How to choose a tiger safari

WWF estimates there are 3,890 tigers left in the wild, worldwide. They are vulnerable to extinction and face relentless pressure from poaching, retaliatory killings and habitat loss. Seeing a tiger in the wild is an amazing experience and a rare privilege, and despite their small numbers, there are hundreds of trips out there that include tiger safaris. So how do you pick one? Read on to find out how to choose a tiger safari, not only in India, where most tigers exist, but in remote Bhutan and Siberia, too.
Pick the right place

Pick the right place

You can see tigers in Bhutan, Nepal and even in Siberia, but by far the best place to spot them is India, where 70 percent of the world’s tiger population lives. There are several national parks and reserves with tigers here, with most concentrated in an arc stretching from Rajasthan, through Madhya Pradesh and into Maharashtra. While no tour operator will ever guarantee sightings, choosing to travel to the parks with the highest success rates will up your chances. Bandhavgarh is consistently the best place in India to see tigers, followed by Ranthambore, Kanha, Pench and Satpura.
Consider the weather

Consider the weather

In India, the best time to see tigers also coincides with the hottest weather. April, May and June are a great time to see them, as water sources dry up and vegetation dies back, but expect temperatures above 40°C. Unless you’re obsessed only with seeing tigers, it makes more sense to travel between October and February. November to January is cool and the tigers are active, but there’s plenty of water around after the monsoon, so animals are dispersed and less likely to be out in the open. February to March is peak time, with climbing but still comfy temperatures and sparser vegetation, but popular parks like Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore can feel very busy now. February and October are great times to see tigers in Nepal, while tiger watching in Bhutan and Siberia – a more exclusive option with a price to match – can take place at any time of year.
totally tigers

Choose totally tigers or all round exploration

Most tiger safaris take place in India, so if you’re travelling here, work out if you want to see tigers in India, or tigers and India. Tiger safaris can sit within a tour that features sightseeing and exploring, or they can be the sole focus of a holiday – take your pick. You can enjoy the beautiful cities and colourful culture of the Golden Triangle and also take a handful of game drives in Ranthambore National Park, for instance – a great way to get a big hit of India on a single trip. If spotting tigers is top of your agenda, you can choose a trip that takes in a handful of national parks, for the best chance of sightings and lots of wildlife experiences.
Specialist tiger safari holidays run in Nepal, too, and may include walking safaris and homestays, in Bardia or Chitwan National Parks. There are also holiday that take in wildlife watching and other activities and highlights further afield, perhaps even across the border in India.
small group or tailor made

Decide between small group or tailor made

If you’re seeking out tigers in remote places such as Siberia and Bhutan, you’ll be joining a tailor made trip. In Nepal, and especially India, there is a good choice of both tailor made and small group holidays. Joining a small group means set departure dates, a fixed itinerary and usually travelling with around 12 people in total. It can work out cheaper than a tailor made holiday. On a tailor made trip, you’ll have more choice over dates of travel and the standard of accommodation, with some really luxurious options available. You’ll also have the option to extend the trip to take in other highlights, such as Agra and the Taj Mahal. There may be other perks, too, such as a private driver and an air conditioned car to transport you between reserves. Be aware, though, that not all tailor made tours will also offer exclusive jeep safaris; you may still be sharing the game drive vehicle with other members of the public.
Ask about guides

Ask about guides

Check with your tour operator about the guides it uses on tiger safaris. Ideally, they have built up a relationship with highly qualified, local guides who are expert in reading jungle signs and can locate tigers, but are also knowledgeable about all the other wildlife in the park.
Good guides are really integral to a positive tiger safari. A ‘bad’ guide may simply drive around the park pausing now and then with no real logic and without any information about where tigers were last sighted. Occasionally he might simply stop for a while, suggesting that a tiger is in the trees some way off and waiting for it to emerge, handily also saving on petrol.
A good guide, who is passionate about his work, will be up to speed with the movement of tigers over the last few days and will therefore have a much greater chance of finding them. Guides should be local, so your tourist money directly benefits the communities that border the national parks and tiger reserves. Local guides bring context, too, with stories of local life, folklore, plant names and even snippets of gossip.

