Tiger safaris in India
India’s temples, cities and forts clamour for any traveller’s attention, but a trip to its national parks offers an insight into the wildlife and flora of this diverse and vast country. Thick forest, wide open grasslands and rocky escarpments provide a natural playground for an abundance of wildlife and birds, including the elephants, bears and tigers that starred in The Jungle Book. What is now Pench National Park inspired Rudyard Kipling’s novel, but you can spot your very own Shere Khan on safari in a cluster of parks that protect this endangered big cat.
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Since Kipling penned his tale of Mowgli and his animal friends in 1897, the story of India’s tigers – full of poaching, hunting and pitiful population numbers – makes for shocking reading. At the end of the 19th century, there were 10,000 wild tigers on the Indian subcontinent. Today there are just 2,500, but a new chapter in conservation and wildlife tourism is being written, and tiger numbers are slowly on the rise.
Since 1972, tigers in India have been protected by the Wildlife Protection Act and Project Tiger, which safeguards the habitats of tigers and other rare species, too. Today, many of India’s 50 tiger reserves lie within the boundaries of its national parks and, thanks to conservation, education and the funds from wildlife tourism, tiger numbers are very slowly rising. Still drastically endangered and hard to spot, tigers nevertheless remain the jewel in the crown of a handful of India’s national parks.
The National Parks that the Tigers call home
The parks that offer a good chance of a tiger sighting and the best safaris are spread out in a line from the north to the south of the country. Ranthambore stands at the top of a string of wonderful parks, which includes beautiful, dramatic Bandhavgarh with its relative abundance of tigers and Pench, not as well known for its tigers, but boasting leopards and myriad birds.
Kanha National Park, one of the best known and oldest of India’s parks, has rare swamp deer, sambar, monkeys and mongoose alongside its 100 tigers. Tadoba National Park in Maharashtra is further off the tourist trail, but has a thriving population of tigers and is open all year, too. In Kerala in the south, 35 tigers live in Periyar National Park and walking safaris here are an exciting way to experience the landscape, flora and fauna that supports the king of the jungle.
How to see tigers in India’s national parks
How to see tigers in India’s national parks
If you hope to see tigers in India’s national parks, it’s really important to book a tiger safari well in advance. Strict regulations restrict the numbers of visitors to parks with tigers, but wildlife tourism continues to gain popularity in India, so competition for safari slots is great. We would recommend using a responsible tour operator which has experience of tiger watching and works with knowledgeable guides who know how to treasure this jungle royalty and deliver the best experience, too.
Small group holidays to India might take in one or two national parks as part of an itinerary that also includes some key cities and sights. Northern India’s best tiger havens – Kanha and Bandhavgarh – can be combined with a visit to Delhi and the Taj Mahal, while Ranthambore National Park is often included in Rajasthan and Golden Triangle tours. Tailor made tiger safaris that focus on just one or two national parks, with accommodation in forest lodges and safari camps, are designed for true wildlife fans. They trim out the other sightseeing options but offer the best chance of a sighting by sticking firmly to tiger territory.
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Most parks have naturalist guides to lead each safari, often employed from the local community, with jeeps the preferred mode of transport. In Periyar National Park you can also take walking safaris and boat trips on the huge lake created here when a dam was built in 1895. In Satpura National Park, as well as jeep safaris, you can walk with a guide or canoe the back waters of Tawa reservoir.
It’s unlikely that you’ll spot a tiger the second you board your safari 4x4, though. They are elusive, well camouflaged and just plain rare. If spotting a tiger is your goal, be sure to allow plenty of time in each national park. If you can stay long enough to go on four separate game drives, your chances of seeing a tiger in parks such as Kanha and Bandhavgarh are high. Go on just two game drives and the odds are halved. Ideally, stay in a lodge in the immediate environs of the tiger reserve, too, so you can be up and out early on dawn game drives, for the best chance of seeing tigers and other wildlife as they start their day.
Other highlights of India’s national parks
Seeing a tiger is the ambition of most people who visit India’s national parks, but the beauty, quiet and diversity of flora and fauna in each one is a unique pull all of its own. Come for the atmosphere – nothing beats heading out on a dawn safari, as mist rises through the forest and all is still – and celebrate the other wildlife, too. OK, you may not see a tiger, but you could see leopards and wild dogs, sloth bears, spotted deer, Indian elephants and gaur – the world’s largest species of buffalo. The birdlife is sensational, too. In Pench National Park, over 250 species flock to its reservoir.
India’s national parks also showcase a range of beautiful landscapes. Within the boundaries of the vast Kanha National Park, you’ll find undulating terrain, expansive grasslands, plateaus and dramatic rocky escarpments which are home to hundreds of species of wildlife, making game drives here really memorable, tiger or no tiger. Bandhavgarh National Park, meanwhile, has a 2,000-year-old fort, hand-carved hermit caves, temples and 10th-century shrines lying within its forests, rocky hills and valleys.
Best time to go to India’s national parks
Most national parks in India are closed during the monsoon season, from July until mid October, so check with your tour operator. November until March is a great time to visit, but be prepared for cold mornings in winter, which can make dawn game drives really nippy. By afternoon you can enjoy temperatures in the mid 20°Cs, though. The landscape is really lush right after the monsoon, and the birdlife is amazing, too. From March until the start of the monsoon, you’ll need to factor in the sky-rocketing temperatures. This is a good time for viewings as the vegetation is dry and sparse and wildlife comes out of the forests to find water, but be prepared for the heat – expect the mid 40°Cs – and think carefully before travelling with children at this time.
The majority of people on tiger safaris in India, by far, are Indians themselves. So, Indian public holidays and festivals are times to avoid, as they book up far in advance. Big ones include 26 January for Republic Day and Diwali which falls in October or November. Read more here about the best time to see tigers.
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