India’s biosphere reserves, national parks and conversation enclosures make the country much sought after by wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists. With a growing fascination for wildlife tourism, there has been a spurt in domestic and overseas tourists visiting India.
Given the country’s diversity, there is much to choose from. While free roaming tigers remain a huge draw, there are elephants, turtles, bisons, birds, crocodiles and even pythons that draw animal lovers to different parts of the country. What makes India’s wildlife truly fascinating is that unlike Africa’s grasslands and savannahs, these are set in jungles that are mysterious, enigmatic and full of surprises. Most importantly, free roaming animals in their natural habitat make the excursion all the more enjoyable. Then there is the navigating of unique terrain and flora and fauna of the particular setting along with thousands of birds, herbivores and carnivores.
Nearly 4% of the country’s land is under forests and nearly 515 wildlife sanctuaries are home to 1180 different species of birds, 350 species of mammals, 30000 different kinds of insects and more than 15000 varieties of plants. The latest tiger census revealed that India’s big cat population had risen from 1704 in 2010 to 2226 in 2014. Recently, the state run Indian Railway and Catering Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) has launched a new semi luxury tourist train called the Tiger Express with its own dining car. Based on tourist footfall between 2012-15, World Travel Magazine has made a shortlist of the five most visited wildlife parks in India.
Kaziranga National Park, Assam
An ideal habitat for the one-horned rhinoceros, this Park is located on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River in Assam. An estimated two-thirds of the world’s population of these Rhinos lives in this forest. The national park is also the abode of 60% of India’s wild buffalo population. Designated as a World Heritage Site, the Park is a paradise for bird watchers with migratory birds coming in droves from Siberia and elsewhere. The area is marked by vast stretches of savannah grasslands, wetlands and chars of river islands formed by the shifting course of the river. While a jeep safari is the general standard, on request you can ask for an elephant safari. The height from which you will see the grazing rhinos and strolling deer will be a sight to behold. The park has wild elephants, tiger, buffaloes, gaur, monkeys, deer, otters, badgers, leopards and wild boar. Boat rides are offered at the north eastern point of the park. Many lodges are located around the park, notably being the sprawling IORA Retreat resort and the Diphlu River Lodge which has 12 cottages on stilts overlooking the river.
- The Park is 217 kms from Guwahati, Assam.
- Flights are from Guwahati and Jorhat; by road its 6 hours from Guwahati and 2 hours from Jorhat.
- Best time to visit is November to April.
Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand
This is India’s oldest and most visited national park. It was established in 1936 in Uttarakhand as Hailey National Park to protect the endangered Bengal tiger. The Park is named after the legendary tiger hunter Jim Corbett who turned compassionate conservationist, and was instrumental in setting it up. It has many myths, legends and stories harking back to the time with each making for fascinating listening and reading. The ‘Maneaters of Kumaon’ written by Jim is a must- read. Interspersed with hilly ridges and vast grasslands, the Park is a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts and is famous for Bengal Tigers and a wide range of birds. An estimated 650 species of resident and migratory birds have made their home in Jim Corbett. With an abundant wildlife and picturesque location, you can enjoy the safari on a jeep or on an elephant. Covering an area of more than 1300 sqkm, this terai wildland is home to nearly 200 tigers, about 300 wild elephants, sloth bears, langur monkeys, rhesus macaques, peacocks, otters, gharials and several species of deer among other animals. The varied landscape of the Park with its dense vegetation and rolling grasslands adds to its undulating charm and pull.
- 240 km from Delhi, it falls in Ramnagar area of Uttarakhand.
- Pantnagar is the nearest airport; most people reach Corbett by road or train (Ramnagar).
- Best time to visit is March to June.
The Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary , Gujarat
Popularly known as Sasan Gir, this national park is home to the endangered Asiatic Lions and is the only protected area in Asia for this species. The sanctuary supports a large population of leopards and other carnivores including the Jungle Cat, Jackal, Striped Hyena, Common and Ruddy mongoose. The herbivores include Sambar, Chital, Nilgai, Chowsingha, Chinkara, Wild Boar and Indian cobras. Overall, there are about 38 species of mammals, 300 species of avifauna, 37 reptilian species and more than 2,000 insect species that live in this Park. Formerly, this was the hunting reserve of the Nawabs of Junagadh. Protection was first given in 1900, when lion numbers were dwindled to a mere 12. With concerted efforts of the state government, royal family and wildlife agencies this increased to 250 animals and is today pegged at over 300. Over 300 bird species are recorded here, including Shaheen Falcon, Bonelli’s Eagle, Great Horned Owl, Tawny eagle and Blackwinged Kite, Grey and Jungle Bush Quail, Grey Partridge, Nightjar, Black-headed Cuckoo Shrike, Gray Drongo, Pied Woodpecker, Black Ibis and White-necked Stork.
- 360 kms from Ahmedabad in Gujarat, it is 65 kms from Junagadh.
- Best time to visit is November to May (April-May to spot Asiatic Lion and other large mammals).
Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh
For tourists who do not want to return home before sighting a tiger, coming to this Park is their safest bet. The spectacular landscape enriched with green valleys and rocky hill terrain, Bandhavgarh National Park has a wide array of wildlife like sloth bears, deer, leopards, jackals and birds. Famous for Tigers and Nilgai, it is unique because you can see tigers in their natural habitat. The park features dense green valleys and rocky hill terrain, with an ancient fort built on 800 meter (2,624 foot) high cliffs. In addition to tigers, the park has a large array of wildlife including leopards, sloth bears, deer, wild boar, Indian bison, sambar, barking deer, langur, jackals, 250 species of birds and several reptiles. It is one of the oldest known inhabited places in central Indian history and was once the royal hunting grounds of the Maharaja of Rewa. Jeep safaris and canter safaris (in minibuses seating 12 people) can be booked online or in person. Elephant Safaris are available in all three zones in Bandhavgarh. Most accommodation is located in village Tala. Preferred places to stay are Mahua Kothi (Taj Safaris), Tigergarh, Syna tiger resort, Tree house hideaway, Samode Safari Lodge, Bandhav Villas, Hotel Monsoon Forest and Maharajas Royal Retreat.
- 197 kms from Jabalpur; nearest village is Tala -access point of the park.
- Flights from Delhi to Jabalpur followed by a 5-hour road journey to the Park.
- Trains ply directly from most major cities; nearest train stations are Umaria, 45 minutes away and Katni, 2.5 hours away.
- Best time to visit is November to May.
Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh
Rudyard Kipling’s famous, The Jungle Book, drew inspiration from this Park’s grassy meadows, ravines and bamboo forests. Located in Madhya Pradesh, this is a popular tiger reserve with one of the largest tiger populations in the country. As one of five tiger parks in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh which happens to be the king of tiger territory in the country, Kanha has some unique attributes. It is abundantly endowed with flora and fauna. The forests here are vast, and you can really go deep thanks to the park’s huge core area surrounded by a large buffer zone. Chances of sighting a Royal Bengal Tiger are high and so are sloth bears, leopards, Barasingha and the Indian Wild Dog. The Park stretches over 940 kms with large stretches of Sal and Bamboo forested area. More than 117 species of butterflies and 1000 flower species are found here.
- 176 kms from Jabalpur, 270 kms from Nagpur.
- Best time to visit is February to June.