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Think responsibly

Think responsibly

Tigers are terribly endangered and their conservation is vital, sensitive work. Seeing them in the wild is a huge privilege and one that comes with responsibilities, so check that the tour operator you travel with is following good practice and ask how they conduct game drives.
Drivers should not exceed the permitted speed limits and or race through the jungle in the hope of catching a glimpse of a tiger. They should stick to designated tracks and not off-road in the hope of better sightings, and they shouldn’t pursue or disturb animals so you can get the perfect photo. All vehicles should keep a respectful distance, never come between parent and offspring and never approach breeding sites. A good tour operator will also have a strict policy of not littering and will remove any litter found inside the reserve, too.
By booking a tiger safari and paying park entry fees, you are putting money back into conservation work and the local community, but how much depends on the tour you choose. One recent study estimated that just six of India’s reserves provide economic benefits worth £851 million a year. That’s a huge figure, but often only a tiny percentage of that money makes it way back directly to the park, with the rest lost to regional or central government funds. [1]
So be sure to pick a really responsible trip, that spreads significant benefits. Look out for tours that are run through the TOFTigers (Travel Operators for Tigers) campaign. Through responsible nature tourism TOFTigers supports and funds conservation, but also works to transform the lives of marginalised communities living around today’s reserves. Look out for the TOFTigers PUG Mark accreditation on accommodation, too, which guarantees good sustainable policies, around things like water usage, local community support and promoting an understanding of wildlife.
Paul Goldstein, top tiger safari guide and expert at one of our leading suppliers, Exodus:
“By seeing a tiger and spending money you are making a big difference. If you lose the tourists you lose the tigers, because your money is a meal ticket for local people. The animals are worth more alive than dead to local people, without a doubt, because all the ancillary benefits they bring. I have driven through parks that have had all their tigers poached. The hotels are empty and the local people don’t have work. The people who live in some of these tiny villages on the borders of the parks have an inextricable link with their striped neighbours. So, tiger tourism is vital.”
sightings

Don’t look for guaranteed sightings

No sensible, responsible tour operator will ever guarantee tiger sightings, so don’t shop around hoping to find one that does. Guaranteeing sightings puts unreasonable pressure on drivers, guides and naturalists to come up with the goods on game drives when in reality, tigers don’t show up on cue. Seeing one is a matter of good guides, good timing and good luck. Instead, up your chances of spotting a stripy by following the advice above and by allowing time for multiple game drives. The rest is up to the tigers themselves.
Book in advance

Book in advance

There is huge demand for tiger safaris, so it’s essential to book well in advance. Using a specialist tour operator is the easiest way, but you’ll still need to book at least six months before travelling. In India, due to new regulations in national parks, booking game drives for groups has become increasingly complex. As a result, the number of jeeps that can now enter national parks has been reduced, and all game drives need to be booked and paid for much further in advance. In addition, tour operators have to provide a list of client names and passport details at the time of booking each game drive and once they are booked, they are non refundable and name changes are not permitted.

expert advice

Expert advice

The benefits of visiting several parks

Paul Goldstein is a presenter, photographer and top tiger safari guide at one of our leading suppliers, Exodus, and has this advice on choosing a tiger safari.
“I’ve been doing this so long and you get people saying oh, this park’s rubbish, or this one’s great. You might have been there four days and not had much luck, then the next day after you leave there’s a mother and three cubs on a fresh kill for several days. So it’s luck. The Indian parks don’t have the raw beauty of the Masai Mara or the Okavango Delta, but Bandhavgarh is pretty, whereas Tadoba, where you’re almost guaranteed to see tigers, has a dirty great tyre-sealed road going through it.”
The costs and the future

The costs and the future

“Money isn’t always used properly. You need to make it a meal ticket for local people, otherwise they will poach the tigers, why shouldn’t they? Tigers will survive – I fear for them – only in a few selected areas. Chinese demand for tiger pelts, bones, penis just isn’t going away. There’s a burgeoning middle class who wants this stuff and can buy it on the internet; not even the dark web, just up there on the internet. It means it’s expensive to see one in the wild.”
What to expect

What to expect

“Bollywood has found out about tiger safaris and now they’re hugely popular. Indian people on safari are noisy; no one is briefing them to behave more respectfully. We can’t do anything about it. Indian wildlife tourism is light years behind African. There’s absurd bureaucracy, red tape, corruption. But don’t let that stop you from going, not in the least. You are fuelling the survival of a species and filling the pockets of very poor local people. Don’t spend silly money, though. A lodge that serves nutmeg pancakes and has Persian rugs still can’t guarantee a tiger sighting. Do a bit of research before you go. There are always cheaper ways of doing it but you might be miles from the gate.”
Sources: [1] TOFTigers
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Aditya "Dicky" Singh] [How to choose: Benjamin Raffetseder] [Pick the right place: Julian Mason] [Consider the weather: Ketan Deshpande] [Totally tiger: Travis Wise] [Small group/tailor made: NH53] [Guides 1: Brian Gatwicke] [Guides 2: Ketan Deshpande] [Guides 3: Carries mum] [Think responsibly 1: Fitindia] [Think responsibly 2: Sreeram Narayan] [Think responsibly 3: Ketan Deshpande] [Think responsibly 4: Ketan Deshpande] [Think responsibly 5: Nav Nirvana] [No guaranteed sightings: Vishwanath Hawargi] [Book in advance: Julian Mason] [Visit several parks: elkhiki] [Costs and future: Harikrishnan18] [What to expect: Ivcrn]
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