A Life in Travel

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Tigers in India | A Closer Look #012

tracking-tigers-2019-india Tiger Safari in Kanha National Park

Over the past decade that we've been operating safaris and supporting conservation in India's tiger parks and reserves, the population of Royal Bengal tigers has increased throughout India and chances of seeing them are better than ever. Although there's never a guarantee you will find them, there are several things you should know that will increase your chances of encountering tigers and more fully enhance your safari in India.

Kurt and Anne on safari with naturalist guide in Kanha National Park.

WHICH PARKS TO VISIT

Among the 733 National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and protected areas of India, the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh provides habitat for about 20% of India's tiger population and 10% of the world's tiger population. Therefore, we focus our tiger safaris primarily on these four National Parks of Madhya Pradesh: 1) Panna, 2) Bandavgarh, 3) Kanha and 4) Pench. The diverse forest and grassland habitat in these parks are lush and varied which adds to the beauty of the landscape and variety of other species you will encounter including leopard, sloth bear, wild dog, guar, many ungulate prey species and plenty of beautiful birds. All four parks are roughly within four hours drive of each other so you can easily combine any number of them in one direction or the other. 

Swamp deer grazing on grasslands of Kanha National Park.

There are a number of important considerations deciding which parks to visit that we can discuss with you based on your time, budget and interests. On this trip we combined Kanha and Pench NPs to experience the differences between dense sal forests of Kanha and the more dry and open teak forest habitat of Pench. Kanha is considered to have more frequent tiger sightings (we had 3 encounters there), but the open teak forests of Pench typically mean slightly easier and more open photographic opportunities to see tiger (and we had one exceptionally close tiger sighting I caught on video - see below).

Tiger approaches right behind our vehicle in Pench National Park.

I visited Bandavgarh and Panna National Parks on my last safari and loved them both as well. Bandavgarh has the highest density of tigers in India with the best opportunities to see them, although it is also the highest density of tourist vehicles, so the feeling is somewhat busier. Flights into or out of Bandavgarh and Panna are through Khajuraho where you visit the spectacular UNESCO heritage temples of the Chandella dynasty, among the greatest masterpieces of Indian art including the famous Kamasutra erotic carvings not to be missed if you fly into or out of the region from this side.

The beautiful UNESCO heritage temples of Khajuraho.

HOW MANY DAYS ON SAFARI

The more time you dedicate to safari in India the more opportunities you will have to see and photograph tigers. And each sighting varies. Sometimes tigers are walking away in the opposite direction, visible from a distance or in the bush, and only seen in fleeting moments. Other times they are close and directly facing you either walking or resting. So, the more encounters the better opportunities for photographs. Among our tiger encounters (pictured below) one walked broadside to our jeep, another walked away from us (but towards another jeep), and a third walked away from another car right towards our vehicle in the sunlight.

Each day you go on two safaris, the first early in the morning at dawn and another in the late afternoon (except Wednesdays when the parks are closed in the afternoon). So, the more parks you visit and the more days you have on safari the better are your chances to see tigers. We visited two parks (Kanha and Pench) and did 7 safaris over 5 days resulting in 4 tiger encounters: two tiger views from the side and from behind in low light, and two in the sun head on at very close range. We spoke with another guest we encountered who visited both parks but for less time and he never saw a tiger.  
Tracking tiger pug marks on the road.

WHERE TO STAY

The choice of lodges is not only about the amenities but a combination of factors to consider: 1) their location in relation to particular entrance gates in the parks, 2) the type of guests who stay there (we prefer a very select group of lodges and camps who cater to more experienced travelers with a dedicated interest in natural history and tiger conservation), and 3) where we personally know the proprietors and guides who have dedicated their lives to tiger conservation and who know how to provide the best chances of finding and photographing tigers.

Breakfast in the bush on safari in Kanha National Park.

On our 2019 Founder's Trip we returned to our favorite Kanha Jungle Lodge surrounded by sal forest along the river near the Mukki gate entrance where most tigers were concentrated and being seen at that time. We complimented that experience with the new luxury Jamtara Wilderness Camp adjacent to the undeveloped buffer zone of Pench National Park surrounded by the quaint farmlands and villages of Jamtara village. The camp is beautiful with large African style tents, a small pool, cocktails under a giant banyan tree, and opportunities to interact with friendly local villagers. 

The spacious tent interior at Jamtara Wilderness Camp.

Anne and I spent our last night in India sleeping in the star bed raised 15 feet above ground in a farmer's field next to the camp. Jamtara was established in close working relation with the community so they will benefit from ecotourism associated with protection of tigers. The farmer whose land the star bed is located earns rent every time a guest chooses to sleep there and he earns more income more reliably from tourism than from agriculture. There are many lodges to choose from around all these parks, but only a select few that offer the best value and experience for travelers with a serious interest in nature, community, and conservation without the pretense of excess or the austerity and discomfort of budget accommodation.  

