I am now on the train to Dehra Dun, a small cantonment town in the foothills of the Himalayas, in a different state of Uttarkhand, a state of large forest tracts, high densities of Tigers within Corbett Tiger Reserve and the highest mountain of Nanda Devi in India, which we are hoping to spot on our trek in the Nandour Valley.
I had trained back from Madhya Pradesh a few days ago back to the heart of the capital Delhi, ostensibly in order to get my laundry done and to remember what a traditional English breakfast was like again. This can be done with best effect from the suitably palatial surroundings of a Lutyens designed home with the endless hospitality and staff of the High Commissioners Residence, in the leafy parts of New Delhi, literally in the very heart of Government. It just so happens that the High Commissioner is my step brother and his wife, now suitable ennobled, and a more perfect posting for a member of the my family could never have envisaged in my wildest dreams. The residence has even got its own wildlife it is two acres of lush and manicured gardens complete with noisy parakeets, wheeling black kites, and a huge oriental hornbill, not to mention the macaques causing havoc in the trees and having to be scared off by a trained Langur twice a day!
My last ten days in MP have been based in and around Panna Tiger Reserve in a Forest Rest House on the Ken River and from here we explored the local area and enjoy great game drives within this hugely scenic park, made up of a series of rising flat topped hills and plateaus, great gorges with tumbling waterfalls in the monsoons, teak forests and a large river now replenished with Mugger crocodiles and gharial. As is always the case this was the erstwhile Maharaja's of Panna's hunting ground and old ruins litter the park; a hunting lodge, a columned building for his guests lunch stops, and a old hunters hide where he could sit safely and shoot any game that took his fancy.
Panna is stuffed full of a magnificent range of birds from the tiny red breasted minivet to the large Grey headed Fish eagle. Here is also some of the best herbivore populations we have seen, with large numbers of good looking Sambar deer, the rather ill designed Nilgai or 'Blue bull' and the spotted 'Bambi' deer called Chital, not to forget endless families of wild pig turning over the forest floor. Its leopard population has exploded now that's its main enemy seems to be very thin on the ground!
Panna is undergoing heated debate on the issue of its Tiger population, official figures still say there are 32 in the Tiger Reserve but given the smokasbord of delicious foodstuffs here and the complete absence of signs and tracks of Tigers for a while now - and certainly in the ten days I was there - this number holds little water! Recently the Forest Department decided to agree on relocating 2 or even 4 tigresses back into the park, suggesting (if not stated) that the park has a major problem. Not having Tigers makes a huge difference to visitor numbers and already Panna is suffering, down by almost 75% from its heyday as a Tiger reserve when lots of habituated wild tigers roamed its forests. Poor park guides can wait for days now to get a ride into the park.
We dined with Dr Ragu Chandawaht, a well known and now Ex Panna Tiger researcher and wildlife advocate who helped bring Panna back from the brink over 8 years of close monitoring from the late 1990's and discussed all the issues of the park under a clear full moon and over a delicious chicken curry. From the treehouse dining room of the Ken River Lodge we also had a TOFT meeting with the various lodge owners and discussed ways in which lodge owners can improve community relations, work with park management and use tourism more effectively as a conservation tool. With some cajoling we should be able to get some walks also set up in a wilderness area that would be fantastic and desperately needed to broaden further the wildlife experience. Panna has infact some of the best opportunities to avoid doing endless game drives and I hope we can encourage this aspect. I had also met with some Discovery Initiatives clients, doing our Tiger study tour, and who were enjoying the park and its surroundings before the wholesale 'Tiger onslaught' that is Bandavgarh and Kanha tourism, at their next destination.
Two days we also spent in what was thought to be one of the forest areas where Panna's elusive tigers were said to be residing, in the forests near Bijawar and Buxwah, again once famous hunting blocks. Our assumptions where quickly put right when the range officer for the area said they hadn't seen either Tiger or leopard in these forests for 5 years. We did walk in these thinning forests for half a day and though we saw signs of key herbivores including Chinkara or 'Indian Gazelle', who look similar to the 'Thommies' or Thomson Gazelle of East Africa, and the even rarer four horned antelope we concluded the numbers where far lower than ideal and could only sustain a insignificant tiger population.
All of us had enjoyed an afternoon at the famous temples of Khajaraho, where the Chandela empire of the 8th to the 13th century had obviously much enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh, with very graphic and exceptionally gifted carvings of gorgeous well bosomed ladies and their lover - or indeed lovers - enjoying every conceivable position of Kama Sutra, and our guide revelled in their description as we toured these majestic temples. However we all said we would have loved to have seen the temples before they were 'restored' when they were rediscovered by an English Engineer in the 1870's. A few days later we where not to know that having climbed Ajaigarh Fort, suitable translated to mean 'Impregnable fort', with its five hundred elephant step climb from today's village of Ajaigarh, and a place well off the beaten tourist trail, we discovered hidden amongst trees within the tumbled down walls, exactly this. Here four temples exist, almost untouched in their unrepaired and uncleaned form, surrounded by huge chunks of superb carvings merely lying scattered across the ground. Evidence of theft and deliberate acquiescence of key carved stones could be seen, but the experience was 'Indiana Jonesesq', and rather wonderful to experience all by ourselves. Keep the Archeaological Survey of India as far away from its monuments as possible please, as they are doing more eyesore damage than the numerous graffiti artists, and continuing concrete based repairs and poor quality restorations ain't helping their reputation either.
My adventure here continued when I shifted a buried stone carving lying on the ground only to be given a very nasty bite, which turned out to be a scorpion's sting. Almost immediately my finger began to throb and after applying a tourniquet to the injured finger we decided we must rapidly get down for medical treatment, as my finger rapidly started to turn black! Before finding a doctor, and after taking away the strapping, the pain became excruciatingly and began to move up my whole arm. This really was the 'Khajaraho curse!' Thankfully the doctor seemed calm and painkillers were injected and the pain was relieved to my great joy.
Into the lower Himalayas my trail continues.............