Few experiences compare with seeing a tiger in the wild. No matter how many times you may have enjoyed close-ups on TV of the flame-furred cat prowling the maidans of India, the first time you set eyes on one is sure to rank among life’s most magical moments.
The grace, stealth and raw power of the tiger have earned the animal a prominent place in the country’s religion and culture. And yet the cat has also been hunted to the brink of extinction – primarily by poachers from communities who inhabit its territory. Only in the past four years has the downward trend showed signs of being reversed: the most recent census indicated numbers had increased to an encouraging 2,967 nationwide.
The tiger is a highly adaptable predator, able to live in a wide spectrum of different habitats, from swampy river deltas to the forested foothills of the Himalayas. This means you can see them in many different regions of the country – though you have to travel well off the beaten track to reach the best reserves.
The two with the largest tiger populations and highest numbers of sightings are both in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Along with Ranthambore in Rajasthan and Corbett in the hills north of Delhi, Bandhavgarh and Kanha account for the bulk of safari traffic in India. They hold some of the most sophisticated lodges and are the parks most often selected by foreign film crews. But at certain times of year, they can become overcrowded, which is why for clients seeking a more vivid experience of Indian wilderness we also recommended the following parks deeper inside the country’s heart.
Tadoba-Andhari National Reserve, Western India
The Taboba-Andhari Tiger Reserve is the largest and oldest national park in Maharashtra, and sufficiently off the beaten track to have escaped the attention of the hordes, despite boasting one of the highest tiger density figures in the country. Its name derives from that of a goddess worshipped by the indigenous people who inhabit its densely forested hills, deep valleys, meadows, and wetlands. Nearly 87% of the reserve is covered in beautiful dry deciduous forest – a renowned storehouse of rare trees and medicinal plants. Over 60 tigers live within and around the park borders, along with leopard, wild dog, striped hyena, gaur, nilgai, sambar, chital, civet cats, marsh crocodiles and nearly 200 species of birds.
Where to stay: Tiger Trails Jungle Lodge
Satpura Tiger Reserve, Central India
The craggy, forested peaks of the Satpura (or ‘Mahadeo’) mountains form a romantic backdrop for safaris in this remote park in southern Madhya Pradesh. Tiger sightings are not as frequent as at other parks in the state – this is somewhere people come more for a relaxed experience of unsullied wilderness rather than the charged atmosphere of the famous reserves further north. Satpura ranks among the few sanctuaries in India where you can undertake safaris on foot. Wardens and guides lead visitors on wonderful treks through the sal, teak and bamboo groves, and further afield to far-flung prehistoric rock-art sites in the depths of the forest.
Where to stay: Reni Pani Jungle Lodge
Pench National Park
With its miles of teak and bamboo forests, and open meadows of tall, bleached grass, the landscape of Pench National Park is straight off the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. The reserve flanks the southern border of Madhya Pradesh and the northern border of Maharashtra, encompassing a wild, uninhabited zone of over 700 Square kilometres of prime Tiger habitat bisected by the Pench River.
The tiger population is stable and sightings occur daily here – although not for everyone. Touring the park’s pot-holed roads in Jeeps, you’re more likely to come across packs of wild dogs and striped hyena, and herds of deer and antelope as well as the odd gaur (bison) or two lumbering through the forest. The extensive birdlife of the park is a sheer joy and never fails to impress even the ardent ornithologists.
Where to stay: Jamtara Wilderness Camp
Kaziranga National Park, Assam, North-East India
Kaziranga National Park adjoins the banks of the Brahmaputra River in the north-eastern state of Assam, and consists of tangled marshland, waterways and vast tracts of tall terai grassland and an evergreen forest that provides cover for a huge range of wildlife, no less the highest tiger densities of any in India.
The star of the show here, however, is undoubtedly the one-horned rhinos and the park is home to roughly two-thirds of the world’s population. The park has played a pivotal role in bringing back this highly endangered species from the brink of extinction and can quite rightly claim a conservation triumph, albeit hard-won and even harder maintained!
Where to stay: Dhiplu River Lodge, Kaziranga
Nagarhole National Park, Karnataka, Soth India
The best for spot tuskers and other wildlife in southern India, Nagarhole National Park, sits in the foothills of the Western Ghat mountains and was created from the private hunting reserve of the Maharajas of Mysore. Today it comprises a tract of jungle-clad hills along the banks of a tributary of the great Kabini River. When water levels run low, between February and March wild elephants venture out to drink at the water's edge and can be readily spotted.
Birdlife abounds here, with 270 species which includes the endangered Oriental white-backed vulture, Greater-spotted eagle and three kinds of hornbill.
Where to stay: The Serai, Kabini