I had driven down to Satpura National Park (again!) last summer. A 3300 km roadtrip, Bangalore – Pench – Satpura National Park – back.

Bangalore – Hyderabad was a steady, uneventful cruise. After picking up a friend from Hyderabad airport, I proceeded towards Nagpur. First night was spent in Rukhad, Pench, after covering 1230 km in 16 hours. I usually do a night stop in Bison Retreat, Rukhad when I am driving North from Bangalore. It is an MPTDC property – value for money, beside the highway, and in the middle of the forest. They serve good egg curry and dal fry. And in winter, they offer dinner beside a cosy campfire.

Next morning we headed to a forest rest house in Satpura. After fiddling with Google Maps for a while, I decided to try a short cut through the Southern fringe of Satpura National Park. Perhaps a mistake. Narrow and broken roads, with 1 foot deep potholes. Long stretches of no dirt trails. It was a hot and dusty drive, and slowed us down. But what is the use of a reliable Toyota 4WD if one can’t afford to experiment and explore a bit?

Cursing the road, and admiring the scenery (it was literally in the middle of nowhere, with almost zero traffic – a road less traveled), we eventually hit NH46, linking Betul and Itarsi in MP. After heading North for 20 km, we left the highway and took a village road, which morphed to a dirt track after a few km. Reaching the FRH – located in the core area of the park – involved about 30km of trail driving. I had driven there 1.5 years before, that too in the evening, so wasn’t worried about losing our way.


Leopard brothers

Leopard brothers – Neelu and Peelu

After a quick shower and basic lunch, we went out for a self-drive safari. The 4WD system of my Fortuner needed some exercise, and it lapped up the trails happily. The forest department had relocated a couple of tigers in that zone, but we didn’t have any luck. Back to the FRH for rum and campfire.

While coming back from the safari, I had noticed a herd of feral cattle milling about the FRH. The villagers had been relocated out of the forest, but many had opted to leave their cattle behind, because they got compensation anyway. So predators had a great time for a few months, feasting on the cattle. We were sitting outside, and knew that something was disturbing the herd – we had been hearing sounds of running and frantic bellowing. After a couple of hours, we heard the sound of heavy bodies clashing – a sudden rush and ‘thud’, and then silence. No more frantic calls. Went near the fence (the FRH was surrounded by a puny 5 feet high wire fence, not electrified), and shone the torch. We could see two bright eyes shining over the kill. I thought it was a leopard, and it would run away if I took my vehicle outside for a photo opportunity. Big mistake. Next morning, when we went near the kill, we realized that it was a tiger kill. It was a rather large cow, and the clean eating style was characteristic of a tiger. Leopards are messy eaters (not going to describe the difference). A tiger would have stayed there, growled, or perhaps charged at us. Sigh. What a missed opportunity!

(A few shots from previous trips to Satpura National Park.)



Sambar stag in the mist


Leopard on a tree. Relaxation.

Winter drink

Winter drink

Leopard brothers - winter shot

Leopard brothers – digital painting based on a winter shot, taken a few months earlier.

Nevertheless, come nightfall, the sheer experience of forest immersion is a lot more important than any photo. That includes tiger kills, the moon rising over the trees, the campfire, the cool breeze (even in summer) and various sounds and smells of the forest.

Next two days were spent in the forest rest house. A few hundred kms of self-driven safaris over grassland, mud trails, rocks and dirt trails. Accompanied by forest guides, of course. And near every camera trap, we would stop, our forest friend would get down, take out the SD card, check battery, put the SD card into his small (and basic) digital camera, and see what photos had been captured. The morning after the cow kill, a pack of wild dogs came and polished off the carcass. The tiger must have been irritated when he came back the next night to feed.

Then we moved to Forsyth Lodge near Madhai for a few days, doing morning and evening safaris. Great place, fantastic hospitality, and great naturalists.  A friend used to manage the resort, now he has moved to Bhutan. But all the naturalists were great, and I am still in touch with them.

Drinking time

Drinking time

Gaur calf

Gaur calf

I had the best leopard sightings during the first and last safari. Always happens with me, someone above playing cruel tricks with expectation management. In between, we encountered a rather shy, and rather large male leopard near Churna. Was a proper peeping tom. First safari: we encountered two leopard brothers. Neelu and Peelu. Blue eyed and yellowed eyed siblings.Last safari: we baked under the sun for 3 hours. Then just when we were about to turn back, we heard the warning call of a sambar. Quick about turn, rush to the area.We saw one of the brothers walking on the road. Head on, but really, really dark. We kept on reversing, to give him space.  Eventually he sat down on a rock beside a waterhole, and allowed me to take a few shots at a distance of 10-12 feet, at very low shutter speeds. Some manual focus was involved, because the camera wasn’t focusing properly given the darkness.

Noticed something interesting (peahens)

Noticed something interesting (peahens). High ISO shot.

Gaurs in Satpura.

Gaurs. One is a semi-albino.

Leopard, early morning

Leopard, early morning

Next morning my friend left for Bhopal to catch a flight back to Mumbai. I had a long drive ahead of me, so decided to sleep for a while. Left after lunch. But always, always, fatigue catches up when one is returning back. Especially after a few days of safaris, where waking up at 4:30 am is involved. One can’t do the same average speed going back. Caught up with a Casca https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casca_(series) audiobooks while driving back. Interesting character, immortal legionary, who fought in all the important wars in the last 2000+ years. The author- Barry Sadler – had contempt for Hitler, but awe for friendly Chengiz. Which is the way it should be. That Mongol (well, his generals) conquered more territory than anyone else in the documented history of our world. Europe would have fallen, if his generals hadn’t turned back because of the Khan’s death in Mongolia. That time, Europe was a molehill compared to Asian empires (as per a certain Corsican, whose last name was Bonaparte). Another interesting fact. The Mongols didn’t/couldn’t conquer India, though they managed to conquer the Persian (Khwarezmid) Empire, and later overcame the Chinese (Western Xia, Jin and Song). OT: Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror Series is highly recommended.

Step by step.

Step by step. Approaching leopard.

Stalking a peacock. Evening shot.

Stalking a peacock. Evening shot.

Evening encounter - leopard

Portrait. Evening shot. He has a wound on his neck.

A few interesting facts about leopards:

  • India has 12000-25000 leopards. The latest census only surveyed part of the country, so who knows?
  • Leopards are extremely adaptable, and are often found outside cities and villages. They even want to study in schools. VIBGYOR School in Bangalore – in the middle of the city – had an aspirant Panthera pardus fusca student a while back.
  • Pound for pound, they are one of the strongest cats
  • There are maneating leopards even today. Quote common in fact. But that’s due to habitation loss and disappearing of prey. Poor cats. If you want to read about maneating leopards, and haven’t read Corbett (some people were living under the rock, sigh), this book is highly, highly recommended (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/475257.The_Man_Eating_Leopard_of_Rudraprayag) Best to read it when alone in a forest, with leopards prowling around. No fun reading a few pages at a time, while checking FB, Twitter and watching TV.
  • Anyway, Uttarakhand, Junnar etc. are the prime hotspots for leopard-human conflict. Mumbai can also proudly raise a hand, and come in the top 20, perhaps. Just Google “maneater + leopard + India”. You would be surprised to see articles from the same week or month. We seldom get to know, staying in our safe cities.