Exploring India’s grassland and jungle in its beautiful nature preserves
A tiger safari in India is the perfect contrast to the intensity of the cities. It promises diverse wildlife and colourful birds in beautiful natural environments. What is not guaranteed however, is seeing a tiger – the conservation parks are vast, and tigers can be shy.
India has an estimated two-thirds of the world’s wild tiger population of around 4000, and more than 50 conservation parks. And the tiger population is growing. So I felt optimistic that I might get lucky, when I visited two tiger reserves on a 15-day tour of India, in December 2018.
Our tour group was in central India visiting the incredible Khajuraho Group of Monuments, Hindu and Jain temples which date to the 10th century. They survived the Mughal Empire, when Muslim rulers destroyed many temples, only because they were hidden by overgrown jungle. They were accidentally discovered by a British surveyor in the 1830’s.
The temples are located in Madhya Pradesh, also known as “The Tiger State”, so we had the opportunity to add on a safari to nearby Panna National Park.
Google Map - India & Safari Parks
It was cool and dark when we got into open-air jeeps at 5:30 am. I had a jacket and gloves but wished I had a wool hat. Northern India can be very cold in winter.
Our passports were checked as we entered the park to confirm our names against the reservation. I am not sure why the high security on this, but they were quickly returned to us, and the jeeps were waved through the gates.
We made our way into the park as the inky night sky lightened, and soon the sunrise turned everything to pale gold.
I began to see birds flying in the cool morning air. There are close to 300 bird species here and I was immediately glad I had a camera with a zoom lens, as several politely posed on nearby branches, including an Indian Roller with a striking turquoise head and tail feathers.
Panna is a beautiful park with stunning and varied terrain. The sunlight shone on waves of honey-colored grass blowing in the breeze across the open land.
The Bengal tigers found here are one of nine subspecies of tiger, three of which are now extinct.
We turned a corner to see a group of Indian gazelles. They stopped as we approached, but now resumed running through the tall grass, their striped horns bobbing in and out of view. Known as chinkara in Hindi, they have lithe bodies and striking chestnut stripes on their head. They are also found in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
They crossed the road in front of us and I was struck by their graceful movement and how fast they were – too fast for my clumsy attempt at photos. I got a few blurry shots and watched them disappear.
We moved from grassland into misty deciduous forest. The largest of the Indian deer, the sambar deer, appeared from between the trees. Unlike the chinkara, he seemed in no hurry at all.
We were able to get close enough to appreciate his coarse shaggy coats and immense antlers; the males can reach up to 550kg. One we saw stood on its hind legs to munch on a branch overhead. Despite the plentiful sambar sitings, they are considered a vulnerable species due to hunting and habitat loss.
We also saw many chital or spotted deer, which looked especially pretty grazing in the dappled light of the forest.
We were stopped taking pictures when one of our guides pointed outside the jeep – a huge paw print was visible in the sand about a meter away. The size of the tiger print surprised me and I felt a nervous excitement. A discussion followed as the guides debated where the tiger might be. It was still early, and Bengal tigers are most active at dawn and dusk. We were in the grassland but tigers are more often found in the forest, so we moved on to continue our search.
It wasn’t a tiger we saw next, but a strange looking animal that could be described as a cross between a cow and a horse. It was a nilgai, a large Asian antelope and she was running through the grass with her youngsters zig zagging around her. They can range in colour from beige like these ones, to a grey-blue colour, hence the name blue bull, which they are commonly called.
We continued to see birds throughout the morning. The parakeets played above us, streaks of green, diving and tagging each other as they swooped between the tree tops. A large vulture appeared as well, appropriately posed on a dead tree, as well as a crested serpent eagle, which surveyed the scene from his perch.
The thrill I felt about the birds caught me by surprise. I knew I loved birds, but seeing them in such a stunning wild environment was beyond what I expected. It wasn’t the first thing to surprise me in India.
I was here without my husband and kids and the whole trip felt like a sort of rendezvous with my former self. I was remembering things I used to love but had forgotten: How much fun it was to meet new people with totally different lives than my own. And how much I enjoy time on my own when I travel. I had spent a few days on my own at the beginning of the trip and I felt so free and happy, it was delightful to only have to think about myself. I could be selfish, for all the right reasons.
We headed toward the entrance and stopped to watch a troop of langur monkeys entertain us with their antics. Panna was a lovely park and a wonderful experience – but a paw print in the sand was as close as we came to a tiger.
Ranthambore National Park is the most visited safari park in India due to its proximity to India’s Golden Triangle, the popular cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. I would recommend visiting Jaipur if you get the chance, and a few days in Ranthambore is a lovely addition. It is also one of India’s largest parks and has the most well-documented tiger population in the world; the latest census reports around 70 resident tigers.
Again, we set out early, hoping to see the tigers when they are most active. The terrain felt more diverse than Panna; Ranthambore has many lakes and ponds scattered throughout the jungle, and we saw a crocodile sunning himelf on a muddy riverbank. The ruins of a 1000 year-old fort also give Ranthambore an exotic flavour. This was the private hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur until Indian independence in 1947.
