Geetanjali Krishna goes beyond the tiger spotting fixation and discovers a magical diversity.
The sun beats down on our heads mercilessly. The jungle, miles upon miles of leafless trees, is quiet, save for the constant drone of crickets.
A leafless kullu tree (a local varietal of gum) rears its knobby, finger-like branches to the sky, its white bark like the sun-bleached bones of a long-gone animal.
Pench National Park in summer is the driest forest I've ever seen, seeming too arid to host any life.
How wrong I am! A branch cracks, and just like that a pack of dholes appears.
One of the wild dogs emits a high-pitched whistle. Their ears cock immediately.
A few heartbeats later, the trees above us erupt with the alarm calls of monkeys.
A tigress walks into the open, and the dholes magically melt away into the jungle. Magnificently unconcerned by the alarm she has caused, she yawns.
And then, before we can take a single photograph, she's gone, and the jungle goes back to looking dead and dry.
Pench, a deciduous teak forest that stretches across Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, is home to some of India's most charismatic mammals -- tigers, leopards, dholes, wolves and gaurs (Indian bison).
It is also famous for being the 'Seeonee' of Rudyard Kipling's imagination, the jungle where Mowgli grew up among wolves. They say that Kipling (who incidentally never visited Pench) was inspired by the story of a child found there in 1831, who'd been reared by wolves.
The jungle is as magical as the author imagined Mowgli's home to be.
All around, the forest is painted in shades of brown with nary a green in sight.
Every now and again, the brown is broken by the scarlet splash of the mahua in full bloom right now. Its sweet flowers are a magnet for all animals, including, apparently, the two-legged types who distill it into alcohol. Drongos swoop about the mahua branches, and a brightly hued jungle fowl emerges from beneath.
Ahead, we encounter a herd of gaurs, their majestic horns a sharp contrast to their dainty, seemingly white-stockinged legs.
Once common over much of the sub-continent, these wild cattle are now found only in a few protected forests, and are known to use the Kanha-Pench forest corridor to move between the two parks.
Predictably, their prime predator isn't the tiger (which does sometimes carry away a calf or two but would never be imprudent enough to engage with an adult), but their shrinking habitat, infections from domestic cattle and poaching, of course.
The sun is mercifully losing its intensity as we near the camp in Alicatta, where leafless trees give way to grasslands reminiscent of the African savannah.
A jackal seeks respite from the afternoon heat in a stream, while on its banks a herd of spotted deer grazes peacefully.
A Jeep stops behind us to see what we're looking at, and rushes off in a dust-laden flurry when the tourists realise there's no big cat to see here.
I mention this to my friend, Sumantha Ghosh, a wildlife expert.
"This tiger fixation is such a waste," he sighs. "Pench has a magical diversity of birds and animals that tourists miss out on because they're only looking to spot tigers."
To truly experience a forest, he says, one has to stand still instead of rushing about in Jeeps hunting for tigers.
The next morning as we wait for entry into the forest amid dozens of Jeeps, I wonder if this insatiable desire to spot the tiger could spell future doom for the already beleaguered forest.
We park for a while near the Pench River, marvelling at the brilliant turquoise of an Indian roller in flight and the ease with which jackals and dholes camouflage in the barren forest. Beady-eyed woolly-necked storks rootle about placidly.
I'm reminded of Ghosh's advocacy for gentler explorations of the jungle.
Today, I'm happy simply knowing there are tigers in this forest; their presence indicates that the ecosystem is healthy. It's because of them that jackals have enough to eat, that the populations of bison and wild boar are kept under check.
Alarm calls sound in the distance, and Jeeps take off at full speed in their direction. We stay put.
Utter peace descends on the river and for that moment, just that moment, all's well in the home of Mowgli and his friends.