My Kanha

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 38 No. 2, February 2018

By Dr.M.K Ranjitsinh

It is not possible for me to be objective about Kanha. I find I share this trait with others who have an association with this enchanting park. Subjectivity and possessiveness are, of course, manifestations of ego. But they also lead to identification of oneself with a place or an animal, followed by commitment and action. And commitment is what this country’s conservation effort needs most. 

Kanha in many ways has moulded my life. I first went to Mandla as a five-year old in 1943, where my maternal uncle Dr. Nagendra Singh, ICS, was the collector. On New Year’s day, 1944, my parents promised to take me to the fabled place. But when I woke up that morning, they were gone. I was inconsolable and vowed I will join the ICS, become the collector of Mandla and retaliate by not taking them to Kanha. I did join the IAS, opted for Madhya Pradesh State and in 1967 for the first time in my career asked for a posting as collector Mandla, and was given it. That winter my parents came. I took them to Kanha, but this time they refused to take my wife who was then expecting our first child! My wife and I agree that we spent the happiest three years of my career in that wonderful district, with the house on the Narmada and Kanha as the lodestar.

Prior to my posting, I had visited Kanha in 1963 and 1964, meeting George Schaller for the first time in a memorable situation. As I drove into Hiran Chapar on a frosty December morning, a tableau presented itself. A barasingha stag in rut with his six hinds, eyes riveted on a patch of grass, were hysterically braying their alarm call. Beyond in a jeep stood a lanky white man, watching with binoculars. My arrival disturbed the dramatis personae. From the patch of grass emerged a tigress in her splendid ochre-orange winter coat. I still remember the look of chagrin and anguish on George’s face when our vehicles passed. I had also seen my first Kanha tiger – a large male whom the locals called Behra (deaf) for his nonchalance in the presence of man. He walked a full kilometre ahead of my jeep, waiting for my vehicle to catch up at road turnings, stamping out the markings of a leopard that had walked the road earlier and defecating on the leopard’s droppings. I filmed him eating the tender upper portions of Themeda triandra, the only time I have photographed a tiger eating grass.

The central Indian barasingha Cervus duvauceli branderi is today restricted only to the meadows of Kanha in Madhya Pradesh. Courtesy: DR.M.K.Ranjitsinh

The Barasingha Mystery

A tragedy was imminent in Kanha in 1967. Schaller had counted only 82 barasingha in 1964. In his seminal work, The Deer and the Tiger, he had opined that brucellosis, a contagious disease, which causes abortion and is prevalent amongst livestock, could be a cause of decline. He only mentioned it as a possibility. In 1968, I counted 66 barasingha and 72 in 1969. Poaching was not a problem and the cause of decline was mystifying. The forest officials were inclined to accept brucellosis as the cause. But livestock never came to the Kanha meadows where the barasingha were confined to, and the latter never went out to where the livestock were. Besides, if indeed the Brucella parasite was present in the Kanha grassland, it should affect all herbivores and not just the barasinhga. The cause was evidently more complex. It was suggested that the Kanha barasingha had become too inbred and fresh bloodline had to be imported. Since the last survivors of the deer outside of Kanha in Bastar and Bilaspur districts and in the Khudrahi block in Mandla had recently been rendered extinct and the central Indian barasingha Cervus duvauceli branderi, named after the remarkable author-naturalist Dunbar Brander who had been a DFO in Mandla, survived now only in Kanha, it was suggested that we capture and translocate specimens of the nominate race of the barasingha from Uttar Pradesh. I opposed this move. It is inappropriate to inter-breed sub-species, not just from the scientific standpoint but from the conservation viewpoint as well. For, if we intermingle sub-species the very argument for the conservation of endemic endangered taxa and indeed, of biodiversity itself, is nullified. Besides, I felt the sub-species could be saved and as long as there was a breeding pair, there was hope. Introduction of another sub-species could always be done later if our efforts failed to save the local one.

