo.

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