5 best parks for tiger spotting
India harbours 60% of the world’s wild Tiger population, protected in 38 tiger reserves and over 500 wildlife sanctuaries of the country. Here’s a pick of the 5 best parks for tiger spotting.
1. Corbett (Uttarakhand)
Countless eyes shine back at you from the dark. A panic-stricken barking deer’s yelp pierces the stillness of the night. The dull swoosh of wings signal the arrival of an owl. Welcome to Corbett, one of the few parks in India that permits overnight stays in the heart of the jungle. Corbett is India’s oldest and most popular National Park. Established in 1936 and renamed in 1957 after the legendary hunter-turned-naturalist Jim Corbett, the park is situated between the Himalayan and Sivalik ranges, which accounts for its rich bio-diversity. The Ramganga river, the park’s lifeline, meanders through dense forests before draining into a large reservoir surrounded by vast grasslands. This zone, Dhikala, offers the best opportunities for wildlife viewing. A few nights spent in old colonial rest houses listening to jungle calls, coupled with daytime wildlife sightings from elephant safaris and open 4X4s, make Corbett an unforgettable experience.
2. Ranthambhore (Rajasthan)
Plaintive calls of peacocks rend the air. A muted roar deep in the jungle sends a troop of langurs into frenzy. A Royal Bengal tiger sets out to survey his kingdom. Set against the backdrop of a historic fort, Ranthambhore National Park was once the hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur. In 1972 it was classified among the nine core zones under Project Tiger. The park is known for excellent tiger sightings owing to its well-laid out tracks and arid landscape. The jungle comprises the world’s largest expanse of dry deciduous forest and holds a haunting beauty with ancient ruins littered with animal bones. Man-made reservoirs (Padam Talao, Malik Talao) blend into the ecosystem as important water sources. Tigers often chase prey into the lakes and are known to take on resident marsh crocodiles! The tourist season looks promising after a new litter of two tiger cubs were spotted recently.
3. Kanha (Madhya Pradesh)
Tucked away in the eastern fringe of the Satpura Range, Kanha has been an inspiration to many. Tall forests of sal, dense bamboo thickets and lush meadows teeming with wildlife; Rudyard Kipling couldn’t have chosen a better setting for his 1894 classic ‘The Jungle Book’. It was here that eminent American zoologist George Schaller undertook the first-ever scientific field study of tigers in the 1960s. Rated as the best managed park in Asia by Wildlife Conservation Society, the world’s premier conservation institute, Kanha has played an important part in saving the Hard-ground Barasingha from near extinction. Today, it is the last known habitat of this endangered Swamp Deer. Kanha’s vast size makes extended explorations possible and tiger sightings are frequent. Vast herds of chital, sambhar and gaur graze the grasslands, giving visitors the opportunity to photograph them silhouetted by the last rays of the sun at Bamni Dadar (Sunset Point).
4. Bandhavgarh (Madhya Pradesh)
Spread over ridges and valleys of the northern Vindhyas, Bandhavgarh comprises the Central Indian Tiger Circuit with adjoining parks of Kanha, Panna and Pench. Prior to becoming a National Park in 1968, Bandhavgarh was maintained as a shikargah (game preserve) of the Maharajas of Rewa. It was also home to unique white tigers, hence its popular epithet ‘White Tiger Territory’. Even today, Bandhavgarh has one of the highest tiger densities in the world and is the best reserve in India for viewing these big cats. The park’s dominating feature is a high rock plateau that forms a natural fortress, dotted by numerous caverns. Here, one gets the chance to click arresting images of tigers lounging around caves and ravines. The ancient fort atop its highest peak was allegedly gifted by Lord Rama to his younger brother Lakshmana, hence the name Bandhavgarh (bandhav-brother, garh-fort).