In the meanwhile, urgent measures were required. I proposed in the next meeting of the State Wildlife Advisory Board held in Kanha itself, that the main objective of the management of Kanha was to save the barasingha, and everything else was subsidiary. This was accepted. The first thing was to stop the baiting of tigers at Schaller Hide, where George used to provide buffalo baits, then quite permissible, to study tigers. Subsequently, baiting continued and the site was a favourite point for visitors to view tigers. It was the haunt of the tigress Lunti, named after the first tiger I had ever seen in Dungarpur, Rajasthan, two decades earlier, and of her family of two large, playful cubs. I had spent many a happy hour watching this family from the hide and from the back of the exuberant elephant Pawanmala, playing hide and seek with the cubs, Pawanmala enjoying the game as much as the cubs, with the mother watching benignly without a growl. One full-moon and a bitterly cold night, the tigress and cubs lay beside the kill after a huge meal. Suddenly Lunti sat up and stared intently to the right of the hide. Following her gaze, I saw an apparition approaching. My binoculars clearly showed it was ‘Mussolini’, the resident alpha male, so named because his protruding jowls, surly temper and the habit of growling with neck characteristically thrust forward and upward, reminded me of the Italian dictator in his harangues. The cubs disappeared in the grass, Lunti turned over on her back, paws hanging limply. Musso went and sniffed her anal area and then went to the kill to feed. The tigress quietly got up and sat down between the feeding male and where the cubs had gone. Soon the cubs reappeared and sat on one side of the clearing, on their haunches. Whereupon Lunti went and parked herself again between the tiger and her cubs. Though Musso was the father of her cubs, Lunti was taking no chances.

The problem was that during summer, Schaller Hide then was the only spot between Shravan Tal and Kanha village which held permanent water, and the barasingha thus always milled around this area. In 1968, sixteen barasingha were killed by tigers all around Schaller Hide. I conveyed to the State Wildlife Board that if such predation of the barasingha continued, translocation of the tiger, at least from the Kanha meadows, would have to be considered. 

From the winter of 1968 water was impounded in Desi Nala and baiting at Schaller Hide was stopped. The visitors were deprived of seeing tigers at the site, but the tiger kills of barasingha dropped to just one in 1969. No shifting of tigers was then necessary. 

Several villages occupied the precincts of the Kanha Tiger Reserve until 1969, when Sonph became the first village to be voluntarily relocated from a national park in independent India after which 27 more villages followed. This saw a considerable expansion of Kanha’s wild space leading to a steady rise in wildlife numbers. Courtesy: DR.M.K.Ranjitsinh

A Revival

In 1969, an American couple came to Kanha and became lifelong friends, another debt I owe to Kanha. Fred Stoever donated $10,000 with which we built a large stockade at Kanha and drove a small group of barasingha to breed and survive on the site, in case the wild population did succumb. The barasingha multiplied in the stockade and from there they were subsequently translocated for reintroduction into the Supkhar area of the park. But the blackbuck, which had inadvertently entered the stockade and survived, have died out, as has the population outside in the park and the local population of blackbuck tragically, is now extinct in Kanha. Subsequently, blackbuck were captured in the neighbouring Seoni district and reintroduced in the Kanha meadows. 

It was evident that with repeated burning of the grass, which attracted the chital for the fresh flush of green grass that ensued, but which deprived the barasingha of high grass for fawning, was unsuitable for the deer. And they had no other meadows to go to outside the central Kanha meadows, at that point of time.

