Visit the Jungle’s Royals
Royal Bengal tigers have been literary stars for decades—just think of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Yaan Martel’s Life of Pi. But in real life, these cats are in pretty big trouble. Fewer than 5,000 currently live in the wild, and India is home to less than 1,400 of them—compared to its population of nearly 50,000 a century ago. Poaching and forest destruction have taken their toll on India’s national animal. Unless protection swiftly increases and ecotourism can play a major role in helping that happen, your chances of seeing these mighty creatures outside of a zoo will continue to dwindle. Even now, it may take hours or days before you lock eyes with one, but if you do, you won’t be able to move, let alone look away. Even the sound of a tiger’s deep roar, which you can hear from 3km (2 miles) away, is enough to send shivers down your spine.
These huge animals can weigh up to 227kg (500 lb.) and reach speeds of 80km (50 miles) per hour. In general, they tend to be elusive, which makes this adventure a slow-moving one. You’ll spend the bulk of your time in the jungle waiting and watching and waiting some more. But your patience will pay off when a tiger or tigress saunters into view.
Bandhavgarh National Park (www.bandhavgarhnationalpark.com) in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is one of the best places to go looking for tigers. Set between the Vindhya and Satpura hills, an estimated 46 tigers roam the 449 sq. km (173 sq. miles) of land here, which is one of the highest densities of any park in India. This area was formerly a maharaja’s personal hunting grounds, as evidenced by the ruins of a 2,000-year-old fort set high on a hilltop.
You’ll explore the dramatic landscape mostly by jeep (though elephant rides are sometimes possible), staying on clear paths that run through the dense jungle and expansive grassy meadows.
While you’re keeping one eye open for tigers, don’t forget to pay attention to the large cast of supporting species here, including leopards, spotted deer (chital), Sambar deer, gaur, wild boar, wild dogs, jungle cats, hyenas, porcupines, jackals, and foxes. There are also numerous birds like grey-headed fishing eagles, plum-headed parakeets, and malabar pied hornbills.
Bandhagarh National Park was added to India’s Project Tiger (www.projecttiger.nic.in) in 1993. The government began this conservation endeavor in 1973 to “ensure a viable population of tiger in India for scientific, economic, aesthetic, cultural, and ecological values,” and there are now 27 tiger reserves in the country. If you want to spend more than a few days on safari, add Kanha and Pench national parks to your itinerary. If you’d rather stay in Rajasthan and not travel as far inland, Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve is a good alternative.
Indian Tourism Board, Transport Bhavan, Parliament St., New Delhi ( 91/011-273-11995; www.incredibleindia.org).
Tour: India Safaris and Tours ( 91/11-2680-7550; www.indiasafaris.com).
When to Go: Oct–June.
Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, with a connection to Jabalpur.
$$$ Mahua Kothi near Bandhavgarh ( 866/969-1825 or 91/22-660-11825; www.tajsafaris.com/our_lodges/mahua_kothi).