How the name 'Kanha' got attached to this park is obscure. It could have come from the Kanhar River or from the dark black soil found here.
The region was ruled by the Rajput dynasties from sixth to twelfth century and then ruled by the Gond Kings till the British took over in 1818. Kanha had been the dwelling place of the nomadic 'baigas' – who practiced shifting cultivation (dhya) till 1868 – when the Land Settlement Act prohibited it.
The area was declared as reserve forest in 1879 and upgraded as the Banjar Valley Reserve in 1933. Between 1947 and 1951 the Raja of Vijayanagaram shot 30 tigers in Kanha and this caused a great uproar. In 1955 the area was declared as a National Park. Later the park was divided in two sanctuaries Banjar and Hallon named after the two feeders that flow through the park. In 1973 the park became one of the first (of nine) 'Tiger Reserves'. Now the park encompasses 1949 sq kilometers of pristine forests.
Captain J. Forsyth attributed the word 'highlands' to the landform found here. His work clearly mentions an area between 22nd parallel of north latitude and between the 76th and 82nd of east longitude – as the source of several Central Indian rivers and "the central and culminating ridge of an elevated country". Kanha is part of this country and is located in the Maikal hills within the Satpura hills.
The land rises from 1000 feet to 3000 feet with undulating and spread out hills with plateaus and trapped in between are river valleys, dry nullahs and grass meadows. The rock is mix of granite at higher parts and sedimentary at lower areas. The undulating topography with grassy hills allows the predators to hunt successfully making the prey unaware of its presence nearby. The soil has a rich deposit of mica schist, quartz, manganese, dolomite and iron. This encourages the presence of a high number of butterflies and insects that benefit from this directly.
The park is situated in the Maikal hills, in the Satpura range of the central Indian highlands, in the State of Madhya Pradesh (22o 17'N, 80o 38'E). The forests of Kanha are largely tropical moist deciduous along with some other forest types that can be classified in the following groups – Slightly Moist Teak Forest (3B/C1c), Southern Moist Mixed Deciduous Forest (3B/C2), Moist Sal Forest (3C/C2 e(i)); Dry Peninsular Sal Forest (5B/C1c); Southern Dry Deciduous Forest ((5A/C3); Northern Dry Mixed Deciduous Forest (5B/C2), Dry Grassland (5/DS4); Butea Forest (5/E5) & Dry Bamboo Breaks (5/E9) CAN
Main Mammals: Bengal Tiger, Asiatic Leopard, Indian Wild Dog, Hard Ground Swamp Deer or Barasinga, Sloth Bear, Indian Bison or Gaur, Jungle Cat. Asian Palm Civet, Honey Badger, Indian Porcupine, Smooth Coated Otter, Greater False Vampire Bat, Indian Pangolin, Mouse Deer & Leopard Cat.
Main Birds: Red Jungle Fowl, Red Spurfowl, Crested Hawk Eagle, Greater Racket Tailed Drongo, Puff Throated Babbler, Indian Nuthatch, Scarlet Minivet, Mottled Wood Owl, Forest Eagle Owl, Streak Throated Woodpecker, Greater Painted Snipe, Siberian Rubythroat.
Rare Birds:Jerdon’s Baza, Brown Wood Owl, Yellow Legged Button Quail, Lesser Florican, Large Billed Reed Warbler, Blue Headed Rock Thrush, Rufous Bellied Eagle, Forest Wagtail, Himalayan or White Tailed Rubythroat and Siberian Rubythroat.
Butterflies: Common Rose, Crimson Rose, Common Jezebel, Orange Oakleaf, Blue Mormon, Four Spot Swordtail, Danaid Eggfly, Grey Count, Baronet, Commander, Common Map.
Main Plants: Sal, Terminalia ssp. - Saja, Arjun, Dhawan, Teak, Flame of The Forest, Jamun, Bija, Red Silk Cotton, Tamarind, Haldu, Tendu or Indian Ebony Tree, Kusum or Indian Oak Tree, Bauhenia ssp. - B. purpureia, B. Variegta, Banyan, Ficus ssp. - F. benjamina, F. hispida, F. glomureta, Peepal.
Grass Flowers: Blues - Dwarf Morning Glory, Chickweed Lobelia, Goatweed, Marsh Barbel, Pinks - Water Lily, Common Balsam, Checkered Vanda, Hill Turmeric, Wild Turmeric, Hedge Glory, Lotus. Reds - Fire Flame, Cypress Vine, Glory Lily, Lion’s Ear, Spiral Ginger. Whites - Common Water Lily, Common Cough Cure, Malabar Jasmine, Indian Squirrel Tail, Wild Eggplant. Yellows - Common Dodder, Bitter Cucumber, Hairy Okra, Common Cassia, Lollipop Vine.
The Best Areas
Tigers:Kanha meadows, Sondher meadows, Indri, Digdola, Nawpathra, Andhrijhiria, Duke's Road.
Leopards:Kisli area, Bison Road, Nila Nullah to Bamni Dadar road, Singarpur Talao area.
Jungle Cats:Any dry stream like the Indri Nullah is a good area – but a patient wait and some luck is needed.
Wild Dog or Dhole:They go through a crest and trough cycle and they are best seen in the meadows in Mukki and Kanha.
Sloth Bears are sighted with ease in the summer months from mid February onwards and normally a pair or a mother and cub is seen in the Kanha meadows regularly.
The Leopard Cat is recorded in Kanha and one can try for it in areas where an average tourist does not go - like the Shankar ghati area or Mundi dadar.
Lesser mammals like Indian Porcupines, Indian Pangolin, Honey Badger or Ratel are there in Kanha but rarely seen - their presence can be told from the track marks but they are rarely seen.
There is a small population of Smooth Coated Otters in Kanha but probably not inside the park area. There tracks can be seen on the banks of Banjaar River but very few people have ever seen them.
Asian Palm Civet can be seen after a careful search involving local guides to locate old trees with reasonably large holes - they are mostly nocturnal so to see them one has to get a special permission to search for them in the night outside the core area of the park.
The ‘gaur’ or Indian Bison is seen well in the higher areas of the park until summer months when they start coming down to lower areas of the park. The Sambar - the biggest deer of Kanha is best seen in December when the rut happens.
The Hardground Swamp Deer is a highlight of Kanha - the park boasts a healthy population of the hardground race of the Swamp Deer and this is visible at the waterholes of Kanha - Menhar Nullah, Srawan Talao, Sondher and Sonf are known areas where one can find a few. The barasingha ruts in winter and their beaugles fill the air as the mercury dips in the winter.
The most elusive of the deers - The Mouse Deer has been seen in Kanha but they are extremely rare and almost impossible to sight in the day time.
Kanha supports three species of squirrels - Asiatic Five Striped Palm Squirrel, Three Striped Squirrel and the rarer Indian Flying Squirrel.