Sonph and Raunda meadows were occupied by villages. Across the Maikal Range and the boundary of Mandla district lay the adjacent Balaghat District forests of Mukki Range, where too the grass meadows had been occupied by forest villages. In 1969, Sonph village of 84 households cultivating an area of 880 acres in the Sonph meadow, but having an ecological impact over an area of about 20 sq. km., was persuaded to shift to a site outside the park. Each farmer got one and half times the land he cultivated in Sonph, which was tractorized and cleared for cultivation. Free agricultural implements, seed and draught animals were given. The site had been chosen by the villagers themselves, as was the site for the new village. A school was built and wells dug and each villager chose where he wanted to build his house, for which building material was supplied free. They were given transport to shift all their belongings and wood from the old houses. They went within a week and a week later a tiger came and killed a decrepit buffalo they had been left behind in what was the main street of Sonph. Two months later in the monsoon, the barasingha moved into the now empty meadow and gave birth to fawns in the new high grass. Animals were claiming back their lost grounds. Sonph was the first village to be relocated outside a national park in independent India. Later, 27 more villages were moved out of an enlarged Kanha, and Kanha is what it is today because of this lebensraum (living space) for wildlife. The barasingha count gradually increased to over 400. Later it was to become the state animal of Madhya Pradesh.

In the end, it was concluded that it was the loss of suitable grassland habitat and fawning ground, not disease that was responsible for the decline of the barasingha. Courtesy: DR.M.K.Ranjitsinh
Blackbuck have also had a murky past in Kanha. The species went locally extinct after which reintroduction from the nearby Seoni district followed. Courtesy: DR.M.K.Ranjitsinh

In 1970, a young Swiss research scholar came for his dissertation on the barasingha and established that it was the ecological factor of loss of suitable grassland habitat and fawning ground and not disease, that was the cause of the decline of the barasingha. The young scholar, Claude Martin, was later to become head of World Wildlife Fund International.

Atop the Bamni Dadar plateau – the only area in Kanha where one can spot the unique four-horned antelope endemic to India – is one of my favourite spots in the park. The viewpoint commanding the vast vista of Balaghat forests with the large meadows once occupied by forest villages – Bisanpura, Ghorela, Sondhar and others. Once the habitat of barasingha, human occupation of these grasslands had eradicated the only ecosystem niche to which they were adapted to. In the Mandla part of Kanha, apart from the central meadows, only two sizeable meadows could be evacuated for this dying deer – Sonph and Raunda. But on the Balaghat side of the Maikal Range, 18 meadows existed in the Mukki Range and more in Supkhar.

On the author’s insistence, the baiting of tigers at Schaller Hide was stopped in 1968. This saw fewer barasingha being hunted by tigers in the area. Courtesy: DR.M.K.Ranjitsinh

Protecting Kanha For Posterity

In 1969, I persuaded my counterpart, the collector of Balaghat to send me a proposal for the extension of Kanha National Park over the adjacent Balaghat forests and which I could forward with my recommendation for the same, to the state government in Bhopal. The proposal came, with the mandatory note from his Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) also recommending the extension, but with the caveat that there were only nine tigers in the area in question but whose annual revenue from forestry operations was Rs. 45 lakhs on an average, and which would have to be given up. The implication was that the State Government would have to sacrifice five lakhs per annum per tiger, and five lakhs was a lot of money in 1969. Obviously, the DFO did not want the park boundary extended, though in deference to his collector’s wishes he had recommended the extension. There was no help for it. I sent the proposal to Bhopal, where it languished in the office of the Chief Conservator of Forests for over a year. In 1970, I was transferred to Bhopal and posted as a Deputy Secretary in the Department of Finance. After some prodding, the proposal moved from the Chief Conservator’s office to the Forest Department in the State Secretariat, and from there since it required a waiver of Rs. 45 lakhs per annum, to the Department of Finance. The Finance Secretary, my boss, was an outstanding officer, R.N. Malhotra, subsequently to rise to be the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Madhya Pradesh was an impoverished state whose main revenue was from forests. One day, when Shri Malhotra was in a very upbeat mood I took the Kanha file to him and begged, “Please sign this, sir, for my sake.’ He read the file and fixed me with his quizzical stare-smile. Give up five lakhs a year on an annual basis for each living tiger while we are charging a royalty of Rs. 250 for each tiger we allow to be shot outside the park (Tiger hunting in India came to a stop only in 1972)? “Yes, Sir, but there are more than nine tigers in the area I promise you and the forests are magnificent and the barasingha will go extinct if we don’t extend,” I replied. He stared some more, smiled and signed. I wish to dedicate this article to the memory of late R.N. Malhotra.

