THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO TIGER RESERVES IN CENTRAL INDIA
Have you ever wondered where the best places to see tigers in the wild are? If seeing a striped big cat is on top of your bucket list, look no further.
In the last years I have travelled extensively through the vast Central India landscape, the ultimate tiger territory, in the quest of one of the most elusive big cats in the world.
WHY GOING TO INDIA TO SEE TIGERS IN THE WILD ?
With a population of 2967 as per latest census numbers, India is home to 66% of the world’s wild tigers. The tiger, on the IUCN red list of endangered species, is classified into five subspecies still roaring in the wild.
Seeing one of the 450 Siberian or Sumatran breed is a chance almost certainly denied to the common traveler, as adventurous as he might be. Encountering traces of one of the 100 individuals that roam Bhutan’s mountains is an even rarer eventuality. Nepal has done great in tiger conservation, and today the country is proud to protect around 235 big cats. But the chances of spotting one in the dense forests of Chitwan and Bardia are still on the lower side.
CENTRAL INDIA : THE BEST PLACE IN THE WORLD TO SEE TIGERS IN THE WILD
And within the whole country, the vast area of Central India will give you the best chances to see tigers in the wild.
Central Indian tigerscape spans all the way from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, including some locations in Rajasthan, further in the north. The locations in this area show certain similarities in landscape, climate, flora and fauna but also showcase a lot of diversity.
This region is characterized by the presence of hills, plateaus and large rivers. Different types of vegetation can be observed in Central India’s National Parks from dry / moist deciduous forest, teak, bamboo, sal trees and grasslands.
Monsoon time in the area is normally from June to September, although recent changes in climate have disturbed the usual calendar of the rainy season.
Winters can be quite cold, with temperatures going down to 0-2 degrees in the early morning. Sightings are less frequent but it’s the best time to encounter tigers in their early morning patrol, surrounded by a surreal mist.
Summers are hot, generally dry, with the thermometer going up to 45-50 degrees. It’s the best time to see the tigers cooling down in the waterholes.
WHAT ARE THE BEST NATIONAL PARKS IN CENTRAL INDIA ?
There is not one straightforward answer to that. It all depends on your personal definition of “best”. For someone, it might mean the most beautiful location in which hoping to spot a tiger. For others, it might mean going for the highest number of sightings.
Here is my personal ranking according to the two criteria :
MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACES TO SEE TIGERS IN THE WILD
- Kanha Tiger Reserve, MP
- Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan
- Pench Tiger Reserve, MP
- Panna Tiger Reserve, MP
PLACES WITH THE HIGHEST CHANCES OF SEEING TIGERS IN THE WILD
- Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, MH
- Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan
- Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, MP
- Pench Tiger Reserve, MP and MH
KANHA TIGER RESERVE
When it comes to natural beauty, it’s hard to beat the dreamy landscape of Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. One of the finest and oldest reserves in the country, this park is managed with exemplary uprightness by the local Forest Department. This is no place for loud crowds but the ideal destination for serious wildlife lovers.
Divided into four zones, Kanha is famous for its dense Sal tree forest and its wide meadows and grasslands.
Home to a healthy population of tigers, Kanha also hosts an impressive variety of other wildlife. The iconic hard ground Barasingha deer, wild dogs, sloth bears, leopard and many other species inhabit the reserve.
Winters are fantastic as one can experience a dreamy morning mist rising on the meadows and lakes. Summers are the time to experience the higher numbers of tiger sightings as cats love to spend time in and around the waterholes.
Pros : amazing landscapes, every corner of the park is the ideal background for wildlife photography !
Cons : Because of the dense forest, tiger sightings might be slightly less frequent than in other parks especially in winter.
Dream shot : A tigress and her cubs in the winter morning light.
Where to stay : Shergarh Tented Camp close to Mukki gate. A cosy, intimate place in the buffer zone of the reserve with only 6 tents and loads of personality.
RANTHAMBHORE TIGER RESERVE
Ranthambhore is the place where Indian tiger tourism started thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated officers and wildlife lovers. Probably the most famous Tiger Reserve, Ranthambhore has given birth to some of India’s most iconic big cats. You have probably heard about Macchli, the lady of the lake. Her fabled fight with a crocodile that cost her a tooth is nowadays the stuff of legend.
