Into the wild, in Melghat
- Returning to where she saw her first tiger, a conservationist finds the park just as inspiring
- 'I am a seasoned forest traveller, and, trust me, Melghat is one of the finest,' writer says
I love tigers, and though I know most wildlife tourists in Maharashtra prefer to go to the Tadoba-Nagzira-Bor reserves because they are almost guaranteed a tiger sighting, I prefer the Melghat Tiger Reserve. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tadoba & Co. dearly. But for Melghat, “the meeting of ghats"—one of India’s oldest, largest, and most beautiful tiger reserves—I have a special fondness.
How can I not? My work as a conservationist and environmental journalist has taken me there often. Melghat is where I saw my first tiger in 2000. I was with Kishor Rithe, conservationist and former honorary wildlife warden of Amravati district, and we had left our vehicle to speak to forest guards. On our return, we saw fresh pug marks going one way round the Gypsy, and then the other. A tiger had visited us and judging by the footprints, conducted a thorough inspection of the intruder in his jungle. We looked around quickly, quietly, and caught the briefest rush of gold through a curtain of green as it glided away. We had barely seen the tiger, but it had surely seen us.
Big cat spotting is rare in Melghat, but they are certainly there; 40-odd at last count in 2018, according to data from the forest department, Melghat Tiger Reserve. The folds and valleys of the undulating mountains hide their treasures well. Spread over 2,768.5 sq. km, Melghat is part of the Satpura range, and is a large, spectacular landscape of unending hills and ravines, characterized by jagged cliffs. It is a tropical, dry deciduous forest that forms the catchment for five major rivers.
The reserve holds memories of another unexpected first for me: a marriage proposal. It was in a village of the Korku tribe, as I cooked and chatted with some local women. Though my skills on the chullah didn’t pass muster, the lady of the house offered me her son, who “looks like Suniel Shetty", along with a bride price of ₹5,000, two bulls and one sari! The mind boggles, not just at the proposal, but at the thought of a tribal woman sitting in a remote village in the middle of the forest—the mobile phone was not all-pervasive then—with a crush on Shetty, then a Bollywood heart-throb.
My Melghat adventures were to continue. On my next trip, I met the forest owlet. This small, nondescript bird was believed to have been extinct for 113 years, until it was rediscovered in 1997. I remember it sitting nonchalantly on a branch, unaware of the fuss it had generated. Melghat remains the safest habitat for the endangered owlet, and the best place to spot it. Only, tread softly. The basic tenet of wildlife tourism is to remember that we are guests of the wild, and must respect our hosts.
Well over a decade had passed since I last visited Melghat, so a few months ago, I reacquainted myself with my lost love.
This visit tilted towards the tranquil—unless you count the thundering hooves of a herd of gaur, the world’s largest wild bovine, the males weighing about a ton each, as they cantered across the muddy road. They huddled on the side, perhaps a dozen of them, taut rippling muscles over black hides, tapering down to white schoolboy socks.
We stopped our vehicle to watch the gaur, who gazed back, their pale, unblinking eyes trained on us, I think, with curiosity. I always imagine animals to have this sense of curiosity. Why did “our" Melghat tiger sniff our jeep so avidly, as the pug marks indicated? My researcher friends tell me stories of animals curiously “eyeing and sniffing" at that strange new contraption in the forest—the camera trap. “Tigers can be extremely inquisitive at times," remarked the late naturalist F.W. Champions in an essay discussing “Curiosity In Animals" in his seminal book, The Jungle In Sunlight And Shadow.
My musings were interrupted by Vishal Bansod, friend, wildlifer and guardian of Melghat, who has worked towards its protection for almost 25 years. “Look", he whispered, just as a forest owlet took wing in a whirr of grey and brown.
I shifted my attention to the ground below. Pressed into the squishy mud—it had rained the previous night—was a mass of pug marks. A tigress had walked around. Plus, there were paw prints of her cubs all over. One seemed to have had a lonely wander to one side, then rushed back and forth, until they all walked together. This was a tiger thoroughfare. Turns out it was actually a wild cat thoroughfare. On one edge we also saw the pug marks of a solitary leopard, and, further up the path, tiny imprints that were likely those of a jungle cat.
After these encounters, we stopped for a brief halt at the Kolkas rest house inside the reserve. Standing knee-deep in water, we chatted with a mahout as he bathed the “department" elephants, pressed into service for patrolling and protecting Melghat.
I am a seasoned forest traveller, and, trust me, Melghat is one of the finest. This story doesn’t begin to capture its range of wildlife—the sloth bear that is better spotted around March-April in mahua (Madhuca longifolia) season, the rare chowsingha or four-horned antelope, predators like the dholes (wild dog) and the Malabar flying squirrel that you might spot in the canopy. Melghat’s treasures continue to reveal themselves. For instance, the velvet spider, thought to be extinct in India, was rediscovered here in 2015.
I can’t wait to return to Melghat—to be reassured of my chosen path of environmental conservation, and to renew my sense of wonder for the untrammelled, unassuming wild.
PLAN A TRIP
When to go: The park is open from October-June, with safaris only from December-June. Summers are scorching, but chances of animal sightings are high.
Winter is comfortable, and an excellent time for birding (Melghat has 280-odd bird species), especially since there are opportunities to walk trails. Chikhaldhara is a beautiful monsoon spot for its spectacular waterfalls. A must-do is a visit to the beautiful forts that dot Melghat; my favourite is Narnala.
Wildlife/forest dept. office:
Tel: 0721-2662792 (Amravati); 07223-220214 (Paratwada)
The nearest airport is Nagpur (250km), which is a comfortable five-and-a-half- hour drive away. Amravati is a well-connected railhead, about 3 hours away from the park.
You can stay at the forest department’s eco-lodges at Shahanur ( ₹1200 per night for a cottage) or Semadoh (from ₹1,500 per night for a cottage).
Melghat’s treasures continue to reveal themselves. For instance, the velvet spider, thought to be extinct in India, was rediscovered here in 2015
FIRST PUBLISHED03.03.2019 | 11:15 AM IST