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Pench: the largest and the smallest cat in the world in one day!

Pench: the largest and the smallest cat in the world in one day!

In March 2023 I had been traveling through India for about three weeks. From an unexpected start at the Taj Mahal, I went to the high Himalayas where I saw Snow Leopards and Pallas’ Cats. We then headed to the forests on the foothills of the Himalayas in North East India, close to the Bhutanese border, where we had an interesting week at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. So we had already seen a lot of beautiful things, but one specialty of India was still missing: the Tiger! I felt like I just couldn’t miss this iconic big cat so I planned a few days at Pench Tiger Reserve to spend my last week. In this reserve we would have a good chance of seeing a Tiger, but there was also supposed to be a black Leopard around. We wanted to see that one too of course. After the hardcore mammalwatching, it was now time for some classic safaris!

It was time to say goodbye to Andreas with whom I had been travelling until now and I continued with Janco. From Guwahati airport we flew back to New Delhi where we spent the night in the terminal. Around five o’clock we were on board for the flight to Nagpur after which we were taken to our lodge for the next few days. In the afternoon we were picked up for our first safari.

Pench Tiger Reserve is located in both the state Madhya Pradesh and the state Maharashtra and has several entrances. Our lodge was in Madhya Pradesh and we would therefore often use the entrance on that side. We would also become aware of the fact that the two states each have their own rules for their area of the park. On the Madhya Pradesh side, our driver and guide were initially strictly controlled for carrying phones. In this way they wanted to prevent a big crowd once a Tiger was spotted. In addition, we also had to stick to a certain zone as is customary in more Indian parks. On the one hand this ensured that if we found a Tiger we would enjoy it more because there would be less people around. On the other hand it was also more likely that we would miss one.

For me it was actually the most important thing for now that I would get to see one. I didn’t really care how. Nevertheless, I also appreciated Pench’s tranquility and it was certainly a pleasant first introduction to a Tiger park in India. There were no guarantees that I would actually see a Tiger. With six safaris, my chances were pretty good, but we also spoke to others who had been investing in getting a good Tiger sighting for several weeks and had been unlucky so far. Animals that were impossible to miss were the Chitals, the Hanuman Langurs and Indian peafowl and they were therefore a rewarding subject for photography.

I was already acquainted with the Indian peafowl from the Dutch petting zoo, but it remains an impressively beautiful bird. As far as I am concerned it is one of the most beautiful birds in the world. A pity that its common status detracts somewhat from the specialness of this bird.

Indian Peafowl

The Hanuman Langurs had little ones and often allowed themselves to be photographed well. I loved these beautiful monkeys. Although they are also quite common I had never seen them before.

Hanuman Langur

The Chitals are very similar to the European Fallow Deer, but they are slightly different. The great advantage of the Chitals is that they make specific sounds when they see a Tiger or a Leopard. That helped a lot in finding the big cats.


Slightly less common were the Sambar Deers, which can be compared in size to a Red Deer. I had seen them at night before, but it was nice to be able to see them in day light now. Their ears in particular are remarkably large.


On one of the mornings we would also encounter a group of Gaurs. These huge bovids are actually the largest bovids in the world. We had a family of cows with calves a short distance away. The bulls are quite a bit bigger, but the cows were also impressively large.


On our first afternoon in Pench we took our time to get used to the area and we could still appreciate the common animals. Right until the moment the Chitals started ‘barking’! Their hoarse bark-like calls meant a Leopard was nearby! Soon the langurs joined in with repeated short-pitched growls. The Leopard couldn’t be far away! Then our guide suddenly saw him walking! We were in luck because the Leopard went on to sleep on a rock and we were able to watch him or her for a long time.


We were more than happy with how the afternoon had passed. New opportunities for Tiger tomorrow!

The next morning, however, passed without much excitement. We didn’t really see anything special. I did bring my thermal imaging camera and I found an Indian Nightjar that we had a good look at.

Indian Nightjar

An Indian Stone Curlew also did not escape the thermal.

Indian Stone Curlew

And I very much enjoyed looking at the Indian Paradise Flycatchers.

Indian Paradise Flycatcher

Although I knew I still had a good chance for Tiger, I couldn’t resist making some calculations in my head. If wasn’t working out with Tiger this afternoon, it had to work tomorrow otherwise I’d be quite nervous on the final safari on Friday morning. Anyway, the afternoon was still ahead of us and who knows, it could be very successful!

For the afternoon we drove this time to an entrance of Pench in the state Maharashtra. Before we could enter, we had to pay a ‘camera fee’ here. That’s fairly common in Indian parks, but on the other side we hadn’t needed to. That was not the only change because we also had to take a ranger from the park. In addition to our driver and local guide, we now had three people to point out the animals for the two of us. Little chance that we would miss something now!

This part of the park also turned out to be optimally designed to increase Tiger sightings. The area apparently had little or no natural pools here, so they were artificially created, all next to the road. At the first pool, our ranger immediately proved his worth by pointing out a pack of Dholes! I was very happy with that because these Indian wild dogs are also an iconic species. They were gone quickly, but I had some pictures.


Another change compared to the part in Madhya Pradesh was that there was less restraint here in passing on observations to each other. So our ranger occasionally received information. Nevertheless, were still surprised when suddenly another car sped by. With hand gestures they quickly made it clear to our ranger that a Tiger had been seen! Tension rose significantly. Our driver chased after the car, but it turned out that the sighting had to be quite some distance away. It took at least fifteen minutes of driving at full speed until we suddenly saw a row of cars. That’s where it had to be!

Our car pushed forward a bit and there in a dry river bed lay my first Tiger!