5. Kaziranga (Assam)
Located in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra River, Kaziranga has often been compared to Africa because of the quality of wildlife viewing. The river forms the northern boundary of the park, a breathtaking expanse of varying topography. This UNESCO World Heritage Site harbours fifteen of India’s threatened mammals, including the world’s largest population of the One-Horned Rhinoceros. Home to the Big 5 – the rhino, elephant, water buffalo, tiger and swamp deer, Kaziranga is aptly called the ‘Land of Giants’. From jeep rides, elephant safaris to leisurely walks in buffer zones and boat cruises for dolphin sighting, tourists have several options to access its different zones. Kohora in the central range is most easily accessible while Baguri in the western range is known for its rhino density. Numerous vantage points help visitors relish the sight of wild animals roaming free.
5 Best Parks for Birding
1. Nameri National Park (Assam)
Walk through tall elephant grass. Raft down the placid Jia Bhoroli river. Enjoy the rustic charms of Nameri Eco Camp. What started as a sportfishing camp by ABACA (Assam Bhorelli Angling & Conservation Association) turned into a popular destination for birders from around the globe. Situated at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, Nameri shares its northern boundary with Arunachal’s Pakke Tiger Reserve. Though an ideal habitat for tigers (26 at last count) and notorious for elephants, the park is more famous for avifauna. The 374 birds recorded here include eight globally threatened species (White-winged Wood Duck, Rufous-necked Hornbill, White-rumped Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture, Greater Spotted Eagle, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Lesser Adjutant and Jerdon’s Babbler) and five near-threatened species (White-cheeked Partridge, Black-bellied Tern, White-tailed Eagle, Lesser Fish Eagle and Red-headed Vulture). Set in a grassy clearing near the river, the eco-camp is the perfect perch to get started on your checklist of birds.
2. Keoladeo Ghana, Bharatpur (Rajasthan)
Sarus cranes pair up to perform a graceful ballet. The sky is a blur of wings as birds hurry to silence hungry fledglings. India’s finest bird reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bharatpur is an unrivaled breeding ground for the Painted Stork, Purple Heron, White Ibis and Eurasian Spoonbill. Situated at the confluence of the Gambhir and Banganga rivers, the flood-prone area became a habitat for wildfowl. Bharatpur’s Jat rulers diverted canal water, added bunds (dykes) and developed it as a duck-shooting reserve. Later notified as Keoladeo Ghana, the park was named after an ancient Shiva temple inside the ghana (dense) vegetation. This tiny patchwork of wetland, woodland, grassland and swamp boasts a bird count of 400 species. You can easily spot over 100 species in a day! Bharatpur is at its best when winter migrants like Bar-headed Geese visit between October-February. Though years of drought have precipitated water disputes, the recent release of water from Ajan Bund augurs a good birding season.
3. Little Rann of Kutch (Gujarat)
A vast salt-encrusted plain of dark silt, the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) is one of the most remarkable and unique landscapes in the world, where wild asses roam free. After an endless summer, a brief monsoon inundates the mudflat, transforming it into a spectacular coastal wetland that spans four districts! The still waters and sandy islets of thorny scrub become breeding grounds for large flocks of Demoiselle Cranes and Greater and Lesser flamingoes. Due to its strategic location on the bird migration route, LRK is an important roost for nearly 300 bird species. Besides the globally threatened Lesser Florican and 13 species of larks, LRK lures winter visitors like Houbara Bustard and Spotted Sandgrouse. Dryland birds include coursers, plovers, chats, warblers, babblers and shrikes, while wetlands attract pelicans, storks, ibises, spoonbills, ducks and other waterfowl. This astonishing diversity is due to LRK being an eco-tone, a transitional area between marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
4. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Thattekad (Kerala)
The dulcet notes of a Malabar Whistling Thrush cut through the moist air like a carefree song on a schoolboy’s lips. The forest canopy twitches and flutters with life. Described by Dr Salim Ali as the richest bird habitat in peninsular India, Thattekad is full of surprises. To this day, rare and new species are sighted here, like the vibrant three-toed Forest Kingfisher. Located on the foothills of the Western Ghats along the Periyar, this low-lying evergreen forest holds 320 bird species and is a nerve centre for several endemics – notably Malabar Trogon, Grey-headed Bulbul, White-bellied Tree-Pie and White-rumped Needletail. A wintering site for the Rusty-tailed Flycatcher and Tytler’s Leaf-Warbler, Thattekad is one of the last bastions of the rare Ceylon Frogmouth. Migrants, seen between October and March, comprise nearly half the bird count while residents nest from April to August. Some endemics are now resident, making Thattekad an excellent year-round destination.
