How to get a glimpse of the majestic striped cat without breaking the bank
This year I’ve travelled extensively throughout Central India, arguably the best landscape in the world if you are interested in tiger habitat. In my 4 months tiger tour I’ve visited most of the finest Tiger Reserves and Wildlife Sanctuaries, going on more than 100 safaris and fiercely bumping up my tiger count to 84 different individuals.
My safari experience has been extremely eclectic. I’ve booked single seat permits, I’ve hitched rides with some of the finest lodges’ naturalists while volunteering in Kanha National Park, I’ve been invited to accompany VIP guests, I’ve been a VIP guest myself, I’ve been alone or with friends, I’ve shared vehicles with families on a relaxed Sunday outing but also with hardcore tiger trackers and photographers. All in all, it’s been a fantastic experience.
While India is still considered as a somehow affordable destination to travel to, tiger tourism is an expensive passion to take on, especially if your heart is in wildlife photography. That said, keep in mind that it is an amazing experience, and as soon as you’ll get that first famous glimpse of our favourite animal, there is a high chance you’ll find yourself hopelessly hooked.
So, what to do if you’ve been dreaming to see the tigers in the wild but you are a budget traveller ? Here are some tips from my recent experience.
HOW DOES A SAFARI IN AN INDIAN TIGER RESERVE WORK ?
It goes without saying, you can’t go on foot in a Tiger Reserve, because there are … well, roaming tigers and other potential dangers.
You have to enter the reserve in an authorised vehicle, mostly the ever present 4 wheeler Suzuki Maruti Gipsy, hence the vulgarisation of the name “gipsy” instead of jeep. The vehicle can normally host up to 6 people plus the driver and the guide who are compulsory and can make a huge difference to your tracking experience. The timing of the safaris are set by the state’s Forest Department and vary from season to season. The rules are strict and must be duly followed, always listen to what your guide says and avoid questioning their advice.
In most protected areas there is also the possibility of booking a place in a canter, a bus that can host about 20 people. It’s by far the cheapest option, but it’s not ideal for wildlife photography. Therefore this article will only take into consideration the vehicle option.
IF YOU ARE A SOLO TRAVELLER ON A BUDGET : SINGLE SEAT PERMIT
If you can’t afford the comfort of the whole vehicle for yourself, most Tiger Reserves allow the booking of a seat in a shared vehicle. Once the online permit is booked, you’ll have to add the payment for the driver and the guide before the safari directly at the ticket counter. The amount will vary according to the number of people you’ll be sharing the car with.
This option being the most convenient on an economical point of view, it has its limitations that have to be kept in mind :
The final price of your seat cannot be defined at the time of booking.
The selected day there might not be other 5 people who booked a single seat permit to share the gipsy with. According to the situation, you might be asked to share the vehicle with less than 5 people or eventually to have the vehicle for yourself. It goes without saying, both these options will be more expensive. While you will normally find it easy for your single seat permit to be guaranteed on weekends in the most visited Tiger Reserves, this might not be the case of weekdays or of less frequented parks. Just keep in mind that the final cost of the permit will be in a price range and go with the flow.
The single seat option is available on most Tiger Reserves websites. You just have to print it out and show it to the ticket office before the safari starts. Be sure to do so well in advance to increase your chances to find other people to share the vehicle with.
You can’t choose who you’ll be sharing your car with.
Although most of times you’ll end up meeting interesting people and making a lot of new friends, sometimes you’ll realise that not everybody in the vehicle has the same expectations and objectives for the safari. Either it be birding or tiger tracking or just experiencing the forest on its whole without a specific aim, these are things that should be discussed and agreed on at the beginning of the ride not to get disappointed. For example, as a photographer mainly interested in capturing tiger images, many times you’re going to have to wait for a long time for the cat to appear after hearing a few alarm calls. This can be very frustrating for people who don’t have a camera and just want to see as much landscape as possible and are not focusing on a particular animal. For them, the wait is not worth their time and will prefer to move on.
IF YOU ARE A GROUP OF PEOPLE : BOOK THE WHOLE VEHICLE
This option is by all means the easiest and the most convenient if you are a group of at least 3-4 people. In this case you’ll know exactly what the final cost of the permit will be and you won’t have to wait at the ticket counter for other people to show up. In this case again, you’ll have to add the payment for the driver and the guide before the safari directly at the ticket counter.
Just as the single seat, this permit is available to book on the Tiger Reserve website. Once again, be sure to claim your vehicle well in advance in order to be amongst the first to get into the reserve, hence increasing your chances of bumping into some interesting early morning animal movement.
Here are a few practical recommendations divided by state and Tiger Reserve. Happy sightings !
My favourite state in Central India, MP is home to some of the country’s finest Tiger Reserves. From the dreamy canopy of Sal trees of Kanha to the dense teak landscape of Pench, chances to spot a tiger or a leopard are definitely on the higher side.
All national parks in MP have the same rates and safari timing policy. The bookings can be done online through this website : https://forest.mponline.gov.in
Foreign cards are not accepted, so if you don’t have an Indian card you might ask a friend or go through your hotel / tour operator.