Kanha continues to impact my life and career. In 1969, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) held its epoch-making conference in Delhi and from which emerged Project Tiger. Prior to the conference, an IUCN team led by Dr. Kai Curry-Lindahl visited Kanha. Later, Kai was responsible for my recruitment to the United Nations Environment Programme. The legendary Sir Peter Scott also came to Kanha then. With him I saw a large python, mauled by the Chuhri tigress, immobile but alive. Subsequently, I became Sir Peter’s Vice-Chairman in the Survival Service Commission of the IUCN. In 1983, I guided HRH the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to Kanha. Apart from four tigers, we saw wild dogs pull down a barasingha hind. The Duke has kindly written a forward to my book Beyond the Tiger. It was perhaps my stint in Kanha that prompted Mrs. Indira Gandhi to appoint me Deputy Secretary in charge of wildlife in the Government of India, in 1971.


Kanha is a kaleidoscope of memories: of nine tigers seen in one morning, five of which were adults; of over 3,000 chital massed on Hiran Chapar in early July, the most magical time to be in Kanha after the first monsoonal showers – interspersed with gaur, blackbuck and barsingha; with Sonu Baiga simulating a tiger, the skin of the recently dead Lunti tied to his back, and recording the cacophony of alarm calls that were emanating; of playing back the rutting call of the greatest barasingha stag of my time, the 22 pointer Maikal, and getting an immediate response of counter belligerence; of watching a tigress squatting two metres from my jeep for over 10 minutes and counting her whiskers; of photographing a charging tigress over a distance of 40 m. till Pawanmala, our elephant, sprayed her with dust from a distance of three metres; of dawns in mist-shrouded meadows, with apparitions of barasingha stags braying their rutting calls, antlers festooned with grass; of sparring gaur bulls at Shravan Tal, circling each other and venting their absurdly low-muted rutting calls as they ritualistically raised their heads; of wild dogs coursing and pulling down a chital stag, to be joined by jackals and both canids feeding side by side; of being charged by a pair of mating sloth bears on Macha Dadar, two of the only three bears I have ever seen in Kanha; of watching a tigress play with her four-month-old cub on a bright December evening and coming upon the cub’s mangled carcass the next morning, the work of a transient male; of seeing a Lesser Florican – the only record in that part of the country – in two consecutive years in July, on Kanheri Maidan; of watching withDr. Sálim Ali a male tiger on Nakti Ghati, steadfastly looking away with nary a look back, for over 20 minutes and the old man remarking, “Rude, isn’t he?”

In 1972, I had gone to Kanha with the purpose of including it as a tiger reserve under Project Tiger. Shri H. S. Panwar, the dynamic park Director and later the Director of Project Tiger, and I watched the tigress Short Tail and her two almost full-grown cubs. Short Tail had only a 50 cm. tail. As a cub, the tail vertebrae had broken and festered and she herself had bitten her tail off. I had known her and her family, for almost five years. Next morning, Short Tail was with an adult young male, who sported a gaping fresh wound on his forehead, which Short-Tail was constantly licking. The two cubs that day were bedded not near the mother but some 60 m. away, and only the female cub came to visit the mother and the new entrant. Normally, a very tolerant tigress, Short Tail was very surly that morning, not allowing close approach on elephant back. But I did succeed in taking pictures of the wounded young male, which on enlarging later I found to be Short Tail’s own progeny of the previous litter. Facial markings of a tiger do not change and there was no doubt about his identity. The adult male had come to his mother to care for a wound his own tongue could not reach, and the mother had obliged.

 I shall always return to Kanha. My daughters will throw my ashes on the Kanha meadows and immerse some in the Shravan Tal, if the park authorities permit.

An elusive barking deer or the muntjac foraging in Kanha. The author’s legendary conservation efforts have helped in improving the protection and management of the park making it a crucial wildlife stronghold in Central India and one of the finest national parks in the country. Courtesy: DR.M.K.Ranjitsinh
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