Spot the stripes

On the occasion of International Tiger Day, Ashis Dutta lists out some of the top spots in India where you can get up close & personal with the big cat...

A tiger cooling off in Ranthambore National Park

Whether you have sighted a tiger or not, the tiger has spotted you.

— An old saying of the jungle.

 

You wake up when the jungle is still going through the motion of its night shift – with glowing eyes of predators on their stealthy prowl. You get ready and quickly run through your check-list. Camera. A pair of binoculars. The jeep arrives. You clamber up in that darkness. The journey begins. You keep your fingers crossed. The superstition of the jungle forbids you to ask the obvious. So, you whisper to yourself — Will there be sighting today?

Here is the menu of the most enchanting jungles of India for spotting that magnificent beast — the tiger. The variety of jungles and their settings is astounding. Not one quite like the other. And each one promises a unique experience. Pick your choice and set off for a date with the majestic stripe:

Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh

The reason to begin with Bandhavgarh is that this piece of jungle amid the Vindhya mountain ranges in the geographical heart of India has the highest density of tigers. Consequently, the chance of sighting one is also the highest among all the places.

You may acquaint yourself with the stories that go with Bandhavgarh. Be those of Lakshman from Mahabharata — yes, in Bandhavgarh you are in an ancient land. Or of the maharajas of Rewa whose hunting ground this jungle was, or that of ferocious Charger and gentler Sita, the tiger couple of yesteryears who acquired celebrity status, and whose lineage forms a large part of the tiger population here.

Of the three major safari zones, Tala has most of the tigers and consequently attracts tourists the most, closely followed by Magadhi. Jeep safari is popular as these can explore long distances across the sal forests and meadows. Safari on elephants, however, can get you real up close to tigers savouring their kill or simply lazing amid the opaqueness of tall grasslands.

Bandhavgarh also has a large breeding population of leopards, though you’d have to be lucky to spot one. But surprises are aplenty. The sudden sight of wild peacocks in the thick of the forest may take your breath away. Bandhavgarh never disappoints.

How to reach:

Air: Jabalpur (190 km), Raipur (403 km) and Nagpur (425 km).

Rail: Umaria (33 km), Katni (95 km).

Accommodation: Several hotels, resorts and lodges of all standards are available around Bandhavgarh.

 

Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand

With the foothills of the Himalayas bowing down to kiss the expansive Ramganga reservoir, this is one national park you can visit for its sheer beauty alone, apart from wildlife sighting. Corbett, as it is referred to, has a number of firsts on its lapel. Oldest among
the national parks, it is also from here that Project Tiger — the entire conservation initiative — was launched in 1973. And in Corbett you can stay ‘deep inside’ the national park.

Corbett has it all. Large waterbody, rippling rivers and rivulets — some of which your jeep will wade through during the safari, forests real thick where it’s dark even in the day, tall grassland, hills and marshes. Dhikhala is the most popular safari zone because of accommodation with more comfort and spectacular views beside the Ramganga reservoir. But the sighting of birds, animals, especially tigers, are equally possible from the other zones, like Bijrani and Jhirna.

How to reach:

Air: Delhi (260 km).

Rail: Ramnagar (15 km).

Accommodation: The park authority provides a few options inside the park. Hotels, resorts and lodges of all standards are available outside, around. Hotels in Ramnagar town.

 

Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Assam

Take off for Manas only if you are a hardcore nature and wildlife buff, or are aspiring to become one. You may spot a tiger. But chances are you may not. Then why are we talking about it here? Well, when you are in Manas, you are in a one-of-a-kind biosphere of this planet. It is said that Manas Wildlife Sanctuary is what our earth looked like before the arrival of humans. No wonder, it is the only wildlife sanctuary in India with the UNESCO Natural World Heritage tag. Interestingly, the sanctuary creeps seamlessly up from Assam in India into the Eastern Himalayan hills of Bhutan, where it is known as Royal Manas National Park. The Forest Lodge at Mathanguri beside River Manas at the border with Bhutan is a favourite among visitors to the sanctuary.

How to reach:

Air: Guwahati (180 km).

Rail: Barpeta Road (22 km).

Accommodation: Forest Lodge at Mathanguri inside the park. Few hotels and resorts near the entry gate of the sanctuary.

 

Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Karnataka

Karnataka boasts of housing the largest number of tigers among all the Indian states. To boot, the Nilgiri biosphere caressing the misty Western Ghats, of which Bandipur is a significant part, has the highest number of tigers in the whole world. Hardly surprising that Bandipur features high among wildlife tourists longing to see the elusive tiger. The giant clumping bamboo, as your safari negotiates them, sways in the wind, and makes a low, long, crackling sound as if a tiger is stretching after a satisfying meal. A sudden chirrup of birds, monkeys calling out, and your safari guide stands ramrod straight, his eyes, ears and his most important sixth sense — all perked up. It is time you silently follow his gaze and be ready with your camera. You are in luck.

How to reach:

Air: Bengaluru (220 km).

Rail: Mysuru (80 km).

Accommodation: An array of accommodations from the park authority. Hotels and resorts outside the park are also available.

A tiger in Bandipur Tiger Reserve
A tiger in Bandipur Tiger Reserve

 

Sundarbans National Park, West Bengal

Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world, formed at the delta of the Ganges, where the river opens its wings to form an expansive web of numerous waterways before emptying itself into the Bay of Bengal. You will wonder at the air-breathing roots of trees of this unique eco-system.

It is said, eerily, there is no escape in Sundarbans. The royal Bengal tiger, many of which are professedly man-eaters, will get you on the land, and the crocodile in the water. You are in the ferocious territory. Much of the exploration is done from the safety of steamers and small ships, wadding through the labyrinth of waterways, sometimes wide, often scarily narrow, amid the dark, dense forest. Look out for crocodiles lazing beside the water, and sudden woosh of Ganges river dolphins — a perilously endangered species. But never miss out on the stripes amid the clump of hetal trees, a favourite hideout of tigers.

How to reach:

Air, Rail: Kolkata (110 km).

Accommodation: Government and private accommodations inside and outside the park region.

 

Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan

There is a reason why I’ve decided to end with Ranthambore. When you see the picture of a tiger in India’s tourism advertisement or brochure, chances are, the tiger is one of the dwellers of Ranthambore. And you’d love to see it, live.

Don’t forget your camera. Dotted with ruins across rugged hilly terrain with even an ancient fort thrown in where you may spot a big cat, Ranthambore is a photographer’s delight. The safaris (there are six major zones, zone 1 to 6) will take you to the lakes — Ranthambore has three of them: Padam, Raj and Malik. Animals often flock there and not just for chitchat. Then there is the dense Bakula area with several watering holes where you can expect to sight tigers.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip came here in the 60s for big games. President Clinton visited Ranthambore and shot tigers — with his camera.

How to reach:

Air: Jaipur (160 km).

Rail: Sawai Madhopur (11 km).

Accommodation: From economy to palatial, all kinds of accommodation are available around the park.

 

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