5. National Chambal Sanctuary (Uttar Pradesh)
Bird-watching cruises down the Chambal river, jeep rides through remote hamlets, camel safaris along ravines and camping in rustic lodges; there are many ways to explore the once-dreaded wilderness of the Chambal. Flanked by wide ravines resembling giant anthills, the 400 km stretch of the Chambal River slithers like a snake through the National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS). Weathered over centuries by flood and rain, this incredible maze of mud cliffs and scrub forest provides shelter to over 316 bird species. Autumn and winter are ideal for birding, when altitude migrants from the upper Himalayas and the Arctic congregate here. Perhaps the best place to see large populations of Indian Skimmer; Chambal is among the last surviving habitats of the Gangetic River Dolphin. Gharials, marsh crocodiles, otters and six species of turtles thrive in these waters. The sanctuary is part of a larger 5400 sq km reserve co-administered by Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
5 upcoming parks to watch out for
1. Parambikulam (Kerala)
The deep blue waters at Thunakadavu shimmer like a sapphire brooch on Parambikulam’s cloak of green. The Karimala Peak (1439 m), the park’s highest point, looms in the distance. Wrapped around three dams that create a 20.6 sq km reservoir, Parambikulam is a park of astonishing diversity. Eco-tourism packages range from jeep safaris, bamboo rafting, birdwatching and guided walks to overnight camping inside the forest. Trekkers will enjoy the Kariyanshola Trail and the Cochin Forest Tramway Trek, a relic of the British timber trade. The pride of Parambikulam is the Kannimara Teak, a 48.5 m tall tree, believed to be the largest in Asia. With a girth of 6.57 m, it takes five men to encircle the 450-year-old giant. In sharp contrast, the endemic Parambikulam Frog is a dime-sized creature found nowhere else! Accommodation options include Swiss-style tents, treetop huts overlooking the reservoir and a bamboo hut on Vettikunnu Island, accessible only by boat.
2. Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (Maharashtra)
The country’s geographic center, Vidharbha is surrounded by Central India’s best forests, including three tiger reserves and six sanctuaries. Maharashtra’s oldest national park and the proverbial ‘Jewel of Vidharbha’, Tadoba was combined with the Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary in 1995 to create India’s 25th tiger reserve. Bound by dense hills to the north and west, and a huge lake to the southwest, this Big Cat County teems with tigers, leopards, sloth bear, gaur and wild dog. Years ago, these forests formed part of the tribal Gond kingdom that ruled this Deccan tract. The name Tadoba is traced to Taru, a Gond king killed by a tiger. His open shrine stands under a wild mango tree on the edge of Lake Tadoba. The animist Gonds worship the mahua as the Tree of Life and are sworn to protect the forests from the moment they are born. Gond art, unchanged for centuries, is a reflection of this deep connection with nature.
3. Pench Tiger Reserve (Madhya Pradesh)
Located at the foothills of the Satpuras, Pench Tiger Reserve is a beautiful park named after the river that runs through it. The NH-7 between Nagpur and Jabalpur forms the park’s eastern boundary. A dam constructed on the southeast side has resulted in a massive reservoir that remains the only major water source in summer. Drained by the Pench and Wainganga Rivers, the park is criss-crossed by numerous nalas (seasonal streams). By April-end, the river dries up, leaving behind dohs (pools) that serve as waterholes. Gaurs migrate from the upper reaches to low-lying forests and return to the hills during monsoon. Chital, sambhar, nilgai and wild boar are found all over the park, but prey concentration is higher along the Pench River, thereby attracting tigers, leopards and wild dogs. The park’s proximity to Nagpur has led to a profusion of wildlife resorts around the main gate at Turia, the perfect base to explore Pench.
4. Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary (Tamil Nadu)
Forests that once echoed with gunshots now resound with the roar of the tiger. Strategically positioned at the tri-junction of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Sathyamangalam was notorious as the hideout of dreaded poacher Veerappan. After his death in 2004, the forest revived and frequent tiger sightings were reported. Two years ago, a third of the Sathyamangalam forest was declared a wildlife sanctuary. The forest department claims that 20 tigers have been caught on film by hidden cameras and DNA analysis of scat confirms the presence of at least 13 individual tigers. The sprawling park is South India’s only non-tiger reserve with such a significant presence of big cats. After Mundanthurai, Mudumalai and Anamalai, Sathyamangalam could soon be Tamil Nadu’s fourth tiger reserve. An important link between the Western and Eastern Ghats, the park falls on the migratory corridor of 6,000 Asian elephants passing through to the neighbouring jungles of Bandipur, Nagarahole and Wayanad.
5. Manas (Assam)
Nestled in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas on the Bhutan border, Manas lies at the confluence of the Indo-Tibetan, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Gangetic gene pools. On account of its rich biodiversity and the triple distinction as a Tiger Reserve, an Elephant Reserve and a Biosphere Reserve, Manas has been rightly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A 21 km jeep drive from the park gate at Bansbari takes you through a diverse grassland ecosystem to the picturesque Forest Rest House at Mathanguri. Perched on a hillock, the bungalow commands a grand view of the gurgling Manas River and the neighbouring hills of Bhutan. The park supports 21 endangered mammals including cats like Tiger, Leopard, Clouded Leopard, Golden Cat and Fishing Cat. Manas is the only habitat of the endangered Assam Roofed Turtle and the Pygmy Hog, the smallest species of wild pig. Large populations of the endangered Bengal Florican are also found here, besides 380 bird species.
5 specialized parks dedicated to a key species
1. Gir Forest National Park (Gujarat)
A sambar slakes its thirst oblivious to the unwavering tawny gaze of a predator. Camouflaged by the stark landscape, the crouching sphinx-like form charges for the kill. Once common across north India, today the entire population of the Asiatic Lion has shrunk to a tiny outpost in Gujarat. Sasan Gir is the only place outside Africa to see the lion in its natural habitat. In 1913, a disastrous famine prompted the Nawabs of Junagadh to save the lion from extinction. Besides strict measures, they even issued commemorative stamps in 1929, making the lion the first animal to be depicted on Indian postage! From 20 lions at the turn of the century to over 400 at present, Gir has evolved into one of India’s best-protected sanctuaries. Besides a sizeable leopard population, the Kamleshwar dam in the heart of the park teems with marsh crocodiles. Local tribes like the nomadic Maldhari and the Siddis enhance the wildlife experience.
2. Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary (Karnataka)
Set against a boulder-ridden landscape, Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary is the only sanctuary in Karnataka specifically created to protect the sloth bear. Established in 1994 and adjacent to the Bilakallu Reserve Forest near Hospet, the sanctuary has an estimated population of 120 bears. The sanctuary’s open scrub forests with rocky outcrops and caves shelters make it an ideal Bear Territory. Fruit-bearing trees, laden with termites and honey and the presence of waterholes, serve as hubs for bears and other wildlife. The watchtower atop a hillock offers the perfect vantage point. From here, train your scopes or binoculars towards Karadikallu Gudda, literally Bear Stone Hill to watch scores of sloth bears descending from hundreds of caves. Though the sanctuary is open all year round (6am–6pm), sloth bears are nocturnal creatures that usually wander out after 4 pm; so time your visit well.
3. Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary (Assam)
The animated hoops of monkeys mingle with the unending whirr of cicadas. A black ape trapezes through the high trees while a faint rustle overhead reveals a Malayan Giant Squirrel. Notified as the Hoolungapar Reserve Forest in 1881, this tiny forest hedged in between tea estates and the Meleng railway line was created to protect India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon. Over the last four decades, Western Hoolock Gibbon numbers have plummeted from 100,000 in the early ‘70s to less than 5,000! A drastic decline of 95% makes the Hoolock one of the 25 most endangered primates. Gibbon Sanctuary nurtures six other primate species – Pig-Tailed Macaque, Stump-tailed Macaque, Assamese Macaque, Rhesus Macaque, Capped Langur and the nocturnal Slow Loris. Leisurely walks are the best way to explore the park, which abounds with colourful butterflies and 219 bird species. Visitors can stay at the Forest Department Inspection Bungalow or at Thengal Manor, a heritage bungalow near Jorhat.
4. Blackbuck National Park, Velvadar (Gujarat)
Cameras click feverishly. A herd of deer prances in the slanting rays of the sun. Fringing the coasts of the Gulf of Khambhat, the Blackbuck National Park at Velvadar was a former vidi (grassland) of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar. Since the 18th century till Independence, the blackbuck was India’s most hunted wild animal. One of the fastest terrestrial animals, clocking speeds upto 80 km/hr, the blackbuck could outrun most predators over long distances on open plain. Only the Indian Cheetah (now extinct), capable of short bursts of 112 km/h, was its chief predator. Royalty used specially trained pet cheetahs to hunt blackbuck and Chinkara (Indian gazelle) for their meat and skin. But thanks to a successful conservation program, blackbuck numbers have revived, along with the Wolf and the Lesser Florican. Other park highlights include the Houbara bustard, sandgrouse, larks and the amazing spectacle of harriers nesting, the largest roosting site of its kind.
5. Eravikulam National Park (Kerala)
Wreathed by a ring of clouds, Anamudi (2695m), the highest peak south of the Himalayas looms over the undulating terrain. The mountain meadow is carpeted with purple kurunji flowers. A herd of Nilgiri Tahr nibbles away, their tail-tufts quivering in the wind. Managed as a Game Reserve by the Kannan Devan Hill Produce Company, Eravikulam was earlier a private hunting ground for British tea planters. Estate managers served as Wardens while Muduvan tribals were employed as game watchers. In 1928, the High Range Game Preservation Association was set up to manage hunting activities. Later, this regulatory body lobbied for the creation of a specialized park and continues to manage and protect the area along with the Forest Department. Today, Eravikulam harbours the largest surviving population (around 750) of the Nilgiri Tahr. Moving in large groups, these sure-footed caprids forage all day on the grasslands, retiring to the cliffs at night.
5 Community Initiatives in Wildlife Conservation
1. Tal Chhapar Sanctuary (Rajasthan)
The flat tract (tal) of open grassland with scattered acacia trees is a safe haven for India’s most elegant antelope, the Blackbuck. Situated on the rim of the Thar Desert in Shekhawati, Tal Chhapar is an extraordinary sanctuary. But it was the Bishnoi community that placed it on the conservation map. Founded in late 15th century by Guru Jambhoji, who laid down 29 (bish-noi) conservation principles, the Bishnois consider all life forms sacred. They revere the blackbuck and protect it with their life. Each family makes a monthly donation of one kilogram of bajra (pearl millet) to a community store, maintained to feed blackbucks every evening. After wandering the plains all day, blackbucks assemble around Bishnoi hamlets at dusk. Locals lovingly feed these herds, which vary from 50 to 500 in strength. Visit the villages of Kejarli, Rohet and Guda Bishnoiya for an eye-opener on the inextricable link between Bishnois and nature.