WHO TO GO WITH ON SAFARI

Where you stay is also a matter of who takes you on safari. Each lodge secures its own park permits and operates its own vehicles with resident drivers and guides. Bandavhgarh and Kanha Jungle Lodges, and the Jamtara Wilderness Camp, are operated by our longtime friend and colleague, Amit Sankhala, a third-generation family descendant of conservationists whose grandfather launched Project Tiger in 1973 with support by Indira Ghandi to save tigers throughout India.I served on the Board of Directors of the International Ecotourism Society with Amit's father in the early 90's. He built Bandavgarh and Kanha jungle lodges to protect tigers through ecotourism and Amit just completed the new Jamtara Wilderness Camp next to Pench National Park.

Now, the staff and naturalists at all three properties are among the most experienced guides and dedicated conservationists of Madhya Pradesh. Amit's cousins, Dimple and Tarun, manage Kanha Jungle Lodge as gracious hosts treating guests like family in their jungle home. Their Indian cuisine is delicious, and Dimple offers cooking lessons and sari demonstrations.

Picture - left: Our in-country tiger expert and conservationist, Amit Sankahla, whose family story is featured in the National Geographic PBS documentary special "Tigerland" to be aired March 31, 2019.

Picture - middle: Wildland Founders, Kurt and Anne Kutay, with Dimple and Tarun, managers of Kanha Jungle Lodge.

 Picture - right: Nine years ago Wildland sponsored local resident, Vinod Ayam, to participate in a guide training program designed to further link communities to benefit from tiger conservation through ecotourism.Vinod has become one of Kanha's top naturalist guides and a well-respected role model in his community. He takes Wildland travelers on safari when you stay at Kanha. 

 DON'T FOCUS EXCLUSIVELY ON TIGERS

Like anywhere else in the world, rare wildlife sightings in the bush are hardly ever guaranteed. Part of the joy of safari in India is the hunt for the tiger, for sure. But there's so much else to see in the forests and grasslands of Runyard Kipling's Jungle Story including many other animal species and the communities who live around the parks. We'll be sure you have the best chances of seeing tiger, and always keep your hopes high that you will see them. Just know that there's so much more to your India jungle safari than tigers alone. 

And there are many other National Parks of India worth visiting. Depending on your itinerary we can integrate other tiger reserves and national parks. Ranthambore is the most highly visited park easily accessed in Rajasthan with good chances of seeing tigers. Kaziranga in the eastern state of Assam is best known for the Indian "Big Five" including tiger, elephant, buffalo, swamp deer and large herds of one-horned rhino. The Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat state is habitat for a healthy population of Asiatic lions. Jim Corbett, Satpura and Nargarhole National Parks among many others each offer a diversity of landscapes, habitats and wildlife. Also, we are now working with a small home-stay lodge in Ladakh that serves as our base with very good chances to see snow leopards in the Himalayas. 

Jungle owlet

WHEN TO GO ON SAFARI IN INDIA

We had many conversations with photographers, guides and biologists about the best time to visit the parks and it essentially boils down to your aims. Overall the season for tiger viewing in India is from October through April. Photographers tend to focus on April when it is very hot and dry (consistently in the upper 90's F) because tigers tend to spend more time in and around limited sources of water. Because of the high temperatures in April the forests are quieter, tigers tend to be more lethargic, and all other animals including birds are less active throughout the day.   

Indian roller captured with wings unfurled flying low to the ground.

October-November it is beautifully green when migrating birds are especially abundant and daytime temperatures are comfortably in the 80's F. December-March are generally the prime months for most foreign travelers to visit when tigers are more active and on the move traversing and marking territories, often seen crossing roads and open grasslands. In late February and March the Flame of Forest trees bloom attracting birds and making the forest more colorfully photogenic. The fruit of the Indian Butter Tree attracts many herbivores and omnivores when sambars, blue-bull, sloth bear, spotted deer and languor monkeys can be seen more often in open.

WHEN TO BOOK YOUR SAFARI

Indians are traveling domestically visiting their parks more than ever. November-December is a popular festival season when Indian families book the lodges and April is most popular among photography groups, so it's important to book your reservations far in advance because rooms are blocked and permits sell out during these months first. It is best to book your safari in India at least 8-12 months in advance, especially during these peak months.

To learn more about trips to India give us a call at 800-345-4453 or email our program director, Jeff Rober.

Our guide put us in the perfect position where the tiger emerged from the bush in Pench National Park. As it approaches closer and closer, Paul bends down in front of the camera to quickly grab his wide angle lens because the tiger got too close for his telephoto!  

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