Divided in 10 different zones, Ranthambhore has some iconic landmarks such as the ancient ruins of Mughal palaces and vast lakes and waterholes.
Pros : Tiger sightings at their best thanks to a healthy population of big cats and great visibility.
Cons : Easily reachable thanks to its location in the heart of Rajasthan, it can get very crowded.
Dream shot : Tigers roaming amongst the ruins of ancient Mughal forts on the edge of the lake.
Where to stay : Ranthambhore Regency. Quite a big property very conveniently located in the city of Sawai Madhopur.
PENCH TIGER RESERVE
The only National Park that lies on the edge of two states, Pench is the place that inspired Kipling’s novel The Jungle Book. Its Madhya Pradesh part has had an incredible start of the season with almost daily sightings of its iconic tigresses and their respective cubs.
While the world is fighting to save tigers from the brink of extinction, Pench’s Collarwali female alone has given birth to 30 cubs, giving the greatest contribution to conservation. Also called Mataram or “the great mother”, this incredible lady has inscribed her name in tiger history.
Pench Maharashtra’s main gates, Khursapar and Sillari, are also great places to visit and still off the beaten path of most wildlife tourists.
Pros : Beautiful rocky landscapes to be enjoyed at their best in winters. The two parts of Pench are managed by two different Forest Departments (Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra) and the Maharashtra part doesn’t close on Wednesday afternoons.
Cons : The teak forest gets extremely dry and hot during summer months.
Dream shot : Collarwali and cubs together on their morning stroll
Where to stay : Pench Jungle Camp A luxury tented camp close to Touriya gate, conveniently placed to reach both the MP and the Maharashtra side of the reserve.
PANNA TIGER RESERVE :
Off the beaten track, this less known National Park in the northern part of Madhya Pradesh has witnessed one of India’s tiger conservation most auspicious success stories. After having infamously lost all its tigers due to poaching, Panna hosted a very successful program of tiger relocation and its population is now thriving.
Framed between the Ken river and a few high plateaus, Panna has a varied landscape and is one of the few Tiger Reserve that is also good for leopard sightings.
Pros : Easy to reach from one of MP’s best tourist routes (the Gwalior- Orccha – Khajuraho ) but never as crowded as the more well known protected areas.
Cons : Like Pench, Panna gets very dry and hot during summer season.
Dream shot: Tigers splashing and playing on the banks of the Ken river or maybe finding a Leopard while on the hunt for striped beauties.
Where to stay : Ken River Lodge, a Pugdundee resort. A beautiful eco-lodge with a rustic feeling right on the banks of the Ken river.
TADOBA ANDHARI TIGER RESERVE
With an incredible number of resident tigers both in the core and in the buffer zones, Tadoba is undoubtedly one of India’s tiger capitals. Nestled in the middle of Maharastha, it is easily connected to all parts of the state thanks to its proximity to Nagpur.
A relatively small area, Tadoba landscape is easily recognisable because of its bamboo forest and iconic lakes.
Pros : Multiple opportunities to sight tigers. With a bit of luck, you might get the sighting of your life.
Cons : Famous for its thriving tiger population but not for its landscape or the richness of other wildlife, in Tadoba it’s the tiger or nothing.
Dream shot : If there is a place one can hope to photograph extraordinary or unusual tiger behaviour, that’s Tadoba !
Where to stay : Irai Safari Retreat, close to Moharli gate. This eco-boutique hotel has by far the most delicious Indian cuisine I have ever experienced in a wildlife resort.
BANDHAVGARH TIGER RESERVE
Probably the most famous park of Madhya Pradesh, Bandhavgarh ranks amongst the best places to see tigers in the wild. A sal forest dominated by an ancient fort on top of a hill, its core zone is divided in three areas.
Like most of India’s Tiger Reserves, Bandhavgarh was once a private game hunting reserve belonging to the local Maharaja.
Pros : A relatively small park with a quite beautiful landscape and a thriving tiger population.
Cons : Although less dramatically than in Tadoba, here as well it’s the tiger or nothing.
Dream shot : A tiger on a tree, making it leopard.
Where to stay : Kings Lodge, another eco-lodge belonging to the Pugdundee group, close to Tala gate.