The park is divided into ten zones with each jeep assigned a single zone for the safari. This ensures visitors are spread evenly through the park and cause the least disruption to the wildlife. Ranthambore guides accompanied us, that was also the case at Panna, and they were very knowledgeable about wildlife and bird species.
The safari guides also had the latest tiger intel, they knew where the animals had most recently been spotted. Because of the zone system however, even if a tiger is strutting her stuff in zone 3, you will have to keep looking in zone 9.
My excitement over the birds continued at Ranthambore, where there is a great variety of birds due to its abundance of lakes. I saw a gorgeous orange and turquoise kingfisher perched on a rock in the water. Most of the 12 species of kingfisher in India are brightly coloured and easy to recognize because of their striking beaks. We also enjoyed watching the peacocks strut through the jungle.
As we drove through the park in search of tigers, I thought about leopards. I knew they were here, and that it’s extremely rare to spot this reclusive cat. I imagined seeing one and its incredible coat of rosettes, but decided it wasn’t prudent to be greedy, so put leopards out of my mind.
I was fascinated by the parakeets that I saw all over India. I liked the way they sit together and peck at each other’s beaks, and then one takes off and the other follows. I was peering at the trees, wondering whether I might get lucky and see a plum-headed parakeet when the ruckus began.
The monkeys started howling – they were sounding an alarm, the guides said. A tiger was nearby. We sat quietly, watching and waiting as the monkeys continued, on and off, on and off, like some sort of jungle snooze button. The guides occasionally murmured to each other. How long to wait, this seemed to be the question.
I pondered the chances that we were stopped in the exact right spot, that a tiger would appear out of the jungle here. It seemed so unlikely. But apparently it does happen. We remained in the cool shade until the monkeys finally went quiet.
We returned to our hotel for lunch and in the mid afternoon, got back in the jeep. Our G Adventures guide, Raghu, told us we had been assigned a new zone – he seemed optimistic. Once in the park, we headed in a different direction than earlier and our Ranthambore guide, Mr. Singh, said something to our driver. Raghu told us to hold on. The jeep lurched forward beginning to climb, bumping up sandy hills and around tight turns.
This ride felt very different from the terrain that morning. And unlike the morning, we didn’t ask to photograph birds or stop and watch deer graze in sunlit forest. This felt like all business. I found out later that when Mr. Singh instructed our driver where to go he added: “Don’t stop until you get to the tigers.”
When we finally stopped, it was at the top of a ridge alongside a deep canyon. One other jeep was already here, its occupants looking out over the canyon and taking photos.
We were told that two tigers were resting in the grass next to the river on the canyon floor. They were far enough away that we needed a zoom lens to see them. Luckily, we brought a few of those. I looked through my viewfinder and rotated my lens. Two tigers, sisters, lay together in the grass. Even on the other end of a lens, it was thrilling. It sounds funny to say, but I was startled by their colour and the perfection of their stripes.
To see an animal in the wild that you have seen hundreds of times, in photos and books, is oddly surprising in both its match of your expectations and the ways that it surpasses them. It was the middle of the afternoon so the tiger sisters were doing as tigers do in the heat of the day, chilling.
Now that we had found them, we did the same. We settled into a happy contentment happily chatting, taking photos and enjoying the scene, with the pretty afternoon light shining on the river below.
Eventually the guides decided we should return to the valley floor. We arrived at an open clearing with a small lake and I took a photo of a crocodile sunning himself. With the water here, there were more birds to see, and the guides hoped the tiger sisters might stop by for a drink.
The tiger sisters did not appear again however, and as the afternoon sun sank lower, the jeep turned toward the park entrance. We stopped to see a family of wild pigs and a mongoose.
We continued on and suddenly, Mara, a woman in our group, shouted to the guides and pointed at the forest. The jeep came to a fast stop. At first we only saw branches rustling, and then a large shape emerged.
It was a black bear with a pointy brown snout and I know Baloo when I see him. (Baloo, which means bear in Hindi, is the name of the fictional bear in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”.) I also know that seeing the sloth bear is rare, and it’s an exciting moment for everyone.
We watched as it ambled through the woods, partly camouflaged by the shade and trees. Capturing a good photo was difficult. I took a few blurry shots, but Baloo was not cooperating, so I set down my camera and watched until he disappeared.
As we left the park, I thought about why my safaris in India had been so thrilling: I think it’s because not knowing what’s around the corner gives you the feeling that anything is possible. When I looked through my photos later, the good ones and the blurry ones, I realized I wanted more of that feeing in my life. I want to feel like anything is possible, that at anytime, something unexpected and wonderful might be around the corner.
Tiger Conservation in India
For a deep dive on conservation efforts, Toft Tigers Conservation is a great resource. Their free Wildlife Travel Guide also profiles more than 300 eco-friendly safari lodges. Threats to the tiger include habitat loss and fragmentation and declining prey populations; some poaching still exists as well. Yet there is much to feel optimistic about as tiger populations continue to grow along with India’s commitment to protect them.
If you are considering travel to India, you might enjoy this guide I wrote: Planning Your India Dream Trip.