Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve

Essential Park Info

Established: 1955
Area under protection: 950 sq km (the surrounding Kanha Tiger Reserve is 1950 sq km)
Climate: Subtropical with monsoon rains
Best Time to Visit: March and April
Closest Airport or Train Station: Jabalpur (4 hours), Nagpur (6 hours)
Can you drive yourself? No

Known as the “Jungle Book country,” Kanha National Park is slap bang in the heart of India. The empty interior of Madhya Pradesh is home to multiple National Parks, Pench, Bandhavgarh, and Kanha being three of the best known.

What sets Kanha apart is its diverse collection of fauna. The tiger reserve has a large population of Bengal Tigers, which have recently rebounded thanks to Project Tiger. Kanha is best known as one of the few wildlife reserves that support Barasingha, also known as the Swamp Deer. These deer are another survival story, saved from the brink of extinction in the 1970s thanks to conservation efforts, a byproduct of saving the keystone species, the tiger.

It must be noted, though, that Kanha National Park is not just about tigers and barasingha. Dholes, leopards and sloth bears are also found in the park and can often be seen while searching for tigers.

The park is also the habitat of a richly varied birdlife with over 300 species of birds. Packed with towering sal and bamboo forests and lush meadows, the park’s landscapes are worth a visit on their own.

What wildlife is seen in the Kanha National Park?



Apart from the previously mentioned headline wildlife, the Tigers and Barasingha, the park is home to most of India’s best-known species. If you are looking for larger animals like dholes or sloth bears, make this your first stop for a good chance of spotting these lesser-seen animals.

Chittal (the spotted deer), Sambar and barking deer are all common. Gaur and wild boar are less so.

There are three species of cats in the park. Tigers, of course, but also leopards and jungle cats. Rusty-spotted cats are thought to be at home there; recent studies suggest they have settled in the park. Don’t expect to see one though, as numbers will be low for quite a while.

Although sightings can never be guaranteed, the park has an excellent track record for tiger visibility. The core zones of Kanha, Sarahi, Mukki and Kisli have the highest densities. Leopards, though they are elusive, are also seen in these zones.


In addition to mammals, bird watchers will not be disappointed either. With over 300 species of birds, including the crested serpent eagle, Indian roller, and white-throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), the park offers plenty for both the beginner and experienced bird watcher.

The Jungle Book

This park is well-renowned for the abundance of flora and fauna it shelters, but less known is that it was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s classic “The Jungle Book.”

 Akela, the wolf, is unlikely to be seen here though, unless she is on a tiger safari. There are, however, some of the Canis genus. The Golden Jackal or Indian Jackal (the local subspecies) – Canis aureus indicus is seen regularly in Kanha. Dholes are the other regular canid.

Baloo the bear was actually modeled on a sloth bear, though he is often thought of as a black bear in the modern version of the tale. Bagheera, the black panther, won’t be seen here. Melanism in leopards isn’t very common. It occurs most often in jungle-living cats where the darker forest needs less camouflage. Nearby Pench National Park has recently become a hotspot for seeing black leopards, but you are better off heading south to Karnataka (Kabini, Nagarhole etc) if you absolutely want to see one.

A pair of Dholes (Cuon alpina) on a road in Kanha National Park
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A pair of Dholes (Cuon alpina) on a road in Kanha National Park

Description of Kanha National Park

Situated right in the middle of India, Kanha is one of three well-known parks between Nagpur and Jabalpur. Madhya Pradesh, the second largest state in India, is relatively sparsely populated. Especially away from the cities. This has led to the preservation of the landscape – or if you are cynical, a much slower pace of development. The Park is about a four-hour drive to the southeast of Jabalpur, and the roads get progressively worse as you approach the park.

The National Park has quite a large buffer zone. This is effectively where most of the lodges are. There is also quite a large core zone, split into six different areas. They each have a slightly different character, and you will be assigned one of them by the park. Booking in advance is necessary if you want to choose one, but that doesn’t always work out.

As mentioned above, Kanha, Sarahi, Mukki and Kisli zones have the highest densities of tigers.

Kanha, the national park, not the core zone, has quite a variable landscape. There are hills and rocky outcrops, thick forest and open meadows. The region is a mix of sal forest and bamboo forest. These are both dry deciduous tropical forests. Innundation during the Monsoon provides moisture for the rest of the year.

The meadows and grasslands are quite wet, sometimes swampy, especially after the monsoon season (June to October, when the park is closed). This is what makes it so welcoming for the Barasinga, who are also known as swamp deer.

There is also quite a lot of standing water in the park. These waterholes are places where one often finds Tigers. The tigers are fond of bathing. Especially during the premonsoon period when the heat can get unbearable. During this time the waterholes are smaller and fewer in number. Given the lack of options in April or May for finding water, staking out ponds is a good option for spotting wildlife.

Barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii) in Kanha National Park, India
Licensed from Shutterstock
Barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii) in Kanha National Park, India

Getting to Kanha National Park

The closest main city is Jabalpur. It is a train hub and has a small airport with flights to Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad. Getting a private transfer from here to the National Park is about 40 USD. This is probably your easiest and best gateway to Kanha National Park if you are in the country already.

However, if you are arriving from abroad, a slightly better option is the city of Nagpur, which has flights to Dubai and Doha as well. Connecting via the Gulf States is an easy option for Europeans, avoiding the hassles of transferring in Delhi.

Nagpur is about 6 hours by road from Kanha, so it isn’t much further. However, there are other benefits to Nagpur. To get to Kanha, you will have to pass by Pench Tiger Reserve. Why not try two parks for the cost of one flight?

Game Drives in Kanha National Park

Of course, once you get here, you want to explore the park. You want to see the wildlife. The local state government of Madhya Pradesh has strict rules in place for the national parks it oversees.

Booking is not obligatory but possible. As the number of vehicles in the park is limited, booking in advance becomes necessary for any visit to Kanha National Park. Reservations can be made online, but unfortunately, a local bank card is necessary. Lodges in the area are often willing to do this for you.

If you have a preferred zone, booking well in advance is advised, but all zones are equally good, so reserving a few days out is okay.

You have to book a vehicle separately and give the park the details. They hang out around the park gates in the morning if needed, and when you check in at the park gate, you will be assigned a local guide.

These guides don’t always speak perfect or even good English, as Hindi is the lingua franca in the area. Getting a driver from your lodge who is fluent in English is a great option to avoid difficulties.

Of course, if you book a tour or a lodge with a full package, then they will sort this for you. Organizing the permits on the morning of a game drive isn’t for the faint-hearted.

There are also Canters – an Indian experience. These lager vehicles can carry up to 20 people. Of course they are interesting for a first time visitor, and a cultural experience. However for real wildlife viewing and photographic opportunities they leave a lot to be desired.

If you want to see Tigers (Panthera Tigris) in the wild, you need to head to India. Tiger safaris are quite easy to organize in a national park. You will not be the only visitor when a tiger is spotted.
Licensed from Shutterstock
If you want to see Tigers (Panthera Tigris) in the wild, you need to head to India. Tiger safaris are quite easy to organize in a national park. You will not be the only visitor when a tiger is spotted.

Accommodation near Kanha National Park

In India, there is generally no option for staying directly in National Parks. However, there are plenty of lodges in the buffer zone around the park.

Khatia Gate is one of the most accessible villages next to Kanha. There are options here for all levels. There are a few luxury lodges, some backpacker places, and plenty of mid-range places. Not all mid-range lodges are equal, though. Read the most recent reviews carefully before you decide.

Contacting lodges to see if they offer guides and drivers is an excellent way of finding out more about them. Look for a lodge that emphasizes the variety of wildlife on offer rather than a lodge that pushes the ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity of seeing a tiger.

During Indian holidays, Holi, Diwali, and even Christmas, the park can get busy so do book both lodging and park entrances in advance.

Best Time To Visit Kanha

Kanha National Park is open from October to May. The rest of the year, the monsoon is too heavy to allow vehicles to drive on the unsurfaced roads. Additionally, the heat is oppressive and muggy; it wouldn’t be recommended anyway.

There are 3 significantly different periods within this time frame.

  • October to December : The park is still very green after the rains – the bush is quite thick and it can be hard to find tigers hiding the the long grasses.
  • January to March : Thing are drying out – the undergrowth becomes less and sightings become more common.
  • March to May : The park is parched and grasses are dying back – Easier Tiger sightings.

Each of these times has its pros and cons.

Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) hiding in the lush undergrowth of the monsoon.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) hiding in the lush undergrowth of the monsoon.

October to December in Kanha

Just after the rainy season everything is lush and green. This means that there is plenty of food around. The herbivores and frugivores are obviously having a better time finding food and this leads to the breeding season. Not every species breeds around this time but there are more young around.

A few extra deer, monkeys and birds means that despite the denser undergrowth, you are likely to get some good sightings.

However the downside is that there is water everywhere in the park and animals, especially tigers can be a bit more spread out.

January to March in Kanha

As the park dries up a bit, the foliage dies back. In January, the mornings can get quite chilly, and warm clothing is necessary for game drives. Even up to April, bring a light jacket for morning game drives.

With less dense foliage comes the opportunity for better wildlife sightings. Tigers sitting at the edge of the road, only two meters away now become more visible. You might still miss them. Tigers have a way of melting into the undergrowth, despite their large size. If you are slightly color blind like me (and many deer species), their orange fur doesn’t stand out against the now less vibrant greens.

The temperature during this period is much more pleasant. If you struggle with heat, then maybe this is the best time to visit.

