Tigers – The Largest of the Big Cats
Tigers are the largestspecies of cat on the planet. They are also one of our most endangered animals. Their range today is only a fraction of what it used to be.
Saying that it isn’t impossible to find Tigers in the wild. The vast majority of them live in National Parks in India and are relatively well looked after. Despite governmental corruption Project Tiger, the Indian program to protect and support tigers, has many recent successes.
While the tiger used to once roam the Subcontinent today unfortunately its territory is disjointed and reduced. Nearly all of India’s Tigers exist only in National Parks and other protected areas.
Given the success of Project Tiger and the parks rangers themselves a large number of the tiger population is well known as are their habits and preferred home ranges.
With this in mind a good guide in the right national park has a good chance of showing you a tiger in the wild. If not, just remember that the same landscape is home to Leopards, many Deer species, Asian Rhinos, the Sloth Bear and the very rare Dhole or Asiatic Wild Dog.
There are many spots in India and Nepal where Tigers are still spotted but some parks are easier to reach than others. Of course the Sumatra Tiger is still around as are the Amur Tigers but both are much much harder to find in the wild due to significantly less numbers of the subspecies.
Indian National Parks
The national parks of India encompass a huge range of environments. From the delta wetlands of Sundurbans to the densely forested Manas in the foothills of the Himalayas to the much dryer Ranthambore in Rajasthan.
Not all National Parks still have tigers but all of the above do among many other species of mammal and spectacular birdlife.
Sundarban National Park is a gem of a wetland area just south of Kolkata and adjoining an even bigger protected area in Bangladesh. The mangrove dominated park is part of the massive Ganges/Brahmaputra River deltas.
Being close to Kolkata, means access is relatively easy. However non-Indian nationals need a visitors permit. This is easily obtained at the Sajnekhali Forest Reserve Office.
Within the park a guide is a must. Seeing the park on your own is rather difficult and while you can hire boats to get around the mangroves, finding your own way is not easy.
Bandhavgarh is a Tiger searchers paradise. It has among the highest density of Tigers of any national park in India. On top of that is full of Leopards and has large populations of Deer, especially the Chital or Spotted Deer, the main prey of both Tigers and Leopards.
There have recently been a reintroduction of Gaur, or Indian Bison. Unfortunately disease spread to them form domestic cattle and wiped out the parks population. It is at the moment regaining its place in the ecosystem.
Getting to and from Bandhavgarh National Park is not easy. However the locals do say you are unlucky if you go away without seeing a tiger. It is worth the effort.
Jalapur is the nearest large city with an airport. Despite being only 200 km away it takes over four hours by road. Slightly closer to the park is Umaria which has regular trains to Bhopal and elsewhere.
As with elsewhere in central India the best time to see a tiger is when the Monsoon is about to arrive. Having had no water for nearly nine months the plants are parched and their leaves are at their least dense. The bush is paired back enough that spotting wildlife is easy.
However the time just before the Monsoon in May can be unbearably hot with temperatures reaching 40 degrees celsius. February and March are a better compromise for comfort and optimizing your chances of spotting a tiger.
Ranthambore is the home of most Tiger photos that you see. It is a favourite with photographers as the thin forest makes spotting and photographing Tigers relatively easy.
Also there are numerous old ruins within today’s borders of the national park. These create a wonderful atmosphere if you can catch a tiger using them as a way of getting a better view of his surroundings.
The Park is about four hours south of Jaipur a fantastic bustling city full of history and one of the busiest stops on the regular tourist trail of Rajasthan. Jaipur is easily accessible by express trains and regular flights from all big cities including a couple in the Gulf.
From Jaipur driving is an option but much more comfortable is the train. Sawai Madhopur station is about 10 Km from the park. There are plenty of local options to make the connection.
There are trains that leave from Mumbai and from Delhi. From Mumbai the train is a minimum of 15 hours. Trains in India are as sometimes as exciting an experience as seeing the wildlife. They are however very comfortable in the more expensive classes.
Chitwan in Southern Nepal offers almost guaranteed sightings of the endangered Asian Rhinoceros. However Tiger sightings are a bit rarer.
The park itself is easily accessible from Kathmandu. However it does take quite a bit of time as the roads in Nepal are pretty poor quality. However a nice tourist class minibus isn’t expensive and generally includes a stop for lunch along the way.
Within the park you can opt for either a walking tour or a jeep tour. It is obligatory to have a guide for both. In fact when walking you need to have a back-up guide who will watch out for Rhinos behind you. The Asian Rhino can be quite agressive.
It is also possible to stay within the park. Tigertops is a luxury reserve with a major advantage. The best time to see animals is early in the morning. Given the rules about driving too early staying outside the park is a disadvantage. There is quite a significant bufferzone between where people live and the park actually begins. Within this area locals are allowed cultivate the grasses and so tend to disturb the wildlife. With that in mind staying in the park is a fairly unique experience.
Bardia National Park is a long way from civilisation. In Western Nepal in the Terai region that borders India it isn’t too inaccessible but it is a long way from large cities.
With this in mind it is a haven for wildlife. Unfortunately it was also a haven for poachers during the Maoist insurgency of the ’90’s and early 2000’s. The wildlife now is rebounding given better management.
A stay in Bardia is off the beaten track but well worth it as it is a small relaxing peaceful area of the country. The locals near the entrance to the park are generally aware of the advantages tourism brings and so are interested in making the most out of their natural resources.
The best way to see the park is on a walking tour. Guides are available from the park offices for $15 a day. A day in the park isn’t easy, walking all day in the heat is hard, but it is rewarding and a good guide will always get you to sit down under cover and wait for the wildlife to come to you.
Sitting at waterholes or near rivers with nobody around for miles helps you get very close to nature. Having a tiger come by is just a bonus.