Here are the fees for all reserves in MP (updated for the just concluded season, might increase in the upcoming one) :
1650 IRP full gipsy permit (to be paid online)
260 IRP single seat permit (to be paid online)
2500 IRP vehicle fee (to be paid at the counter)
350 IRP guide fee (to be paid at the counter)
KANHA TIGER RESERVE
One of the most beautiful protected areas in India, and one that is close to my heart as I spent 2 months working there.
The park is divided into 3 zones : Mukki, Kisli and Kanha. Tiger sightings are normally at their best in the Mukki zone, although a striped predator could surprise you anywhere !
Kanha is also home to a vast multitude of birds and other mammals, like the endangered hard ground Barasingha deer that is only found there.
BANDHAVGARH TIGER RESERVE
Another favourite, Bandhavgarh is one of the best places to experience a tiger oriented wildlife trip.
The park is divided into three zones : Tala, Maghdi and Kithauli. Tiger movement changes from season to season, making it hard to generalise about the best zone with higher chances. While last season it was all about Tala thanks to the stable presence of a few resident tigresses, this year the movement of the dominant males shifted the attention to Maghdi. Whenever possible, try to get some informations on sightings before booking your zone.
PENCH TIGER RESERVE (MP SIDE)
Pench lies on the border of MP and Maharashtra, giving life to two autonomous entities managed by the two states’ Forest Departments. Although not so far from the other reserves, the atmosphere of this park is quite unique and different. Here no Sal trees guarantee a green canopy all over the year, but the teak dominated rocky landscape gives a totally different experience following the changing of the seasons.
The main gate of the core zone is Touriya. Although this year sightings have been somehow erratic, the season ended with an increase of those. Let’s see what will happen in October when the park will reopen after monsoon.
Pench MP is home to the famous Collarwali tigress, a healthy and strong female who is currently raising her 7th litter, a fact almost unheard of in the wild !
Another prime location for tiger sightings, Maharashtra is the state of Tadoba Tiger Reserve, at the moment probably the best place in the world to see the tigers in the wild.
But Maharashtra is also home to many wildlife sanctuaries. Even if lacking the status of Tiger Reserve, places like Tipeshwar or Umred Karandla are also well worth being taken into account for a wildlife excursion and have had a rocking season in terms of sightings.
Safari bookings can be done online at http://www.mahaecotourism.gov.in (foreign cards not accepted)
Here are the fees for all reserves in MH except for Tadoba core zone (updated for the just concluded season, might increase in the upcoming one) :
180 / 260 IRP (Indian/Foreigner) permit (to be paid online) – There is no single seat permit but a system of individual permits in MH
1800 IRP vehicle fee (to be paid at the counter)
360 IRP guide fee (to be paid at the counter)
200 IRP camera fee (to be paid at the counter)
PENCH (MH SIDE)
This side of Pench is quite different from its MP counterpart. Still less touristy, it offers an array of different landscapes, from dense teak forest to high grasslands, until the vast water expanse of the Pench River, on the other side of the backwaters area of Pench MP.
The gates of Khursapar and Sillari are probably the most interesting in terms of wildlife opportunities, the second one being the place where I’ve had the best sightings this season.
TADOBA ANDHARI TIGER RESERVE
Now, that’s a place that’s had a thrilling season both in the core and in the buffer zones !
As the buffer zones tickets follow the same rate of the other reserves in the state, the core zone of Tadoba has an altogether different set of prices :
IF BOOKED BETWEEN 120 AND 60 DAYS IN ADVANCE :
weekdays permit + vehicle fee 4000 IRP (to be paid online)
weekend permit + vehicle fee 8000 IRP (to be paid online)
IF BOOKED FROM 60 DAYS IN ADVANCE :
weekdays permit + vehicle fee 1000 IRP (to be paid online)
weekend permit + vehicle fee 2000 IRP (to be paid online)
350 IRP guide fee (to be paid at the counter)
250 IRP camera fee (to be paid at the counter)
Although Rahasthan has several Tiger Reserves and Wildlife Sanctuaries, I’ll cover here only the most famous of it all : Ranthambhore.
RANTHAMBHORE TIGER RESERVE
The most iconic of all tigerscapes and the place where all tiger tourism started, Ranthambhore doesn’t come cheap. That said, it would be a shame not to experience at least once in a lifetime the beauty of the place, the mystery of the ruins of ancient palaces where a lineage of dominant female tigresses can be seen roaming on the shores of its lake.
Ranthambhore is divided in 10 zones. Although tiger movement varies from season to season, the tiger population of the park is so high that it’s hard to have a completely dry area. That said, always try to get information about the tigers you’d like to look for and what area they are currently being seen.
The recently renewed website allows direct booking : https://fmdss.forest.rajasthan.gov.in (foreign cards accepted, follow the instructions given on the “Help document for online booking”)
Permit + vehicle fee + guide fee (including GST) : 997 IRP / 1807 IRP Indian / Foreigner