March to May in Kanha

As March progresses the heat starts to build. Through April and into May the heat just continues to build. So too does the humidity. However at this time, wildlife viewing is excellent. Especially tiger viewing.

The forest is at its lowest extent, the lack of water creates stress on the trees that begin to lose some leaves. Waterholes are beginning to dry up and tigers get upset with the heat. During April and May you will often find a tiger doing nothing but sitting in a waterhole keeping cool.

Given the reduced of waterholes and ponds this simply means that tigers are easier to find.

Waterholes and rivers are good places to find tigers in the dry season in Kanha National Park
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Waterholes and rivers are good places to find tigers in the dry season in Kanha National Park

When should you visit Kanha National Park?

The final answer to this question is, as with most questions, “It depends.”

My recommendation is to visit at the time that suits your travel style best. If you are desperate to see a tiger, then April. If you can’t stand the heat, then come in January.

For those who want to see the jungle at its most productive, then come in October just after the Monsoon season. The lush greens of the undergrowth might hide a few animals but the sal and bamboo forests are thriving.

Photographic Equipment

The recommendations for cameras for a tiger safari in Kanha National Park are much the same as elsewhere in India. Essentials are a long lens, the lens with the widest aperture you can afford and a beanbag for resting your camera comfortably on the edge of the gypsy.

Kanha National Park comprises both dense forest and open meadows. Long lenses are great for the meadows but sometimes can be too long within the sal forest. If a tiger is in the bushes beside a road you are unlikely to see it until you are up close. 300 mm or 400 mm are more than enough.

However during the end of the dry season the pools can shrink and the same tiger might now be at the edge of the water, quite a distance from your vehicle (off roading isn’t permitted). Open meadows and deer can often be quite a distance away so your 500 mm or longer lens will be used if you have one.

In the forest it can get dark so the biggest aperture you can afford is great. Remember though travelling with that much weight isn’t fun. You will still get great images with just a zoom up to 500 f 5.6 or similar.

Often you can be waiting in your gypsy for a tiger or leopard to appear out of the bushes. The monkeys and birds, and sometimes barking deer will give you a good indication of where they are. All you need to do, and good guides will position you very well, is to wait for the predator to wander out into the open.

To keep your camera at the ready, having a beanbag that you can rest it on is a must. Holding a heavy camera and lens combination at the ready all the time can be a bit tiring. You don’t want to take a rest at the wrong moment.

Other than that, make sure you bring sunblock, a bandana or scarf to keep dust out of your face, a good hat and a light jacket. In January, a good warm jacket is a must for morning game drives. The open vehicles are designed for game viewing, not for comfy driving.

Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus), also known as the common peafowl, flying in the jungle in Kanha National Park. We are all familiar with peafowl in the rest of the world but India is where they originally come from.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus), also known as the common peafowl, flying in the jungle in Kanha National Park. We are all familiar with peafowl in the rest of the world but India is where they originally come from.

Fees

Park fees are reasonable despite Madhya Pradesh recently reintroducing the foreigner’s supplement. Gypsies, as the open-roofed Indian 4x4s are called, are also reasonably priced. Expect to pay about 120 USD for a vehicle and entrance as a foreigner. This is for up to 6 people in the gypsy, though they are more comfortable with only 4.

Prices for game drives are for morning or evening drives. A full-day drive is also possible, but very few permits are released, and they are excessively expensive.

There are no camera fees in Kanha. Commercial video cameras do cost extra, but you don’t have to pay a premium for longer lenses on a DSLR or mirrorless still camera.

Conservation

Kanha National Park is a conservation success. The return of the tiger to viable numbers within the park and the successful reintroduction of Barasingha point to this.

However, it isn’t all without controversy. In the 1960s, the Baiga tribes and their villages were removed from the area to create the national Park. They were somewhat further disrupted in the 1990s with the creation of the buffer zone around the park.

That said, the park brings enormous economic value to the region. The importance of biodiversity is well known, but the forests of the Kanha-Kisli region are extremely important for managing the water flow downstream from the national park. A well-functioning ecosystem’s natural control and filtration of the water has huge benefits for those living in the region. This applies to the tribespeople and other Indians living downriver from the park.

Final thoughts

Despite being one of the lesser-known Tiger Reserves, and having a lower density of Tigers than other Indian National Parks, Kanha offers a fantastic wildlife experience.

There is every chance you will see a tiger here, especially if you are here for a few days. The remoteness of the park shows you some of the true Indian countryside and is an oasis of calm in the world’s most populous country.

The photographic opportunities are equally top-drawer. The light in the forests and meadows of Kanha just after dawn offers plenty of chances to capture deer in a beautiful surrounding.

For a first-time visitor to India, Kanha can be a bit of an adventure, but you don’t have to go it alone. Plenty of tour operators include Kanha on a multi-national park tour through Madhya Pradesh.

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