Tiger safaris, India

Guide to Big Cat Safaris: Tigers

Searching for tigers in India and Nepal.

Tiger, India

© PhotocechCZ, Shutterstock

A glimpse of rare majesty

That feeling of seeing a tiger for the first time … well, many people find that it touches their soul more deeply than they would have ever imagined.

Searching for tigers in the wild is a real game of cat and mouse, and they don’t make it easy. You have to keep all your senses alert, listen for the warning cries from antelope and other animals, look carefully through dappled forests … Then, in its own time, a big cat might saunter out of the jungle, perhaps taking a long look at you before purposefully walking off along the sunlit road for a while before disappearing back into the undergrowth. You can be lucky and get much longer sightings, but even a short glimpse such as this will make your heart sing, as you know you’ve seen one of the rarest and most beautiful creatures in the world.

The largest of the big cats and one of Earth’s largest mammal predators. Tigers are solitary and highly territorial creatures with a surprising love of water. Sadly, though, there are under 4000 of these incredible animals left in the wild. Most of these are Bengal tigers found in the Indian subcontinent, making Indian, and to a lesser extent Nepalese, reserves the best places to see tigers.

Sighting a tiger for the first time as it emerged from the bamboo thicket was so mesmerizing that I almost forgot to take the photograph!

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A tiger after a wallow, India © GQMarks

The best time to see tigers

The best time to see tigers in India and Nepal is February to early April, but you can go any time from October to June (though May and June are far too hot for most people).

Planning a tiger safari

On the whole, if you spend perhaps a week on safari in India, you stand an excellent chance of seeing tigers. Most wildlife-focussed travellers tend to combine two or more parks to get the best possible chance in a variety of habitats. Often the two key reserves for tigers will be Kanha and Bandhavgarh, but the other parks definitely should not be underestimated, especially Tadoba which at the time of writing has one of the highest success rates for tiger-spotting.

You should note that in India, none of the lodges are inside the parks. They are usually within a buffer zone within a few minutes’ drive of the park entrance.

The key reserves with tigers in India and Nepal are shown below. There are two more Indian reserves which actually have very large tiger populations – Kaziranga National Park in Assam, and Sunderbans National Park in West Bengal – but while both are amazing parks and well worth a visit, there are generally fewer tiger sightings here.

We had a truly magical encounter with a female tiger in Kanha who was so close that I could have touched her. She turned her head to gaze into my eyes before slowly ambling away.

What is a tiger safari like?

The experience varies somewhat from place to place but in essence in India you’ll normally be in a small, often non-too-comfortable jeep (often a Gypsy) which you’ll share with around 5 other visitors unless you’ve paid for a private game drive. Some parks (mainly Ranthambore and Nagarhole) use larger, shared vehicles with up to about 20 people.
A morning game drives tend to last for up to about 5 hours (from dawn up to about 11am with a break for breakfast), whereas an afternoon drive tends to start around 2pm and end about 5pm. All game drives will be looking for other wildlife too, but the focus tends to be mostly on tigers if they are around – they’re not always, as with all things wild, it’s partly luck of the draw.
Indian tiger reserves can be surprisingly busy places due to the large number of domestic visitors. Because of this, some tiger sightings can attract a large number of people, though international visitors tend to approach wildlife viewing in a different way and often prefer to go to quieter areas of the parks. Nepal gets relatively little domestic tiger tourism in its two parks, Chitwan National Park and Bardia National Park.
Please note: We do not condone riding elephants for any reason, including to see tigers (read our article about this).

Seeing tigers in the wildlife will stay with me forever. They are the most incredible creatures and I understand even more how important it is to preserve them.

Tiger Conservation

As at January 2020, the good news is that tiger numbers in the wild are increasing, but very slowly, and they are by no means out of danger. They are still killed in human-wildlife conflicts, and still sought after for their skin and body parts, mostly for Chinese medicine. The other problem they face is loss of habitat, be that from deforestation for agriculture or climate change; this is only going to get worse.
There are various ways you can help the plight of tigers:
Visit tiger reserves: This brings money to the local community, and therefore gives value to the wildlife (including tigers) in the parks. If wildlife is valued, it is protected. However, some of the larger parks are too busy, so consider visiting one of the less-visited reserves.
Stay in ‘nature-friendly lodges: TOFT (Tour Operators for Tigers) has given a pugmark certification to Indian lodges which follow sustainable and responsible practices.

Watching tigers on lephant back
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