Tucked inside the Vindhya mountain range in the northern part of Madhya Pradesh is Panna National Park. According to wildlife experts, this is the point where the forest belt which begins from Kanyakumari in the south is broken and the Gangetic Plains begin. Located about 25km away by road from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Khajuraho, it can be easily combined with a visit to the historic town.
A dry deciduous forest drained by the Ken River, it is one of the most picturesque forests of central India consisting of plateus, gorges and valleys, and home to natural and archaeological wonders. While teak forests abound in the northern part of the park, the south is given to mixed varieties. The Ken River flows for about 55km through the forest. One of its tributaries gives rise to the Pandav Falls, the most popular tourist attraction within the national park. Falling from a height of over 90 feet, the waterfalls drops below to form a pool before flowing into the forest depths. The best time to catch the waterfalls is post monsoon. There is a series of caves here which, according to local people, date back to the times of Mahabharata and sheltered the Pandava brothers.
A tiger country, the park is also home to a large variety of fauna, including leopard, wild dog, sloth bear, a variety of deer, nilgai, snakes, etc. The park is also known for its avifauna, including the presence of seven of the nine species of vultures found in India. Muggers and Sarus cranes are found on the Ken River. In 2009, the park was declared "tigerless", but a dedicated reintroduction programme has helped the forest bounce back with a healthy population of big cats in the forest today.
The park (Opens October 1st - June 30th but the opening and closing may change due to monsoons) offers safari facilities which can be booked through the official booking site. There are fixed entry points (Madla, Hinouta and Akola for core zones, and Jhinna, Akola for buffer zones) from where a limited number of registered vehicles are allowed to enter.
However, if you are fond of slow travel, someone who is keen to explore sustainable travel, reduce the carbon footprint and help the local community, then you may exchange your rushed vehicle safari in the national park with a walk through the forests of Panna with a trained member of the Pardhi tribal community.
The forest dwelling Pardhi community has always been hailed for their animal tracking capabilities, their ability to "read" the forest through signs. In the past, when the forests were part of royal shooting preserves, they used to be employed during hunts. It is said that with the abolition of the royal kingdoms, they turned into poachers, supplying animals and animal parts to illegal traders. However, thanks to the state forest department and concerned non-government organisations, the Pardhi community has been made aware of the fragile environment and the importance of conservation. Trained by organisations such as the Last Wilderness Foundation, they are serving as naturalists and guides for visitors.
According to people who have taken the walking tours with the Pardhi guides, it is an amazing experience. On the walks, guests learn about the various plants, their used and importance, learn to recognise the "signs" which help to understand the natural world, etc. One of the most enjoyable experiences cited by most is listening to the guides mimic the calls of birds and other animals. According to the guides, since their income depends of the number of visitors who sign up for the walks, they had fallen on hard days during the pandemic. Now that the situation has improved, they are waiting for the visitor numbers to go up.
Meanwhile, after the success of their "Walk with the Pardhis", Last Wilderness Foundation has introduced "Camping with the Pardhis" in Panna Tiger Reserve. According to their website, the camping not only offers an alternative livelihood to the Pardhis but also helps visitors to learn about the food, culture and traditions of the tribe.
Getting There: Panna National Park is about 25km by road from Khajuraho, which is the nearest airport. Satna and Jhansi are the most convenient railway stations, with onward connections to the rest of the country.
Where To Stay: You may stay at Khajuraho and do a day visit. MPT Jungle Camp at Madla Gate in Panna offers clean rooms at INR 4000 per night. Sarai At Toria is a beautiful experiential luxury homestay in the vicinity of the same gate ( INR 25000 for two AP plan), as is Ken River Lodge offering great views of migratory birds on water (INR 16000 plus taxes for a cottage for two). Budget options include Krishna Homestay (INR 2500 doubles) just a few hundred meters from the Madla gate.