What an impressive animal this is! Tigers are really big, with a Siberian Tiger narrowly beating the African lion as the largest cat in the world in terms of size. This Tiger from India also made quite an impression! The only problem was that the Tiger didn’t look up at all. Our ranger let out some strategic coughs, but that didn’t change anything either. A few minutes after our arrival, the Tiger also got up, ran off without a glance and disappeared into the jungle.


I was happy to have seen one, but now I still  wanted something more of course! We drove a little further and then the Tiger was seen again. Soon we also had an eye on him and through the leaves we could follow the Tiger nicely.


The Tiger even slowly moved back to the road!


Full of excitement we saw him approaching and we could already roughly calculate where he would come out of the bushes. I had already aimed the camera at the expected area when suddenly another car drove off the path and parked right in front of us! Then the Tiger stepped out of the thicket, but we couldn’t see it! I was furious and saw this great opportunity evaporate. I wasn’t going to get that many! In no uncertain terms I let the occupants of the car know what I thought of this action. After a while, the result of my shouting was that they moved their car back a bit so that we had a clear view of the Tiger again. Just in time because after my first pictures the Tiger started to walk and crossed the path in front of the other cars. After that I had one more nice chance to photograph the Tiger and then it disappeared into the jungle.


We could follow him for a while, but he didn’t come out anymore. We took up position at the nearest water source, but unfortunately the Tiger didn’t do what we had hoped he would. Time passed quickly and at a certain point we had to turn around and go back because we had more to do!

In the so-called buffer zone of Pench it was also possible to drive around at night. That would give us the chance for some new species and maybe some nice sightings. We also seriously took into account the possibility that the night drive would be a fiasco because the drive was relatively expensive and spotlighting was officially forbidden. Luckily I had my thermal imaging camera that we wanted to deploy as our secret weapon.

So we drove out of the park to the buffer zone. At dusk we enjoyed the Indian Flying Foxes that were flying out. These bats are among the largest in the world and are very impressive to see with a wingspan of about one and a half meters. With high ISO values I even managed to get some video.

Indian Flying Fox

It was dark when we arrived at the point from where we would enter the buffer zone. We took in yet another ranger and headed out. It turned out we were not the only car, but probably the only one that found the smaller animals more interesting than the larger ones. Our guide wanted to park the car in a spot where a Leopard had been heard, but after waiting for a little while, we made it clear that we really had something else in mind. We’d look at Leopards again during the day!

We rode the trails calmly, trying to pick up on all the interesting stuff with the thermal image. That went pretty well. Fortunately, our guides were all right with it that we would shine with the spotlight on an animal once we had found one with the thermal.  Quite easily I found several Indian Hares and also a Stone Curlew could not escape the thermal imager.

Indian Hare

Indian Stone Curlew

Then another animal turned up and because of the way it posed I immediately had the idea that this could be something exciting, possibly a cat! We put the beast in the flashlight and it was indeed a cat! The animal sat in the grass about 15 meters away and looked at us. We stared tensely at the animal and Janco soon called out that it was a Rusty!

Rusty meant the Rusty-spotted Cat. This is the smallest cat in the world and among other countries it can be found in India and Sri Lanka. Janco had already been to Sri Lanka specifically for this cat, but had missed it there. He would also travel to another area after Pench that should offer good opportunities for this species. We had also talked about areas that we could possibly visit together, but the chance of Tiger in those areas turned out to be too small for me. In the end we had settled for Pench and I hadn’t counted on the Rusty-spotted Cat at all anymore. Certainly not now that we could only search for about two hours this night while we had driven for hours every night in Eaglenest for a full week without finding our target species.

So I could hardly believe it. I also knew that this species hybridizes easily, so we needed to rule out that possibility as well. So the task was to take many pictures and we would sort it out later! Unlike some other cats I’ve seen, this cat was also very cooperative and stayed put for a long time. At one point he finally snuck away. I took many pictures. Then the cat disappeared for a moment and I had time to look closely at my photos.

Rusty-spotted Cat

My heart skipped a beat when I saw that there were clear spots on the back of the body and the characteristic rust color was also visible on the body. Furthermore, the white inside of the legs stood out strikingly. It was clear to me: this was without a doubt a pure Rusty-spotted cat!! The euphoria was great. We really hadn’t counted on this species at all.

I also found the animal again because it had sat down on a rock a little further. There he allowed himself to be viewed for a long time and I took some nice pictures.

Rusty-spotted cat

At one point the animal disappeared and we were left in ecstasy. What an unexpected stroke of luck this was! That is also the charm of looking for wild cats. Often it doesn’t work out despite a lot of time and effort, but sometimes it does which makes up for so much!

The rest of the ride passed without too much excitement, although it was nice to see a Mottled Wood Owl.

Mottled Wood Owl

The next day we had to buy some extra rupees at the lodge because we had spent all the cash to pay for this night drive, but it was well worth it!

On the safaris that followed we encountered one more Tiger.


In addition, we had more great sightings of Leopard that I also was able to film. This video also contains some images of our first Leopard.

On the very last morning we were surprised by a family of Dholes with two little puppies that showed themselves beautifully while they were playing together.

Pench had given much more than expected and I was more than happy to start the return journey to the Netherlands on Friday. What a beautiful trip this had been!

Want to see more from this trip?

See here for Snow Leopards and much more!

Have a look here at the grumpiest cat in the world.

And read all about our time in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary here.


2 comments so far

Wim WiegantPosted on7:10 pm - Jul 4, 2023

Prachtig verhaal en prachtige foto’s, Lennart…!

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