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Tiger Safari India Panna national park - The tiger rises again like the Phoenix

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Panna National Park – The Tiger Phoenix rises again, from the ashes of deceit and neglect!

The story of Panna national park is like a wildlife soap opera, full of intrigue, loss, sadness and survival against the odds. Although Panna and Sariska were the only two project tiger parks to ‘lose’ all their tigers, the story of Panna and the lessons we must learn from it are vitally important for the protection of tigers in all of the Indian wildlife sanctuaries and ultimately the survival of wild tigers on our planet.

A brief history of Panna National Park

Panna like many of the project tiger reserves was formally a hunting reserve, fiercely protected for the Royal rulers of nearby states. Gradually from the 1970’s the core area of Panna was given increased levels of protection, until finally in 1994 it became India’s 22nd tiger reserve. The park is situated at the northern most point of one of India’s few ‘continuous’ tracts of extensive forests, linking up famous tiger sanctuaries, such as Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench as we head south in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

My first visit to Panna – Fog, the Ken River and two male tigers in one safari!

It seems a lifetime ago that I made the short journey from the ‘temple town’ of Khajuraho to Panna national park in January 2003 and met for the first time a man who has ‘endured’ a love affair with this tiger reserve for a generation. I walked up the rickety wooden stairs of the huge wooden Machan overlooking the magnificent Ken River lodge and enjoyed a drink in the company of the charismatic Vini.

Vini and his wife Bhavna had made a ‘real’ home at Panna since 1986 and their love for this park and Ken River Lodge shines through. For me it was still the early days of Wildlife Trails (Tiger Trails) and I was busy experiencing national parks and wildlife reserves in more isolated spots with less tourist traffic. The variety of wildlife activities at Panna was also more varied than parks such as Ranthambhore, with elephant and boat safaris available as well as the morning and afternoon jeep safaris. It was also the park where I saw my first tigers from elephant back; two male siblings just starting to be more independent and facing the extreme challenge of establishing their own territories – a process that can often result in death of severe injuries from more dominant tigers.

Where have all the tigers gone?

Unlike Sariska which appeared to lose all of its tigers within a short time frame of 1-2 years - although that needs to be viewed with great suspicion due to false ‘accounting’ of tiger sightings and inflation of tiger numbers –  ‘A string of warnings, given by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), independent scientists and NGOs were ignored between 2002 and 2008 as Madhya Pradesh concentrated on ‘tourism and welfare’ and senior officials looked the other way’

After Sariska a tiger census relying often on one annual survey of the forest by park guards and volunteers were largely discredited and it was made a priority to make use of trained scientists at the Wildlife Institute of India to obtain transparent data using a mixture of camera traps, visual observation and scat analysis. When such a team visited Panna in 2009 they gave us the terrible, if not surprising news that tigers no longer roamed the forests of Panna national park. Years of false data and tiger censuses reporting numbers of 15 to 25 tigers had proved to be outright lies and the roar of the tiger had finally been snuffed out in Panna.

The most surprising and in my opinion neglectful part of the management of tiger reserves in India is the lack of respect for science. Here we have a country overflowing with bright minds wanting to learn from real hands on scientists; but in reality the tiger reserves are managed by old school foresters (they see parks as a resource) or disinterested city bureaucrats. This type of person is simply a disaster for wild tiger populations in India, as is the failure to ‘install’ full time scientific teams, who should be studying everything from tree architecture to the effect of dogs on the wild deer populations. Such studies would give us the whole picture of the fragile ecosystem where the tiger is king, but this simply does not happen in the vast majority of India’s tiger reserves and where it is taking place, the work is being carried out by private NGO’s on limited budgets.

The return of the King and Queens to Panna national park.

The story of the re-introduction of tigers into Panna national park after their extinction sheds a powerful light not only on the techniques of modern science, but also tiger behaviour and the sad truth that there are rarely happy ending in the world of tiger conservations.

At the same time in early 2009 when it was confirmed that only one male tiger remained in Panna, park authorities had two orphan female tigers were being kept in captivity within a large enclose in Kanha national park – there mother had been killed by a male tiger back in 2005. These two tigresses were simply named T1 and T2 and in March 2009 it was decided to translocate them to Panna in the hope they would mate with the last male tiger of Panna. Sadly that was not to be the case as he also ‘disappeared’ from the park and the reality dawned on the scientists that they were now in effect starting from scratch with tigers from other parks. So it was that a male tiger from Pench national park christened T2 made the long journey to Panna and was released inside the park. However T3 didn’t take very well to his new home and set off on the 500km journey back home to Pench. Remarkably this amazing male tiger managed to travel a total distance of 440km; followed by his own personal encourage of elephant, mahouts, park guards and government scientists. That personal journey is worthy of a blog in its own right, but for now we will reflect that he was returned to Panna and this time the scientists used tigress urine in his release area to encourage him to stay a little longer – an inventive solution which had the desired result.

When T3 left Panna for his attempted return to Pench, the authorities received incredibly important information on forest corridors and there is now real momentum behind protected these vital arteries and creating new tiger reserves in the few patches of remaining forests.

It really is a fascinating process to witness and Panna is on the very frontline of the protection of tigers in the wildlife rich state of Madhya Pradesh. If you would like to visit this beautiful tiger sanctuary combined with the amazing temples of Khajuraho then check out our tiger safari in Panna national park.

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