Rusty Spotted Cat, Sloth Bear and more, Panna April 2022: Trip Report

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

Dates: 23rd to 26th April 2022

The uncommon Madras Tree Shrew

A brief visit to Central India’s Panna NP, on the cusp of an early summer heat wave proved somewhat more productive (both in terms of abundance and diversity of wildlife) than envisaged, from a dry deciduous forest ecosystem in the peak of the dry season. There were multiple sightings of Tiger (a pair of almost adult males, with a kill close to the Ken River) and Leopard, but also of not as commonly seen species such as Rusty Spotted Cat, Madras Tree Shrew, Sloth Bear and Indian Fox among 20 species of mammals. Interestingly, and suggestive of the microhabitat diversity of the park, the landscape hosts both Chinkara that are normally found in thorn forest and desert, and species like Sambar and Chital, which require more browsing and grazing opportunities that wetter habitats provide. Birdlife, while not especially diverse, not surprising given the time of the year, was interesting and included species such as Painted Spurfowl, Painted Sandgrouse, White-naped Woodpecker, Sirkeer Malkoha, Crested Bunting, Stork-billed Kingfisher and a handful of vultures and other raptors. It was also interesting to observe the dry season ecology of these forests with just a handful of food sources (for example the fruit of Indian Bael, the young leaves of Tendu and the flowers of the Indian Gum Tree) for the herbivores. As a first time visitor to the park, it was also great to experience the dramatic scenery of gorges and rocky hills that intersperse the “table top” plateaus, that are characteristic of the park’s landscape.

Rusty Spotted Cat and other creatures of the night
Indian Fox were relatively common in the night forays

A unique opportunity in this landscape are the officially sanctioned buffer zone night safaris, which opens out possibilities to look for a number of mammals that tend to be largely, if not strictly, only unafraid of the dark. In this landscape, this meant that there were possibilities of seeing mammals like Indian Pangolin and Honey Badger (both seen very rarely, the former seemingly more frequently than the Ratel, but good to know possibilities exist), Rusty Spotted Cat and Striped Hyaena (both seen fairly regularly, as per local guides). Of these possibilities we managed, after several false ids (domestic cat and Indian fox the main culprits) a glimpse of the Rusty Spotted Cat on the third and final night safari. The individual was first seen sitting beside the base of a tree, at around 2030, in a sparsely vegetated (grassy and stony, peppered with a few trees) open ground, very close to where the buffer zone meets the habitation (the loud music from a temple a constant accompaniment drowning out the rather mellower sounds of the jungle at night). It was a moonless night and we were about 20m from the animal when we first got a glint of an eyeshine, of what was very evidently a small cat, sitting on its bottoms. It did not take very long for the animal to move away from the spotlight and the only part that took a while to disappear behind the tree trunk was its obviously thick, un-patterned, greyish-ochre tail. As we approached where we thought that cat had to be huddled beside the base the tree, all we got to see there was a Rusty Spotted Cat sized void. Remarkably the animal had disappeared, into thin air apparently, as there were no obvious burrows or tree holes for the animal to disappear into and it was open ground all around. A few moments of looking and eyeshine this time about a 100m away … so the cat had managed to slink away through open ground, with five pairs of (human) eyes (keenly) looking for it! By the time we got closer, the cat seemed to have decided that it had played the mouse long enough for one evening (must have a vastly different perception of time, compared to humans) and Usain bolted up an amply foliaged Mango tree, not to be seen again. Among the other highlights of the three night safaris (each lasting about 2 hours, starting at 1900), were Sloth Bear (an adult male, quite hidden in the undergrowth) and a handful of Indian Fox, mostly seen close to the villages, among commoner species like Golden Jackal, Asian Palm Civet (very numerous), Small Indian Civet and Indian Hare. There were also Jungle Nightjar, Indian Scops and Brown Fish Owls and Forsten’s Cat Snake among the other creatures of the night on show.

Logistics Etc

We stayed at the beautifully located Ken River Lodge, one of the pioneers in ecotourism in this landscape. They arranged all the safaris/local logistics. Their head naturalist Mr Sukra Kumar, was quietly excellent in his guiding and introduced us to the nooks and crannies of the park, that ‘tiger centric’ tourists don’t bother to visit.

Some video highlights from the trip
List of Mammals Seen
  • Tiger
  • Leopard
  • Rusty Spotted Cat
  • Indian Fox
  • Golden Jackal
  • Ruddy Mongoose
  • Small Indian Civet
  • Asian Palm Civet
  • Sloth Bear
  • Indian Hare
  • Madras Tree Shrew
  • Northern Plains Langur
  • Rhesus Macaque
  • Five-striped Palm Squirrel
  • Chinkara
  • Nilgai
  • Sambar
  • Chital
  • Wild Pig
  • Greater Short-nosed Fruit Bat?
Highlight Birds Seen
  • White-naped Woodpecker
  • Brown Fish Owl
  • Peregrine (Shaheen) Falcon
  • Red-headed Vulture
  • Himalayan Griffon
  • Painted Spurfowl
  • Painted Sandgrouse
  • Sirkeer Malkoha
  • Stork-billed Kingfisher
  • Crested Bunting

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