Pench tiger safaris

Pench National Park is the least known park in Madhya Pradesh’s trio of tiger reserves, which includes Bandhavgarh and Kanha, and something of an unsung beauty. It is less frequently included on tiger spotting vacations because, despite being home to around 50 of these big cats, it’s harder to see them here amongst the dense forest.
While the chances of seeing tigers are lower than in other parks, so too are visitor numbers, and this is Pench’s trump card. While Bandhavgarh has a reputation for a rather smash-and-grab style of tiger spotting, since its sighting rates are so good, Pench offers a more peaceful and secluded experience – you can sometimes feel as though you have the park to yourself.
Pench is also exceptionally beautiful – a rolling landscape draped over the softly undulating Satpura Hills – and it’s no wonder that Kipling set The Jungle Book here. It also looks different to Bandhavgarh and Kanha because it consists largely of teak forest, rather than sal, so visiting brilliantly rounds out a wildlife vacation to India.
With its range of habitats, from lush valleys to dry, deciduous forests, Pench shelters abundant wildlife. It has the highest density of deer and antelope in India, so you’ll see an abundance of chital, sambar and nilgai, and it’s also home to jackals, wild dogs and sloth bears. Pench also has a healthy population of leopards, and over 210 species of birds. If you do spot a tiger, consider it the cherry on this already delicious cake.

Visiting Pench National Park

Pench National Park, named after the Pench River which meanders through it from north to south, is located on the southern boundary of Madhya Pradesh, bordering the state of Maharashtra. The park was established in 1975 and expanded to become a tiger reserve in 1992. Most of the tigers live within the boundaries of Pench National Park itself, which forms the reserve’s core, but the entire reserve straddles both states, with 11 entry gates.
Joining a small group or tailor made vacation is the most hassle-free way to visit Pench, as the tour operator will take care of securing those in-demand park permits, as well as accommodation near the entrance. Since Pench’s many gates can be up to 100km apart, booking an organised tour also avoids a common Pench pitfall. Independent travelers might arrange a handful of individual safaris that depart from different gates, theoretically to have the best chance of covering the park and seeing a tiger, only to discover that the gates are miles apart and reaching them in time for a 6am safari means traveling through the night on slow, dusty forest roads.
In common with most tiger reserves, Pench’s park authorities permit open jeep safaris from each gate twice a day, with a fixed quota for each gate. The morning safaris run from 6am or 6.30am and the afternoon safaris from 2.30pm or 3pm, depending on the time of year. Each one lasts between three and four hours, depending on the time of day.
Organised tours usually take in other national parks, too, so you have more chances of spotting tigers. A typical itinerary might also include some cultural highlights, such as the Taj Mahal in Agra and time to explore Delhi. If you fly into Nagpur, Pench is approximately three hours’ drive away, and Kanha National Park is then a further four hours’ drive.

Best time to see tigers in Pench National Park

The best time to visit Pench National Park is during the winter season, from November to February, when the weather is warm (mid 20°Cs), and the vegetation is beginning to die back, so visibility is improving. It can feel cold at night and in the early morning on game drives during December and January, dropping to near freezing with some frost, so bring warm clothes and plenty of layers. For birding, the best time to visit Pench is from January to late April, when insect life is at its most abundant, before the rains begin in June. If you’re determined to see a tiger, come a little later, during the hotter months of March, April and May. As the weather heats up, animals congregate around the few remaining water sources making spotting a tiger easier. Do be prepared for heat though. Temperatures can soar into the 40°Cs by late April and May and you may be sitting still for hours in it, waiting for tigers to emerge. Like all of Madhya Pradesh’s parks, Pench is closed during the rainy season, from the start of July until the end of September.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Annie Spratt] [Tiger swimming: Fitindia] [Satpura Hills: BSSKrishnaS] [Sloth Bear: Sabihamk] [Pench river: Gailhampshire] [Tiger at riverside: Fitindia] [Tiger and jeep: Ashishmahaur] [Taj Mahal at sunrise: Gerald McGovern]