Big cat safaris in India

Face to face, out in the heat, hangin’ tough, stayin’ hungry: tiger safaris in India require plenty of determination and patience but perhaps slightly less than you need for other trips in this guide. Because although there are devastatingly few tigers left in the wild – just under 4,000 it’s estimated – in the national parks of Madhya Pradesh they are found in greater numbers than anywhere else and sightings, while never guaranteed, are very likely.

India safari practicalities

The tiger is India’s national symbol, fiercely distinctive, and wisely shy of human contact. But our big cat safaris in India make use of skilled guides, well-versed in the locations of recent sightings, and with most itineraries spending at least four to five days on the hunt across one or more parks, success rates tend to be high. Game drives in the mornings and late afternoons typically last around four hours, traveling in 4x4 vehicles that resemble open-topped minibuses, so that you can stand up for a better view.

Prepare for dusty, bumpy journeys and depending on the time of year you’re traveling, cold weather especially in the mornings, so layer up. Tiger safaris can be the focus of an itinerary, or part of a wider one that might also take in Delhi, the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra, Mumbai, tea and spice plantations, hill stations or a houseboat cruise on the Kerala backwaters. Note that due to the growing popularity of tiger watching tours in India, regulations have been tightened in recent years and the bureaucracy around getting permits has increased. You need to book well in advance, and so to avoid disappointment and hassle, it makes good sense to join an organised tour.

Bandhavgarh National Park

Home to India’s most substantial population of Royal Bengals, 60-70 of them in fact, and a 2,000-year old ruined fort, Bandhavgarh National Park is often reached via sleeper train from Delhi. While the tigers are the main attraction, you may also see jungle cats, leopards, wolves and over 100 species of bird.

Kanha National Park

Sadly, the tiger population of Kanha National Park has been seriously depleted in recent years by poaching, but it’s still a very popular destination for wildlife safaris as one of the largest parks in India. There are herds of wild elephants here, swamp deer (a favourite snack for tigers) and peacocks. The tigers themselves are most commonly seen in the tall grass around the edge of meadows where their prey feeds.

Pench National Park

Pench National Park is thought to have been an inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Its undulating terrain, lined with teak forests home to monkeys and leopards, and sees far fewer visitors than other parks, but the 50 or so tigers here tend to be trickier to spot.

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Fearful symmetry

National park tourism and India’s tigers are co-dependent, and to be sustainable they depend on responsible tour operators and guides. Problems with drivers getting too close to the animals, and noisy or disrespectful tourists, are well documented. The safari companies we work with have all earned their stripes. They contribute to conservation efforts, and support local economies. They also use expert local guides to escort you through landscapes of steep ridges, forests and open meadows. Their job isn’t simply to locate the tigers for you, but also to act as wells of knowledge that you can tap on everything from wildlife behaviours to village life, folklore and medicinal plants.

With so few tigers left in the wild and those remaining under constant threat from poaching and habitat loss, it has never been so important when taking a big cat safari to use a responsible safari company.
“I was looking at a bird through my binoculars, when I hear a sudden call that resonates right through me. Out of the jungle walks a female tiger. I was lucky to be in the only jeep in that area, which made it feel all the more special. Even the guides who see many a tiger were excited. We watched as she scent marked before disappearing back into the forest. On another occasion I was also lucky enough to see two tigers fighting, which demonstrated the power of these awesome animals.”– Kelvin Lofthouse in a review of his tiger and wildlife tour in Central India

Asiatic Lion Safaris in Gujarat

Of course India’s big cat population is not limited to its tigers. Gir National Park and its environs in Gujarat is the only place in the world that the endangered Asiatic lion is to be found. With Gir made a protected area, and hunting outlawed, the number of lions here has steadily increased after being almost wiped out. Skilled guides on morning and evening game drives offer you an excellent chance of sightings as well as the chance to observe other Gir wildlife including jackals, leopards and four-horned antelope.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: peteranta] [Intro: Mohan Moolepetlu] [Bandhavgarh National Park: Syna Tiger Resort] [Fearful symmetry: Joe66] [Asiatic Lions: Bernard Gagnon]