2. Khichan (Rajasthan)
Tucked away in a far nook of Jodhpur’s Thar Desert, the tiny hamlet of Khichan has gained world renown for its long tradition of feeding kurjas (Demoiselle Cranes) every winter. A small grain-feeding initiative by local bird lovers has snowballed into a conservation movement, with over 9000 cranes visiting Khichan annually between August and March. Being staunch vegetarians, the village community of Jain Marwaris, idolize the kurja for its vegetarian diet and monogamous nature. As part of a systematic feeding program, chugga ghars (feeding enclosures) were constructed on the village outskirts to feed cranes twice a day. Each session lasts 90 minutes and 500 kg of birdseed is consumed daily! This huge demand is met by generous donations from locals and tourists, overseen by societies like the Kuraj Samrakshan Vikas Sansthan and Marwar Crane Foundation. With avian and human visitors on the rise, many heritage buildings have been converted into lodges, heightening Khichan’s hospitable charm.
3. Kokkarebellur (Karnataka)
Located near the Shimsa River and dotted with water-tanks replete with fish, Kokkarebellur is a nondescript village off the busy Bengaluru-Mysore highway. For decades, Kokkarebellur has been the chosen roost of the near-threatened Painted Stork and Spot-billed Pelican, which nest atop ficus and tamarind trees in the village centre. Catalyzed by an incentive scheme, introduced by senior forest official SG Neginhal in 1976, locals adopted a sustainable conservation model. Though compensated for losses incurred in their tamarind crops due to nesting, the villagers’ involvement transcends cold commerce. They protect the birds as a ‘living heritage’, regarding them as harbingers of good luck and prosperity. The migrants arrive in September after the monsoon to build nests and lay eggs from October to November. After months of roosting, they tirelessly feed their hatchlings through summer. When they fly back in May, womenfolk bid emotional goodbyes. To them, the birds are like ‘pregnant daughters leaving their maternal homes after delivery’.
4. Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (Nagaland)
In a region synonymous with hunting, where warrior tribes embellish their costumes with feathers, tusks, claws and bone, conservation might seem an alien concept. But in the dark woods of Nagaland, a small Angami village community is committed to protecting the exotic Blyth’s Tragopan. The vulnerable pheasant, often hunted for food in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, suffers greatly due to rampant deforestation and slash-and-burn cultivation, which destroy its habitat. Being excellent hunters, Nagas mimic birdcalls and lure the gullible bird by emitting calls of the opposite sex. When Khonoma switched to alder cultivation as part of a larger plan to create a model village for eco-tourism, it paved the way for the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS). Set up in 1998, the sanctuary is maintained entirely by the village community, which enforced a complete hunting ban in 2001. In the 2005 census, 600 tragopans were recorded, besides other endemics like Naga Wren Babbler.
5. Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary (Arunachal Pradesh)
Perched like an eyrie in the upper reaches of Western Arunachal Pradesh, Eaglenest was unknown to the birding community till 2003. Less than 5 birders had visited the area prior to that! Thanks to the efforts of Kaati Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to biodiversity research and conservation in Arunachal Pradesh, Eaglenest is now rated among the top birding hotspots in Asia. By tapping into the indigenous knowledge of forest-dwelling tribes like Bugun and Sherdukpen, Kaati Tours paved the way for responsible wildlife tourism through sustainable partnerships. Trails from the tented campsites of Sessni (1250 m), Bompu (1940 m) and Lama Camp (2350 m) reveal sought-after species like Ward’s Trogon, Beautiful Nuthatch, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Chestnut-breasted Hill-Partridge, Temminck’s Tragopan, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler and Purple Cochoa. The recent discovery of a new bird species – the colourful and vocally distinct Bugun Liocichla – by avid birder and scientist Ramana Athreya is testimony to the area’s unlimited potential.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of JetWings.