Planning a tiger safari in India and looking for information? Search no more, you have found the ultimate guide to an unforgettable safari holiday on the quest of the Royal Bengal Tiger.
Having spent the last 4 years in the jungles of India, first as a photographer, then as a professional naturalist and tour leader, here is my advice on what to expect while on a wildlife safari in this amazing country.
What are the best places to see tigers in the wild?
India counts many tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. Not all of them though have a good density of tigers, and chances of spotting the striped cat vary a lot according to the place.
You can read my article here for a detailed list of my favourite parks. For the sake of this article I will mainly refer to the protected areas of central India (Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra) and northern India (Rajasthan, Uttarakhand).
The best destination for tiger tourism are on this “tiger belt”, such as Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench, Tadoba, Ranthambhore and Corbett.
When to go on a tiger safari in India?
Most national parks are open from October to June as they close during monsoon season, when heavy rains lash on most parts of the country. All seasons are beautiful and different, and when to go will entirely depend on your availability and personal preference. Here’s a brief outline of the different seasons:
POST-MONSOON (October to November) Lush green forest and plenty of water are the main features of the months following the opening of the parks. Having been regenerated during the rainy season, the jungle is in full bloom and the vegetation is very dense.
While the forest is absolutely gorgeous, sightings are not at their peak because the density of the undergrowth has an impact on visibility. What a treat though, to see a tiger, glorious in its bright orange coat, against the dark green of the post-monsoon landscape!
WINTER (December to mid-March) The best season for wildlife photography, be prepared for breathtaking views of misty morning sunrises and dreamy landscapes coated in frost. It gets very cold, especially in an open vehicle, so adequate clothing is essential. The real time for tiger tracking, nothing beats the thrill of entering the park at dawn, trying to read the signs of the forest in the hope of finding a big cat on its morning territory patrol. Temperatures can be as low as zero degrees, especially in the Sal forests of Kanha and Bandhavgarh.
SUMMER (mid-March to June) The best time as per number of expected tiger sightings. As the temperatures soar (all the way to 45-48 degrees in some areas), available water shrinks, leading to animals seeking relief in the remaining waterholes. The jungles are mostly dry and visibility is at its best. Pre-monsoon rains can be expected in the month of June.
Safari timings vary according to the different states, but can be simplified as it follows:
MORNING SAFARI starting at sunrise, lasting on average 3 to 5 hours
EVENING SAFARI ending at sundown, lasting on average 3 to 4 hours
FULL DAY SAFARI this requires a special permit that allows to spend the whole day in the park. The number of full-day permits being very limited and expensive, this is an option normally chosen by professional photographers and film-makers who need more time in the park.
For any of these options, the safari vehicle and its guests are required to go to the gate in advance for administrative formalities.
All the parks function according to a principle of zones or gates. The number of cars allowed in the zones / gates is strictly limited and controlled.
It is important to carry an official ID as it will be verified at the gate.
Wildlife encounters and tiger sightings
Always enter the forest with an open mind and low expectations, as nobody can predict what you’re going to encounter during the safari.
The beauty and the fun of the safari experience lies in the ability of reading interpreting the signs of the jungle. This is why it is important to choose an experienced naturalist as well as the best guides and drivers who perfectly know the forest and its denizens.
Tiger tracking is an art and a matter of experience. Every day, guides, drivers and naturalists enter the park with a common objective: finding the majestic cat.
It is a compelling intelligence exercise: noticing fresh pugmarks on the safari track in the first light of dawn, hearing the alarm calls of wary prey species, anticipating movement through the knowledge of territorial patterns.
While the tiger is by all means the creature that everybody seeks to find, spotting this elusive and solitary animal is not an easy task.
While on its quest, don’t forget to appreciate the forest in all its aspects. Listen to its sounds, observe the behaviour of all the creatures, even the most common ones, heart and soul of the jungle.
Consider the safari as a real holistic experience and trust the people who are accompanying you. But also remember that nobody can guarantee you a tiger sighting.
And when it happens, linger in pure excitement and joy, as you’ve been granted a very special privilege!
To prepare your visit to the tiger reserve, you can read this guide to central India’s fauna and this book on Indian birds. Both are excellent field guides that will also prove handy for species identification during the safari.
Comfort on a tiger safari in India
You will be sitting in an open vehicle for a fair number of hours. The iconic Indian safari vehicle is the Suzuki Maruti Gypsy. This is the car that you will find in most of the parks, with a few variations. It can take up to 6 people, excluding driver and guide.
Some hotels have bigger and higher cars that have been modified for safaris. While more spacious and comfortable, they are not ideal for photography because of their higher (and thus unfavorable) angle.
There are also canters, big buses that can accommodate a higher number of people. I would not recommend choosing this option, as they are quite noisy and are not allowed to enter all the routes.
Be adequately dressed for the weather (very cold in winter, very hot in summer). Dressing in layers will help and so will having a hat and a buff to protect you from the dust. Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must, and so is a pair of binoculars or camera. Have a look here if you’re looking for tips for wildlife photography in Indian national parks.
Most resorts will provide hot water bottles and blankets for the chilly winter mornings (yes, it will be that cold!) as well as drinking water and packed breakfast to be had during the morning safari.
Roads can be a bit bumpy in certain areas of the parks, so expect a bit of shaking. Don’t forget to stretch after every ride!
Most national parks are in remote areas. Network connectivity is limited. To date, Jio is the only provider that works quite well in the outskirts of the jungle.
Always carry cash with you, as ATM facilities are very limited.
Rules and regulations
Rules for tiger safari in India have become very strict during the past few years. They differ a bit from park to park but here are the main ones:
- GPS tracking: A GPS system has been introduced in most of the parks to track the safari vehicles. It is compulsorily carried by the guide in order to ensure that the cars are sticking to their allocated zone and respect the speed limit.
- Eating: In order to minimize the risk of littering and feeding the animals, guests are only allowed to have breakfast in designated areas of the park.
- Bathroom: Nowadays the main parks have good toilet facilities. Keep in mind that it can take some time to reach one of those, so tell your guide well in advance if you need to go.
- Security: it is not allowed to leave the vehicle for any reason, unless in a designated area. A certain distance with the animals and the other cars must be respected.
- Keep quiet, respect the environment, the animals and the other guests.
Always trust your guides and drivers who will tell you the appropriate behaviour in the national park.
Tipping is an important part of the Indian culture, especially in the center and the north of the country. It is customary to tip your guide and driver after the drive to thank them of their efforts and to motivate them to provide the best possible experience. The amount is totally at your discretion, but we suggest a minimum of 400-500 rupees per drive and per vehicle for guide and driver each.
All the main parks have nowadays a huge array of accommodations suitable to all budgets, from basic guest houses to luxury, 5 stars hotels.
The trend of the last few years puts an accent on sustainability and eco-tourism. Recruitment of local staff is also encouraged to contribute to rural areas’ economy.
Food will vary according to the hotel you choose, but keep in mind that most parks are in remote areas. If you have any special dietary requirement of food allergy please inform your tour operator or hotel manager before your visit.
As I have mentioned before, the number of vehicles allowed in the parks is strictly limited. This is why it is important to book well in advance in order to choose the most happening zones to maximize chances of sightings.
It is better to book at least 3-4 months in advance, especially during holiday season and on the weekends, as permits are often booked out on the same day reservations open.
Trust a verified, experienced tour operator. Someone who specializes in wildlife will be able to tailor your safari holiday as per your needs and desire.
Are you planning a tiger safari in India? Contact me for any enquiry.